nothing but a number

Keeping On
Wyoming team roper John Keller, at 90, has a few runs left.
John Keller, heeling lefty 10 years ago, at 80.
John Keller, heeling lefty 10 years ago, at 80 years old. | Courtesy Keller Family

Kay Keller of Rock Springs, Wyoming, arranged a surprise party on a Friday this summer for her husband John’s 90th birthday.

“But then she called me and said, ‘Clay, we’re going to have to change the day of the party now,” recalled their son, Clay Keller. “And I said, ‘Why, Mom?’ And she said, ‘Because your dad’s entered twice at the amateur rodeo that night in Green River!’”

Some things never change. Long before he was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame, John Keller was eaten up with “cowboying.” He’d run away from his Ohio home at 15 years old to exercise racehorses from Kentucky to South Carolina, then hitchhiked at 17 to Wyoming to get on broncs at the Cody Nite Rodeo.

Keller found work at a ranch near Cody. With no vehicle, he’d walk seven miles into town to ride in the rodeo. More ranch jobs followed, and he lived for a handful of years with Buck and Mary Bradford, who practically raised him with their sons Bucky and Tiny at their Heart Mountain home.

It was quite a way to get into team roping—Buck was a phenomenal instructor who heeled at the ’69 and ’73 NFRs for his late son, Bucky, who won the world in ’76. No doubt, Keller recalls those last few years of Buck’s life, when his only wish was to run one more steer. And Tiny, who is left-handed like Keller, heeled at two NFRs himself.

READ: The Art of Lef-Handed Roping

“Tiny’s still my go-to guy if I’m having a little difficulty,” said Keller. “Why, we just get together with me sending him videos and vice versa. He’s always been the one getting things lined out for me if I’m doing something radically wrong.”

John would’ve preferred to rope with his right hand if not for a bone chip in that elbow courtesy of an Army-era boxing match. He’s won several USTRC ropings and quite a few trophy saddles over the years. But by now, his left rotator cuff is tapping out. John decided to put off shoulder replacement as long as he could and, so far, is succeeding. He gets a couple steroid injections each roping season and limits runs to a dozen at a time.

So why does he keep it up? Team roping is simply one of the things he enjoys most in life.

“I think it’s the thrill of being a competitor and having a good horse and making some good catches,” he said. “I also like the camaraderie with the other cowboys and being around the ranchers here in the community.”

The reason Keller is still roping at 90 is the same reason he didn’t retire from being a Wyoming brand inspector until he was already 85. And after almost 40 years of brand inspecting, it wasn’t an inability to avoid hooky cows in an alley that spelled retirement.

READ: Team Ropers Still Competing in Their 80s

“They went from using a book to doing everything through an iPad,” Keller explained. “The iPad and I didn’t get along very well.”

But he’s not inactive by a long shot. Keller has a part-time job now. He gets up at 5 a.m., four days a week to go feed the wild horses at the BLM holding facility for his longtime friend Paul Zancanella.

“It keeps me occupied and doing something I like to do,” he said. “Gets me out of bed. I just stay active and keep moving and keep going, you know? I ride quite a bit. I keep my horse legged up. Those are the main things.”

In fact, Keller used to choose to climb a fence instead of going through a nearby gate, just so he could stay in shape. At home, he said he throws 50-pound bales now instead of 90-pounders to his horse and five mules he uses for pack trips with friends.

“He’s still living his life, and he’s not going to quit living his life,” said Clay, who aims to keep roping “at least as long.”

At the Green River rodeo that summer night, John legged up for his old bronc-rider buddy Shane “Chainsaw” Call. But he’s quick to joke about it. Keller rode 27-year-old Jag, the heel horse he got from fellow lefty Lory Merritt.

“My horse and I are about the same age,” quipped Keller. “He’s still sound. On fast cattle, why, he’s not as good as he was, but we get along pretty good. We’ve got a few runs left in us.” TRJ

Thank you to Equinety for helping us tell stories of veterans and first responders in the team roping community.

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