"Little Michael" Calmelat, 10 years old, wins the Open Junior NFR

The newly crowned Yeti Junior NFR Open World Champion Heeler was only 9 years old a week before the Junior NFR. What goes into creating a fourth-grader who can rope and dally on two feet, three times, in 17.1 seconds?

It starts with “Little Michael” Calmelat’s parents, “Michael” Angel Calmelat and Rachel Mendoza. Both were raised near Tucson in team-roping families. Michael’s grandfather was just a kid when he crossed the border to Benson, and the last name signifies French ancestry. Michael and Rachel met at a jackpot as teenagers and have been a couple since 1997.

Michael is often mistaken for his sister’s son, Michael “Anthony” Calmelat, who grew up with him. His protégé became a #10 heeler, and Michael’s other sister’s boy, Cody Pearson, is also a pro heeler from Tucson. Adding Little Michael to the mix makes it clear: Michael—a 7/8—is a phenomenal roping coach.

Michael took over his dad’s tree service business in Marana. He and Rachel, a tough 5 header and waitress for The Feedlot Café at the Marana Stockyards, have a 16-year-old daughter named Angelina who’s a 4.5 header. And they named their boy Michael Eugenio Calmelat after Rachel’s father, so he’s known as “Little Michael.”

The kid doesn’t love his mom’s pet name for him (“Baby Son”) because most of his friends are about 20 years old—and rope at the same level as he does.

Little Michael and Chico.

Little Michael and Chico.

However, nobody wanted to enter with a then-9-year-old at this year’s Junior NFR, so the kid drew the only unpartnered header in Ty Woods, 15, of Decatur, Texas. They placed second in the first round in Las Vegas with a 5.8 and followed that up with runs of 5.3 and 6.0. Their fourth steer wasn’t good, but a smart 7.9 on that one gave them the No. 2 callback—against 17-year-old ropers.

“He’s just figured it out so young and so fast,” said Michael. “It’s a little different. He’s my kid, but I’ve honestly never seen anything like him. Anthony roped really good when he was young, but not as good as Little Michael. He craves it more than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

BABY DRIVER

Rachel remembers that, when her son began to walk, he’d hold twine in his hands and swing it like a rope. So she and Michael bought him a play rope. Then he was constantly roping people’s feet. Rachel is a Legacy member of the World Series, and living in Arizona meant team roping year-round.

“We used to jackpot all the time and he was always there, in his stroller,” she said.

The toddler was 2 years old when Michael bought him a Cowboy Toy. Little Michael would sit and rope it while watching the same NFR video over and over. His swing was always natural—he never swung backward like some kids getting started.

That same year, he won his first dummy roping. At 3, he loved it just as much and got a hand-me-down pony from his sister. By the time he was 5, Little Michael told his parents he wanted to compete. That’s when Michael bought his son 4-year-old Chico from Pony Hernandez. The sorrel gelding is half pony and stands about 13 hands.

“If you put a little kid on a bigger horse, he has to bring his swing up in a way not to hit the horse in the head,” said Michael. “We needed a little horse, so he could swing like a normal heeler.”

Barely older than his pony, Little Michael began jackpotting because local producers allowed him to tie on. He won his first team roping saddle when he was 6 years old.

This presented quite a headache for TRIAD. How do you raise the classification of a kid who can’t dally? But after Little Michael won a couple of #9 ropings with 7 headers, the complaint calls were pouring in. By the time he turned 7 years old, he was a 4.

“Two years ago, I didn’t let him tie on anymore because it wasn’t good for his little horse to take those jerks at the bigger ropings,” Michael said. “His first jackpot dallying was Lasso del Sol last year. He and I placed second in the #11, and he won the #10 and the #9.”

Little Michael spends much of his time roping at Rancho Rio in Wickenburg, Arizona, and Dynamite Arena in Cave Creek. 

Little Michael spends much of his time roping at Rancho Rio in Wickenburg, Arizona, and Dynamite Arena in Cave Creek. 

The kid was quickly bumped to a 4.5, regardless of him being only 4 feet tall, weighing less than 100 pounds and unable to saddle a horse.

“I think the office was like, ‘We don’t know what to do with him,’” Rachel said, laughing. “When have they ever had to worry about a 7-year-old’s number? We’ve heard stories about a few guys, like Cory Petska roped good really young. But I’m not sure it was that young. This was uncharted territory, to have 60-year-old men complaining about a 7-year-old boy.”

MAKING OF A CHAMP

The dallying doesn’t worry Michael much, because his son has always handled a rope well and is “good with his coils.” He’ll let go if anything starts getting hot. Plus, they worked on Chico so he doesn’t stop too hard—he kind of trickles forward, and Little Michael can kick him forward if need be. The horse doesn’t stop and get back on the end of it.

But you wouldn’t know that to read the clock. Little Michael has qualified for the past three amateur-rodeo finals in Arizona. That’s right: The Grand Canyon Professional Rodeo Association offers a #12 incentive within its team roping, and the kid has made the finals every year since he was 7.

He qualified with his dad the first time in 2016, and the two Michaels won the first round and the average—against adults. Little Michael was 7. His dad was also the year-end champion header. The awards ceremony required them to accept onstage in a casino, so a security guard had to accompany the kid.

He has always heeled with a head rope, until finally switching a year ago to the lightest heel rope on the market—Cactus’ Whistler. His sponsors include Cactus Ropes and Cactus Gear, as well as Usher Brands. Little Michael once won an Usher trophy saddle that they graciously rebuilt in his size.

Little Michael has won 22 saddles, more than 100 buckles, a horse trailer, and a Smarty, which previously hadn’t been in the family’s budget to buy. And yet still, he loves to rope his goats so often that his mother figures he has “thighs of steel” from all that running.

“The goats are just like steers; they’ll want to drag or not come out of the chute or set up,” Rachel said. “A friend of ours made Little Michael a chute after he’d seen him over here always roping those seven or eight goats. So now, Little Michael can drag somebody out there to head them, or he’ll just track them around the goat arena.”

Little Michael’s basset hound, Cowboy Earl, also gets roped all the time by both hind legs, and just keeps walking.

LIKE JUNIOR

The kid’s prowess earned him a 6 heeling number just a few days before the family headed to Las Vegas. They’d already been to Oklahoma City for the USTRC’s National Finals of Team Roping, where Rachel missed for her son in the short round of the #10, and still can’t get over it.

Roping for your kids is nerve-wracking and, in Las Vegas, Rachel was so nervous for Little Michael, she “didn’t know whether to cry or throw up, or cry andthrow up.” Her baby son, however, doesn’t get nervous. He’s just pumped. If he’s in an arena during a short round, that’s his comfort zone.

In Las Vegas, defending national high school champion heeler Breck Ward was winning the short round with Hagen Peterson with a 4.2. Woods and Calmelat got their flag in a business-like 8.9, then watched as the high-teamers took a no-time. Little Michael earned his keep in Las Vegas by dragging home nearly $4,000 with his world championship buckles and saddle.

One thing about Little Michael, when he rides in for the short round, he always asks his dad how to rope smart—what he needs to do to win. He got a middle-of-the-road answer at the Junior NFR. Don’t track across, but don’t take a low-percentage shot. For a kid with a penchant for throwing fast just like his idol, Junior Noguiera, that strategy wasn’t easy.

“There have been a couple of situations in past years where all he had to do was knock one down clean, but he would get excited and crossfire and get flagged out,” Rachel said. “He’s learned from those experiences. At Vegas, he drew at the end of the steers in the last two rounds and did a good job of getting them down instead of doing something crazy.”

There are two things Michael tells his son to help his mental game. To calm nerves on high-call steers, he tells him to think of that steer as the first steer of the day. And as far as strategy, Rachel said, there’s only one goal every time.

“Just rope two feet every time, on every steer turned,” she said. “That’s what we always tell him and I think that’s what he thinks about.”

UNASSUMING

The world champ didn’t have enough that week, so on the way home from Las Vegas they stopped at Dynamite Arena in Phoenix. He placed second in the #10 and nailed the fourth call-back in the #12 Slide with NFR header Brandon Beers, but roped a leg.

Those big names don’t phase Little Michael, nor did the college rodeo coach scouting him in Las Vegas. It’s hard to remember this is just a little boy.

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“When Little Michael is climbing a big fence or goofing around on the bleachers, I tell him, ‘You’re going to fall break your right arm and your dad is going to kill all of us,’” Rachel said, laughing.

One thing is clear: This kid loves team roping as much as he does his favorite heeler, Noguiera.

“I met him when he roped with my dad,” Little Michael said, “back when he first roped with Jake at a Grand Canyon rodeo in Marana. He was nice.”

When asked if he laid back on his horse after getting the flag on his world championship steer, Little Michael just said, “Yeah.” The photo is on his fan page at facebook.com/MichaelEugenioCalmelat. It’s exposure that Rachel hopes might help Little Michael attract more sponsors.

“It’s hard for us to go, from wear and tear on the truck to feeding and keeping horses sound and kids fed,” Rachel said. “But team roping is changing so much. We really want to support that and continue to help him grow and get better.”

She and Michael are already making sacrifices to support Little Michael in his dream to rope at the NFR, including possibly home-schooling him in the future and curtailing their own entering—on top of buying Chico.

“I didn’t ride the best horses in town growing up, and Michael’s family didn’t have enough money, either, to buy rope horses, so we made them ourselves,” Rachel said. “Until we bought Chico for him, nobody at our place had ever given more than $2,000 for a horse.”

The cost of spending a week in Oklahoma City and a week in Las Vegas can be daunting to a middle-class family who’s not working while they’re away. But Rachel and Michael feel it’s all worth it.

“Watching the kids around southern Arizona who have roped and then stopped, we feel like it keeps our kids from doing a lot of other things,” she said. “It’s just a different discipline for your kids to rope, versus hanging out on weekends. Even our teenage daughter always comes home every day to practice, no matter what.”

As for Little Michael, he’s so bashful that he literally doesn’t speak during interviews. That’s something he’ll need to practice, right along with holding his slack longer to avoid slipping legs. He doesn’t talk about himself at all, but he’ll talk for several minutes, for example, about what happened in the Junior NFR #10, in which he also qualified. For the record, he and his partner each missed one, she lost a rope and they placed in a round.

His success is not something Little Michael even mentions back in Marana, where very few other kids in his school rope—or even know that he does. They definitely don’t know he’s a superstar.

“He just doesn’t think about himself in that way,” his mom said. “He just ropes. He got an NFR jacket in Las Vegas, and that buckle, but he doesn’t wear them. I asked if he was planning to tell his teacher that he’s a world champion. He said no. I asked him, ‘why not?’”

“Your teacher does not need to know your personal life!” he exclaimed.

Rachel shrugged and smiled. 

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