I won't back down

Love of the Game
Brandon Gonzales beat the best in the world 15 months after beating death.
Brandon Gonzales smiling
Brandon Gonzales recently won a Kerry Kelley bit along with the biggest paycheck of his life with Erich Rogers. | Chelsea Shaffer image

You become one of the best heelers in the world because team roping has consumed you all your life. It’s your purpose. It’s just what you do. 

So, when you’re a 9 heeler and find yourself, at 37, near death with an abdomen full of fluid and half a lung collapsed, the shock that comes with a cancer diagnosis rides along with the realization that you might never rope again. 

That means it hits differently when the biggest win of your life happens just 15 months later on a horse you trained from a weanling, against the best teams in the world. At the pick-one/draw-one Clay Logan Open in Stephenville, Texas, on Feb. 4, Brandon Gonzales and his draw partner, gold-buckle-header Erich Rogers, split $42,000 as the champs of the five-header with 131 teams. 

“I never thought in a million years this would come at this point in my life,” Gonzales said. “I mean, I had high expectations, or I wouldn’t have tried for so long to be good, but it was totally unexpected.”

Why was that? Well, it wasn’t because he out-roped gold-buckle GOATs like Wesley Thorp, Travis Graves, Jade Corkill and Patrick Smith. No, it was because he did it right on the heels of ingesting chemotherapy for five straight days. He did it completely drained. He could barely get out of bed that morning. 

Redistributing faith

Brandon Gonzales and Erich Rogers holding bridles
Brandon Gonzales and Erich Rogers at Clay Logan’s Reliance Ranches Open while undergoing cancer treatment. | Lizzie Iwerson photo Courtesy Clay Logan

It was October 2022 when Gonzales nearly lost his life. He’d been losing weight and noticing swollen lymph glands for months, but no doctor had yet scheduled a biopsy. He took off to Red Lodge, Montana, to officiate the marriage of his buddy, fellow pro heeler Sid Sporer, to NFR barrel racer Brittney Barnett—without realizing he was dying. 

As soon as Gonzales’ plane landed back in Texas, his wife, Holly, took him directly to the ER. Doctors diagnosed a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and immediately moved him to oncology for a round of chemotherapy. He continued five more rounds through February 2023.

It wasted him. The longtime farrier had always centered around raising kids and shoeing racehorses. Now his body didn’t have the strength or endurance to get under a horse. His income was obliterated. 

And it was all Gonzales could do to accomplish chores. He had 12 head of horses to feed, plus mini donkeys, chickens and various other barnyard animals on his 15-acre property with Holly and the kids. Throwing heavy hay flakes over high fences and measuring out supplements to his good horses was all on him, although little Londyn helped on occasion. She’s 10 and their son, Gripp, is 8.

But Gonzales immediately felt his circumstances drawing him closer to God. 

“Who else is there to reach out to, when you don’t know what’s coming next?” he asked. “All you know is that your Creator has put you here for a purpose. If you trust in that and believe that with your whole heart, He has a good plan for you. That’s what I stand on. That’s where He’s led me to believe that we can conquer this, that my body can conquer it and I was built for this.”

Gonzales’ mantra is to “trust the process”—a phrase that could just as easily come out of an instructional heeling video. 

Trusting the peace

In fact, throughout his life, Gonzales, who grew up on the Covered S cattle ranch near Snyder, Texas, knew he could never see himself away from horses and roping. Thus, after that last round of chemo, he spent four weeks back in the saddle before entering—and winning—his first post-diagnosis roping in Decatur.

“To be able to rodeo and just rope well, that’s been my dream my whole entire life,” said Gonzales, who completed high school in New Mexico. “It gave me something to build back to doing. What I know is horses and roping.”

But doctors recommended two more rounds of even stronger chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant and six straight days of more chemo. It sounded like it could kill him. He felt no peace about it. But he also knew a Montana friend who was back to bulldogging despite brain cancer, thanks to a doctor in Mexico. So Gonzales headed to Tijuana for immunotherapy and a broader perspective. 

“When I think about that hard decision, man, life’s precious,” he said. “You never know what or when something might happen. So let’s enjoy every moment we’re here, and try to make it better for somebody else.

Gonzales lives to rope. During one of his four visits to Mexico, he heard about a nearby jackpot scheduled while he was already there for treatment. Did he spontaneously catch a ride into San Diego to buy boots, a hat and some ropes and then borrow a horse and ride into a Mexican heel box? Absolutely. 

 “I loved it,” he said. “But I don’t speak Spanish at all. Which is very awkward because I look like I’m from down there.”

Staying present

Brandon Gonzales riding a sorrel horse
This 7-year-old sorrel called Longmire—broke and trained by Gonzales—carried him to the big February payday. | Avery Gonzales photo

The healing atmosphere of the Mexican clinic and the integrative treatment protocol sent Gonzales home with the desire to saddle up and ride, to ultimately get back to where he could rope at a high level.

“I didn’t know if I’d even be able to ride,” he said. “It’s tough, still. I get sore and get tired. I can’t run as many as I used to. But roping has given me something to get up and do. A way to go and move my body. I don’t know what else I would be doing. Thank God I have an arena.”

Gonzales, who roped at the BFI and placed fourth in the US Open some 13 years ago, had never won a big Open roping, especially one stacked with world champs. At the Clay Logan Open, he and Rogers were high callback and had to be 6.3 seconds to bag the win. They went 6.1.

“I remember sitting in the box before Erich nodded, thinking, ‘This is a cow; just rope it,’” he said.

That morning, when Gonzales had been trying to scrounge up the strength to get out of bed, he’d heard God say to him, “Get up. And believe in yourself today.” He carried that message—“just believe”—with him into the box all day, to the final steer. He believed in himself, and everything fell into place. In fact, none of what happens on any given day is up to us, he said. It takes trust and belief.

“God’s creating a way for you, as long as you believe in Him and trust that process and trust where He’s taking you,” Gonzales said. “I think you can feel that love coming when you do believe—everything just lines up better for you, rather than when you’re pushing or trying too hard. I’ve done it that way; I’ve tried to make things happen on my own. But it works better to just take it all in and let the process happen.”

Easier said than done.

“It’s an exciting situation, being high call,” he said. “They’re calling out the money; they’re calling out the teams and you’re watching the teams in front of you and thinking, ‘Wow, this is what it’s about. These guys do it every day; these guys have perfected this.’ 

“Dustin Egusquiza had two callbacks and connected both times. Just beautiful runs. And Kaleb [Driggers] and Wesley [Thorp] were second callback in front of us. I thought, ‘I’m ahead of these guys right now.’”

Gonzales knows that nerves can tighten muscles and throw off timing, but in that corner, waiting on that final steer, he exhaled and just believed. 

“I knew I was going to rope him,” he said. “I was present in the moment. I’d roped that steer in my head a million times.

A roping a day

Brandon Gonzales  with his wife Holly, daughter Londyn and son Gripp.
Gonzales lives in Lipan, Texas, with his wife Holly, daughter Londyn and son Gripp. | Shelby McCamey Terril photo

Fellow self-proclaimed roping addict Allen Bach—also a celebrated mentor and four-time world champion heeler—relied on God and laying big traps to recover from a stroke. He would often say, “A roping a day keeps the doctor away.” For Gonzales, striving to get back to being able to enter was his reason to get up and go; it was his way of healing.

“It’s my passion,” Gonzales said. “And Holly’s supportive. She pushes me to do things and asks me, ‘Where are you going to go next?’ She drives me to get better and do more, and that’s important.”

What Gonzales really wanted to do with his $21,000 windfall was buy a colt. After all, he’s trained horses all his life, switching ends based on which horse needs seasoning. Instead, he put the cash into a house he’s remodeling. Buying and selling real estate has helped replace his lost income and, by investing in some cash-flow properties, Gonzales hopes he can afford to rodeo a little more. 

If roping keeps the doctor away, then Gonzales moved to the right place a decade ago. Lipan, Texas, is smack in the middle of several Open, #14 and #15 ropings, plus amateur and circuit rodeos—and there’s always Northside. Gonzales’ 81-year-old neighbor comes over to head steers for him, which he says is great practice. This spring, Gonzales and 24-year-old Peyton Walters will rope at the circuit rodeos and may venture out this summer, depending on how much they have won and how close Gonzales is to remission.

In fact, taking off with his family and going to some rodeos he’s never entered are the plans he wants to make when he gets well. The electricity of rodeoing is what keeps him going.  

“I don’t see it happening within the next couple of years, but down the road, I might have a chance to go rodeo for a full season,” he said. “To go rope at a Saturday-night perf, that’s the ultimate. That energy is not felt anywhere else. And big prestigious jackpots have that feel, too. That’s what’s got me hooked.”

The belief that you can do it—that you can win the big roping or beat the big cancer—eludes you sometimes, he said. The mind wants to go the other way. But Gonzales examines his intentions and tries to align them with the faith in his heart. His plan going forward is simple: keep entering and keep trying to rope two feet.

“People go through tough things all the time,” he acknowledged. “You have to try to keep your head up. I know it’s hard at times to do that. But as long as you stand on your faith and believe in who created you, He can make everything better. There’s always a purpose. He’s always got a plan for you.”

—TRJ—

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