December 14, 2013: World Standings Place: 2; Earnings: $203,567
Cody Ohl was on a roll at the 2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Coming in to Round 9, he won three of the previous eight rounds outright, split one and tied for second in another. He erased a nearly $40,000 lead held by Tuf Cooper and if the world-title race ended after eight rounds, he would have his sixth tie-down roping gold buckle. Two more calves and he would.
Round 9, though. Oh, Round 9.
In 2001, Ohl blew out his knee in what is perhaps the most famous calf roping run of all time. In 2011, he missed his calf in Round 9 and 2012 he bobbled the tie, dropping him from a top two finish in the round to sixth place. Not certainly, but each of the last two mistakes likely cost him a chance at a world title.
Last year, Ohl backed into the box with his hammer cocked for Round 9. He wasn’t going to stray from his aggressive game plan. He nodded his head, held his horse for an instant then released her as the calf literally walked out of the chute. He blew past the calf, breaking the barrier. He eventually turned in a 29.5-second run, which torpedoed his chances at the gold buckle. He won Round 10, but had fallen so far in the average ranks that there was no way to catch Shane Hanchey. He lost by a mere $4,000.
Though the PRCA does not release how many rodeos a cowboy officially enters, Ohl enters fewer than his fellow calf ropers. In the past few years, he’s been competing at an average of less than 40, while the rest of the field goes to 75.
“I don’t ever look at a world championship at the end and think I should have gone to more rodeos,” Ohl says now. “The rodeos that I go to are the ones that fit in my lifestyle. A lot of people look at it as if I hadn’t turned this or that one rodeo out I would have won, but to me it doesn’t matter what position I came in. It all comes down to the NFR, that’s where it’s won or lost. With $18,000 a night and almost $50,000 for the average, it all plays out there.”
February 10, 2014: World Standings place: 1, earnings: $15,076
In the wake of the NFR heartbreak, Ohl made public statements, and told this magazine specifically, that he’d be entering more rodeos than ever. His exact quote was, “Going to 39 rodeos isn’t going to happen.”
He jumped out to an early lead in the world standings with a win at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver and a second-round win at the Southwest Exposition and Livestock Show in Fort Worth.
“I was leading the world championship race and it was hopefully going to be a special year,” he said. “But I still had the same plan, I wasn’t going to go to those California rodeos and I stayed home until Reno. I was very satisfied with the money I had won.”
His priority for the spring and early summer is his family. If he were to increase his rodeo participation, it would come in the weeks following Reno. The Fourth of July run—or Cowboy Christmas—would be his time to make up any ground he felt he’d lost.
In addition to spending time with his wife, Jenny, sons Blake and Hunter and daughter Saylor, he served as the booster club president for his hometown Hico (Texas) High School football team. As he became closer with the coaches and players, he began working out with the team.
“Hunter was playing eighth grade this year, but the coach let him be involved and that was special,” Ohl said. “I went to all the workouts, through all the drills, seven-on-seven football, I was doing it all just like I was in school. It was good for me and it was good for the kids. I have such a great relationship with the kids and the coaches and being up there working with those guys, it just fueled me to want to help them more.
“A week before I was going to head to Reno, I was in great shape and my horses were in good shape.”
June 16, 2014: World Standings place: 25, earnings: $15,076
In preparation for an extended trip away from home, Ohl had some cows to move around. On the side, he raises bucking bulls, and while he’s on the road, he moves the herd from his house to a lease property.
It was Sunday, June 22 Ohl rose early, planning to haul the cows, go to church and spend the afternoon with his family before flying to Reno. He had already sent his great mare, Pearl, to Reno. She’d be there and ready for him the next day.
Most of the cows were loaded. He sorted the last pen and as they were coming past him, one of the cows reached back and hooked him with her un-tipped horn. The blow shattered his rib into 17 pieces and put a pinhole in his lung.
“When she hit me, I was up against the panels thinking she was just going to go by me,” he said. “Well, she did, but then she slung her head back and caught me on the way by. I guess, honestly, my life flashed before my eyes. The way it felt and how bad I hurt, I thought it was going to be another Lane Frost story.”
The sensation of internal bleeding overcame him. The pain nearly debilitated him completely.
“I had just enough left in me to get to the truck,” he said.
He struggled to put the ranch truck in gear, made it to the house, but didn’t have the strength to get out. He called his wife, a nurse, from his cell phone and she ran to him.
“I felt like I was bleeding inside and I would die any minute,” he said. “What I was feeling was the air seeping out of that lung. I thought the cow severed something. I remember telling Jenny that I loved her and to tell the kids I loved them and I just stayed slumped over that steering wheel. She called 911, but she couldn’t tell them what was wrong.”
They rushed him to the hospital in Hamilton where he was stabilized and treated. He spent two days there until pneumonia symptoms began in his lung. He was transferred to Waco and spent another two days there before being released.
“I’d just been talking about how I had four or five years left in me,” he said. “Something like that happens and you realize you’re taking it all for granted. The Lord blessed me with it, but He can take it away at any time. It really opened my eyes.”
For two weeks, he couldn’t move much without a sharp pain. But he knew the window for making a run at the Finals was closing quickly. Not only did he miss Reno, the Fourth of July was out of the question. At once, around 20 of the most lucrative rodeos of the season would come and go without Cody Ohl. Determined, he looked at the schedule and targeted the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho, July 15, as his return.
He called his wife’s boss, an orthopedic surgeon, and asked if he could endure the pain, would he do any further damage.
“He said, ‘I don’t think you can endure the pain, but you won’t hurt yourself worse by roping if you wear a little protective gear over that healing rib,’” Ohl recalled.
So he entered.
“I knew if I didn’t come back for Nampa, I would be wasting my time.”
July 14, 2014: World Standings place: 54, earnings: $15,076
Ohl was with Marty Yates, just before Nampa, when reigning World Champion Shane Hanchey texted Yates with a comment about Ohl’s comeback. Cody grabbed the phone and texted back, pretending to be Yates.
“I sent Shane a message like, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ Shane texted back and said, ‘There’s no telling. I think he’ll be 8.5.’ I texted back saying, ‘I got $1,000 saying he’s under 8 flat.’ He’s, like, ‘No, it ain’t happening.’ Pretty quick he caught on.”
Ohl went into Nampa cold turkey. He hadn’t so much as run an easy calf at the house to prepare and was still on some pretty hefty pain killers. What’s more, he brought the whole family to Idaho with him and the day before he was to rope the kids convinced him to take them to a water park.
“I overdid it just a little bit,” he said. “Those slides beat me up a little bit and I was sore as hell the next morning. I had hoped to get a nice, slow calf that I could just kind of step off and go tie. I just kept wondering how bad it was going to hurt when I stepped off.”
The calf wasn’t the perfect draw for a man competing with a broken rib, but healthy, Ohl thinks he might have won the round on him. As it was, the run was choppy and he tied him in 8 flat—a tenth-of-a-second off his prediction to Hanchey. He placed seventh in the second round with a 7.6, won the short go with a 7.8 and the average with a 23.4, making $7,950.
“I thought, There ain’t going to be nothing to this,” he said. “I’ll get by, it’ll hurt for a while, but it won’t stop me from winning. Then I went through 10 rodeos and didn’t win a single check. I was second-guessing myself and fighting my head. It wasn’t going good.”
He shook it off and decided to just enter the rodeos where he always does well. The Dodge City (Kan.) Round Up being the first with the new attitude.
“I pulled in to Dodge City and I was just tickled to death. It was a rodeo I always have good luck at and I woke up the next morning to three inches of rain. I was just like, Man, when am I going to get a break?”
He tied his first calf in 11 flat and his second in 12 flat. Standing around with Stran Smith after the calf roping that doubled as a mud wrestling match, Smith asked Ohl’s opinion on what time might make it back to the short round. Figuring the competitors the rest of the week would have easier conditions, he thought his 23-flat would be 12th place.
“I come back splitting the average on two,” he said with astonishment. “It was just the dangdest thing. I drew a good calf in the short go, made a good run and ended up winning the rodeo.”
August 11, 2014: World Standings place: 20; earnings: $39,534
In the following weeks, Ohl kept chugging along. In addition to wins in Bremerton, Wash., and Canby, Ore., he won $1,000 here and $1,000 there, inching his way back into contention—to no one’s surprise. As arguably the best roper of his generation, riding a once-in-a-lifetime horse like Pearl, the comeback was not a shock.
“Without those two weeks right there, it would have been almost impossible,” he said. “Everybody in front of me kept plucking along too, so even when I did do good, I wasn’t gaining enough ground.”
The first week in September, after having worked his way up to 17th in the world standings, in Ellensburg Pearl came up lame.
“Pearl got hurt and I was thinking that was going to be it for me,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to ride.”
Pearl, owned by Sid Miller, is the 2009 and reigning AQHA/PRCA Tie-Down Roping Horse of the Year. Since Ohl’s first great horse, Luke, she has more than stepped up to fill the role. In fact, when Ohl won Denver he called her the best horse he’d ever ridden.
But it was a connection back to Luke that may have saved the season. Ohl came across a black gelding owned by Blaine Cox. Ohl recognized the brand of the man who owns Luke, Darren Blanton, on the prospect. Blanton also owns High Brow Cat, the famous cutting horse sire. Scores of horses come out of Blanton’s breeding program each year, and not all make it in the cutting world. After the great experience Ohl and Blanton had with Luke, Ohl reasoned this would be the best opportunity to pitch Blanton the idea of owning another calf horse.
“So when I asked him if he wanted to get back in the mount business, I told him he needed to buy him because he had his brand on him,” Ohl explained of the horse Blanton subsequently dubbed Two Chainz. “So he had to have him back.”
Cox brought the horse to Abilene, where Ohl’s calf kicked free to win the second round, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
“It was just like I had owned that horse and had been riding him,” Ohl said. “I knew I had a pretty dang good horse that I could win on. I won a round in Pasadena, Texas, won Texarkana and won $10,000 that week. Without having that horse at that time, I wouldn’t have made the Finals.”
September 22, 2014: World Standings place: 15; earnings: $63,383
Ohl was in, but he had to fight off the challengers in the final week of the season to keep his ticket to Las Vegas punched. He won $1,900 at the American Royal in Kansas City, Mo., then went to Omaha, where he was blanked. Those were his 34th and 35th rodeos of the year, respectively.
Two Chainz, by the way, came up lame after Omaha, but Ohl expects one—if not both of the horses—to be back for the Finals.
September 29, 2014: World Standings place: 14; earnings: $65,282
He enters the Wrangler NFR $88,540 behind the leader, Tuf Cooper. The world title odds aren’t good. Cody Ohl doesn’t care.
“If you’re going to put $18,000 in front of me every night, I’m going to try to win it,” he said. “I’m trying to be the best roper I possibly can. I was just trying to get to the Finals because that’s how I feed my family.”
Last winter, he had hopes that 2014 would be a special year. Of course, circumstances didn’t unfold the way he envisioned, but it still may be appropriate to call what happened to him special.
“This year has been full of ups and downs like no other,” he said. “The Lord has just blessed me and my career, but it can all be gone in the blink of an eye. I learned a lot from that about not taking things for granted and living life every day regardless of what’s going on. Making every day the best possible day I can. This is a special time that I won’t ever get back.”