When someone wins a fan-voting contest, the natural question is, “Why?” What makes this person more beloved than his peers? What sets him apart?
When told fans chose him as their favorite header, Derrick Begay was immediately honored and humbled. Repeatedly, though, he said he didn’t know why he was chosen.
His best answer—at least the answer he felt most comfortable with—stemmed from his ethnic background.
“Native Americans know rodeo,” he said. “They know a lot about us, so they do the research and watch closely. They watch a lot and rodeo is something they can understand. It’s a sport they love. They can relate to the sport and to us and they love it and love to watch it. They know their cowboys.”
And Begay, a Navajo from Seba Dalkai, Ariz., is at present the most successful Native American in the sport.
He reasons that with a culture so rabid about the sport of rodeo, it’s only natural that he should be voted as the favorite. He wants us to think—and he might even want to think—that the only reason he won the award is because of demographics.
He’s wrong. His win is not merely a function of race. While his ethnicity might have played some factor, it wasn’t the determining factor. Plenty of the top ProRodeo cowboys are local heroes and represent regions of the country where rodeo is the most popular sport.
Begay continued to offer ideas of why he won. Since he’s never won a world title, he knew the award couldn’t be based solely on his pedigree.
“Maybe the reason they do cheer for me is because I haven’t won nothing,” said the header who’s been to six NFRs, won Cheyenne Frontier Days, the California Rodeo Salinas, and the Pendleton Round Up and Justin Boots Championships in Omaha twice—not to mention the myriad of Indian rodeo championships he holds. “There’s guys who do have lots of world championships who are out here roping, so maybe they want me to have one. Maybe after that, they’ll move on to another guy. Maybe they think I deserve it, but anybody who gets to the NFR deserves a world championship. Maybe they want me to win it or maybe they think I need the support. Which I do.”
He says all this with a grin. He knows it can’t be true. But as he gropes for reasons to explain his popularity, it betrays part of the real reason: he’s a very nuanced, humble and thoughtful person. While he is a symbol of hope to a culture, and he’s been very successful at his craft, the real reason for his popularity is who he is as a person.
“I do think a lot about anything and everything every day,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes through my mind, I just don’t speak it very much.”
Sorted off from crowds, though, he’s not afraid to share his thoughts, and in the right circumstances, he’s always got plenty to say—but never too much. Much like the winner of the fans’ favorite heeler of the year, Clay O’Brien Cooper or “The Champ.”
“The Champ, he’s consistent every time,” Begay said. “Every day he gets up in the morning, he’s the same. He’s so cool. He doesn’t say much, he’ll say hi every time you see him and smile. Maybe he’s too quiet sometimes. But if you get to know him, you can talk to him like you talk to your brother.”
Maybe part of the reason he’s quiet in the public square is he’s concerned about the way he is perceived—not in a way that he’s aiming to create two personas, public and a private—he just wants people to get it right.
“Everybody has their own image,” Begay said. “Their own style, their own walk, and their own routines. And having their own image is something they have to protect. That’s one main thing about being a professional athlete, or somebody that people look up to—you have to have an image for somebody to look up to.”
At the coffee shop during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, before most of his fellow team ropers have opened their eyes for the day, he’s chatting up fans. Not just hearing their platitudes, but engaging them. Asking them about their lives.
“It’s cool knowing that people recognize me,” Begay said. “At the Finals in Las Vegas people are supposed to know you, but when you’re out back home in your regular clothes and somebody recognizes you and is glad to meet you, it’s a cool feeling. It’s cool when they say they’re behind you, they support you and they want you to win.”
Begay, in the days after the 2013 NFR, visited his Navajo reservation elementary school to chat with the kids—even partaking in some hula-hoop action with the elementary students.
His passion, interestingly, probably isn’t team roping. It’s being a cowboy—he falls off the grid a few times each year, catching wild cattle in the Arizona desert. Back on line, he’s got a light side. He might post a photo of himself on Facebook donning a crash helmet on a cruiser bike in Wal-Mart, riding a dinosaur statue or wearing a fake mustache.
It’s those moments—from a usually soft-spoken cowboy—that show his humanity and draw fans in. But really, his popularity is a function of his whole persona: stoic Native American, top arena roper, desert cowboy at heart, community icon, thoughtful conversationalist and occasional cut-up.
Unprompted, Begay brought up rodeo icon Lane Frost.
“I didn’t know Lane Frost, but a lot of people looked up to him,” Begay said. “I saw the movie and some little clips they had of him, and it seems like he was a good guy, just trying to talk to the fans and always had a smile on his face and never said nothing bad. I didn’t know him, but he seemed like he was a good guy and that’s why people liked him.”
Maybe that’s why folks like Derrick, too.