When Erich Rogers walked into a Navajo goat roping the other day on the Arizona reservation where he grew up, the Indian kids acted like Justin Bieber had just walked into a middle school.
"Is that Erich Rogers?" one boy whispered. "He's here? Is it really him?"
When Rogers walked over and introduced himself, the kid nearly fell over. Good looks and supermodel smile aside, Rogers' celebrity status among the Navajo Nation isn't unfounded. The 25-year-old header will join his childhood buddy Derrick Begay, 28, for the first time this December at the Super Bowl of rodeo.
Rogers and Begay made a deal this season to see how fast each man could reach $70,000 in earnings. And by the end of August, the two old friends were third and fourth, respectively, in the world standings with partners Kory Koontz and Cesar de la Cruz.
Indians and cowboys
Guys who grew up roping on the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona are usually lethal at both ends and can win on a donkey. Rogers picked up the sport from his dad, Ervin, an electrician who jackpotted around the state. It was Ervin who did some horse trading to find good horses for Erich early in his career (Ervin and Ramona Rogers also have four daughters).
Last year, Rogers' horse Putz was named Horse of the Year in the Indian National Finals Rodeo Inc., which is made up of 11 regional Indian rodeo associations in the United States and Canada. And Rogers is the defending world champion header at the Indian National Finals Rodeo with his other buddy from Arizona, Aaron Tsinigine (they were a blistering 20.22 seconds on four head).
This year, the top three holes in the Turquoise Circuit heading standings have been handily dominated by Begay, Rogers and Tsinigine (who headed in the PRCA this year for Chase Tryan). The trio was trailed by a little player named Jake Barnes in fourth place. What is it about that remote part of the desert that produces this kind of success?
"There's nothing to do on the reservation," said Rogers matter-of-factly. "Either you try to make a living roping or you have to go find a job."
Rogers' hometown of Round Rock has a population of 600, and more than half of those families live below the poverty line. So the success of Rogers and his peers has Navajo kids roping like crazy.
"It's really changed to where now they're having a goat roping almost every night of the week," said Rogers. "There are kids out there roping those goats so good it's unbelievable. That's what everybody does. You go to a gas station or a trading post and all you see are postings of goat ropings. And then those kids start wanting to enter the Open ropings."
The other reason the reservation is such a great proving ground is that those kids have to win to live. Locals can scrape by at Indian rodeos that pay $500 to $600 with fees of just $70, but it's a different ball game in the PRCA.
"When you have to win to make a truck payment and a trailer payment and buy a good horse, it's tough," said Rogers. "I've been so blessed this year."
Two blessings in particular stand out?Rogers acquired one of the best head horses on the road, and before that teamed with one of the best heelers in PRCA history.
Taking a chance
Rogers had roped last year with Cory Petska, finishing 38th in the world standings, while Koontz had roped with Colby Lovell. Both teams split up for the 2011 season.
"I was sitting at the Indian Finals in November, getting ready for the perf, when Kory called me," said Rogers. "I couldn't really say anything, except to say I already had a partner, and we hung up. Within three minutes, I called him back and said I'd rope!"
It would be the second straight season that Koontz, a 17-time NFR heeler and former NFR average winner, would gamble on a young-gun header. He had to try something different?he'd had nothing but frustration since his world-title hopes were cut off along with Jake Barnes' thumb in the fifth round of the 2005 NFR.
"There were a couple of years there that I didn't make the Finals and that was hard because I'd made it every year consecutively," said Koontz, 40. "For that streak to go away and then to have trouble even making a living at something I still felt like I was doing well, was tough."
Koontz had watched Rogers practice over at Monty Joe Petska's last spring, and he knew the young Navajo header had been third-high call at the BFI when he was just 18. Rogers impressed the veteran, too, with his performances at the jackpots last fall in Guthrie, Okla., prior to the USTRC Finals.
"I needed somebody with a lot of talent, and I felt Erich was ready to take it to another level," said Koontz. "Anytime you make a decision like this, it's just kind of a gut feeling. And anytime you rope with someone who's never made the Finals, you're taking some type of chance."
But as far as Koontz is concerned, it's the best decision he's made in years.
"I've been blessed," said Koontz. "He's roped way better than I even dreamed he would. He has a good head on his shoulders, he's smart and he takes care of business. He's going to be around way longer than I'll be around."
Making it look easy
The team's first steer last winter was at a jackpot in Andrews, Texas, and then it was on to Odessa for their first rodeo, where they placed in a round.
"I was kind of nervous at first, thinking ?I've got Kory Koontz behind me and I'd better step my game up, because every time I catch one, it'll be two feet,'" said Rogers. "But then it was more like, ?I need to score good and ride to my spot and catch?not do anything crazy to where he'll cut me!'"
While Rogers and Koontz didn't go on any wild winning streaks, they consistently won money and took top honors at places like Tucson, Ariz., and Colorado Springs, Colo. In June, they also earned nearly $50,000 at the BFI?climbing back into the roping after a first-round bobble by Koontz that would have taken most teams out.
Rogers' ace in the hole has been an 11-year-old sorrel gelding out of Oregon named Bugs Night Robber. Nicknamed "Rob," he's by an appendix Three Bars-bred stallion. The horse, formerly owned by B.J. Campbel,l "scores outstanding" and has allowed Rogers to rope with more aggression and confidence this season.
Campbell told Rogers about the horse last winter, but priced him high.
"I was looking more in the $5,000 to $10,000 range," said Rogers. "That was all I had."
But Rogers kept contacting Campbell and three weeks later, talked the roping producer and NFR heeler into letting him try the horse at some jackpots. In typical Campbell fashion, B.J. appreciated the kid's "try" and cut him a deal, then let him make payments for a year.
"He showed up with his all-around money from the Indian Finals," said Campbell. "I know what it's like to have no money, and nobody helped me. Everybody needs a break."
Campbell wouldn't be surprised to see the horse win Horse of the Year, but still, he gives more credit to Rogers (who paid the horse off in August).
"He rides so good that you could put anything under him and he'd win," said Campbell. "That's a decent horse'scores good and is really broke?but Erich gets so much out of him."
Plus, the horse fits perfectly with Koontz' little bay gelding. LB runs hard and drops his rear end like a thousand-pound anchor, in a style that has become signature with Koontz at the reins.
"I've had a lot of good horses over the years, and LB ranks right at the top of the really good ones I've had," said Koontz, referring to three-time Horse of the Year Iceman, as well as Allen Bach's Switchblade and Michael Jones' Jackyl.
Ever since Ervin Rogers used to wake his son up at midnight 10 nights in a row to catch the ESPN telecast of the NFR team roping, Erich has had it on his mind.
After cutting his teeth at Indian rodeos and amateur rodeos in the Grand Canyon Pro Rodeo Association, Rogers made himself enter the Open and hang out with "the big boys" to see how he fared. He learned that philosophy from his dad.
"When I was a low-numbered roper, I always wanted to enter the #8 roping," said Rogers. "But my dad wouldn't let me?he made me rope in the higher-numbered ropings."
Only 18 when he nearly won the BFI with his Indian rodeo partner Shawn Shirley, Rogers then bought his PRCA permit and spent a year in Montana, where he and Charlie Lenning just barely lost the 2006 Montana Circuit championship.
Rogers showed initiative not only in getting his hands on Rob, but in securing a sponsorship this year from Cinch to go with his Classic endorsement. As of July, he was making a fine living, but was trying to avoid thinking about whether or not he'd made the NFR.
"I was just trying to stick to my deal with Derrick," said Rogers. "But then everybody just kept telling me I'd made it. It's a dream come true. I think it's going to be awesome."
In fact, Koontz will eat his hat if Rogers were to, say, miss most of his steers at the NFR the way Koontz' 2010 rookie header did.
"He's too level-headed," said Koontz. "He doesn't get shaken up. He's been to Vegas and competed at the Indian National Finals at the South Point?he has that under his belt and a world title in the bag. When we get to Vegas this December, it's just going to be another day at the office for him."
In making his dream come true and giving Koontz his first shot at a world title in six years, Rogers will become a celebrity to more than just his own people. His horsemanship and cool head mean this guy will be stirring up tiny fans?both cowboy and Indian?for years to come.