Luke Brown was living his dream. Here he was, all the way from Rock Hill, S.C., never going to a rodeo until he was 13 years old, roping in one of the most prestigious ones the world has to offer. The Pendleton Round-Up.
Even for children who grow up in rodeo families, this one event holds a certain mystique. The vibrant bucking chutes, competition on grass and iconic logo all add to the atmosphere of a special place in rodeo lore.
Brown, roping with eight-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier Monty Joe Petska, couldn't ask for much more. He was more than likely headed to his first Finals, roping in the short round at one of the most hallowed arenas with a legend in the sport. Fifth high call back? Who cares? As a 34-year-old just getting his professional career started in earnest, winning it could come later. All that mattered was he was here.
"Sixth high call was a second longer and high call was a second and a half faster," Brown said. "I didn't think there was anything we could do. I would have been happy to have just placed fifth."
Who wouldn't? Speed Williams, Chad Masters and Keven Daniel all insist there are dozens of top-flight ropers in the east and southeast who aren't competitive out west simply because of the scorelines. Eastern-state ropers are so accustomed to roping in the short scores, most don't have the skills-or the horse-to crack into the pro game west of the Mississippi river.
So really, the fact that Brown's game is versatile enough for him to be in the short round at Pendleton is a victory in itself. There, once a header nods, the cattle are brought down a lane by a man on horseback. Then the steers go by the ropers, some going fast some just trotting. The box is set up on the inclined bank of the racetrack so ropers go down the slope and hit the barrier as they hit the grass infield. Then, the steers are roped on the oftentimes slick infield grass. Ropers use ice nails to secure the footing for their horses, but it's still a dangerous and unusual set up.
In the first round, Brown got used to it with a 6.4-second run, which was good enough for a sixth-place finish. In the second round, a 6.9 left them out of the round money, but as fifth high call team back.
Ahead of them were the teams of Matt Sherwood and Randon Adams, Charly Crawford and Jhett Johnson, Wade Wheatley and Justin Davis and Brandon Beers and Jade Corkill.
Figuring there wasn't a shot at the win, Brown and Petska didn't want to risk their potential fifth place money and just played it safe.
"When he came down that lane he wasn't running near as hard," Brown said of their final-round steer. "Then he took off and right when I got to him he checked off and stepped to me and give it up while I'm at a dead run."
While the run wasn't smooth or that fast, it was solid. A 7.6-second clean run. Then, a funny thing happened.
Adams roped a leg, Crawford had an illegal head catch, Wheatley split the horns, then Davis missed and Corkill missed.
The win fell to Brown and Petska.
"It's the biggest win I've ever had, for sure," Brown said. "I don't know, it sure felt good to win that rodeo when I needed it. I'm not near good enough, as far as my career goes, but that was a great time to win that rodeo."
As a matter of fact, that was the first rodeo Brown and Petska had won all year. Rarely does a roper turn in a top-10 season without picking up an average win somewhere along the line. They finished second in San Angelo, Texas, Waco, Texas, Greeley, Colo., and Livingston, Mont., but these were the first buckles they got with 2008 engraved on them.
In sum, each cowboy added $5,729 to his world standings total from the Pendleton win, all but securing Brown's first Wrangler NFR berth. Petska, meanwhile, will miss his ninth trip to the Finals. At press time, he was 18th and didn't qualify for the only two remaining rodeos of the year; the Heartland Series Finals in Waco, Texas, (Oct. 3-11) and the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championships in Dallas (Nov. 7-9). Brown's partner decision in Las Vegas also hinges on the results from those rodeos as well. At press time, Brown was 11th.
Regardless of who is heeling for him at the Finals, just the fact that he will represent South Carolina is historic. Only one cowboy, Charles Thompson in 1977, has ever represented that state at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
It's a far cry for a guy whose first-ever head horse came when his dad, also named Luke, traded grading work with an old campaigner when his son was 13.
The Browns own a construction business back in Rock Hill and Brown's father always had some horses around, but didn't pick up roping until his son was 12. When neighbors encouraged them to start participating in the local club, it became addictive. In less than a year, they were ready to enter their first amateur rodeo together, with son heading for dad.
"I didn't grow up rodeoing or anything," Brown said. "When I was 13 we went to the first rodeo either of us had ever been to. We won that first rodeo and with the $500 we won that night we thought we'd never see a poor day."
The roping bug bit-and apparently it bit a natural.
Brown went on to win six South Carolina High School Rodeo titles, two each in the all-around, team roping and tie-down roping.
After getting his associate's degree in agriculture from Howard's College in Big Spring, Texas, he began working his way into the professional rodeo ranks. Roping with Mickey Gomez, Chad Spillers, Nick Simmons, Arky Rogers and York Gill he had limited success, unable to crack the top 30 in the standings.
Two years ago he bought a horse, Slim Shady, from Keven Daniel that enabled him to garner a little attention from some more experienced heelers.
"Last year I didn't have much won and York called and needed a partner so I got to go to San Antone and those others," he said. "When York needed to go to school, Al (Bach) needed a partner. I learned so much from that guy. I knew that after I finished the season with him that this is what I wanted to do for a long time."
So he looked at his game and decided changes were in order.
"Last fall I worked at it really hard to change," he said. "Coming from over there to out here, you have to change, there's no other way around it. This year I was able to change everything I've had to do my whole life from my roping to my horses."
Plus, he was able to add a partner in Petska (MoJo) who could show him the ropes, be a steady influence and help him develop from a short score roper to a more well-rounded roper.
"I've known Monty Joe forever," he said. "We always entered the jackpots when we entered twice. So I called him last fall about roping this year. He knows so much about roping and horses. He is probably the ropingest guy I've ever met. There's nothing he can't rope. He's amazing."
Who knew the secret recipe for a South Carolina cowboy to make the Wrangler NFR was a mix of MoJo, Slim Shady and Pendleton grass?
But in one month when he charges into the Thomas and Mack Center, carrying the banner of South Carolina in the grand entry, he'll know that despite being 2,227 miles from Rock Hill, he's finally arrived.