It was just after he won his first world title in 1985 that Clay O’Brien Cooper walked to his mailbox. Inside, was the box with his first gold buckle.
Standing in his driveway, he opened the box.
“The thing that turned my life around was when Jake and I won our first title,” Cooper remembers. “It was like a God moment for me. Most people would have opened that box and said, ‘Look what I’ve done,’ but that showed me in a moment what God had orchestrated and what he had done. None of it was work, it was fun. God had fulfilled my dream. In that moment, I knew my life wasn’t going to be about winning championships. It was doing things the way God would be happy with and always acknowledging him.”
From 1985 to 1989, Cooper won five straight world titles with Jake Barnes, and they’d win two more in the 1990s. Their partnership was one of dominance during a time when team roping was coming of age and passion for the sport was boiling up through the amateur ranks. Through Cooper’s continued presence in the arena (and at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on national television year in and year out), teaching countless roping schools and through his position as editor-in-chief of this magazine, he would gain the attention of tens of thousands of up-and-coming ropers and old-timers alike.
But, unlike others who came before him and those who’ve come since, Cooper���s legacy isn’t simply built on gold buckles won in the Thomas & Mack. It’s been his steady demeanor and his mentorship of those he knows, and even more, those he’s never met, that have made “The Champ” perhaps the most respected personality in the sport.
“My life has been shaped by watching people I respect and trying to emulate that in the choices that I make,” Cooper said of how he’s come to be the icon he is today. “I believe He created me for a purpose, and that’s been my foundation. I admire people who try to live in the principles of God’s moral character, and that was a recipe for success—being trustworthy, honorable and humble, and always being quick to encourage others. It actually works, and at first it is a choice, but then it becomes something you do from your heart.”
When Cooper finished just $1,131 out of his record-tying eighth gold buckle in 2012, he calmly walked into the media room in the Thomas & Mack, graciously gave interviews to the members of the press who wanted a story with the 2012 WNFR average winner, congratulated his partner Chad Masters and traveling partner Jade Corkill on their world championships and then slipped back home and went to work for another assault on the young guns in 2013.
“Just from the perspective it was so close, it was like, ‘Wow, it could have swung my way,’” Cooper said. “The success Chad and I had, and buddying with Kaleb and Jade, we were like four guys against the world. All for one and one for all. It was totally cool that it came down to us. Jade roped the best at the Finals, and I made mistakes. It worked out perfect really… to be a part of getting Chad a championship was totally gratifying. He made a decision to rope with me and give me a chance, and he had faith I could get it done, so to get it done for him, wow, it was gratifying.”
With Masters’ and Corkill’s plans to team back up for 2013, The Champ enlisted young-gun Justin Davis to make another run at the Finals. Roping with Davis and then Aaron Tsinigine, Cooper added a new level of mentorship to his resume. With Davis, Cooper would win RodeoHouston, the Clark County Fair and Rodeo in Logandale, Nev., and the Molalla (Ore.) Buckeroo Rodeo. Tsinigine and Cooper would get a big win at the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
“Again, it seems to all work out if I do what I know is right. I enjoy cultivating meaningful relationships, like roping with Justin and Aaron this year,” Cooper said. “Justin and I had a really good time, and we had some special times together. And Aaron, we had success and became friends. I’ll always remember that special win at the U.S. Finals. I got to build two brand new relationships, and there’s something about competing in a team environment for me that gives it a special meaning—kind of like bonding.”
Like most teams who spend time together on the road, so much of the bonding happens on the road between rodeos for Cooper and his partners. Cooper fits in with his young teammates better than some would guess.
“We all make jokes about my age and how I live my life,” Cooper laughed. “I do it openly, and they respect that. People who don’t know me think I’m quiet and reserved. But I’m always laughing and joking and teasing. I let the younger guys be who they are, and they let me be who I am. There are no walls up, no barriers. They haven’t seen life through my eyes, but I’ve seen it through theirs. I know where they’re at, and I can tell them that it will always be OK.”
What keeps Cooper going after all these years? The 53-year-old grandfather said there’s no reason to stop, really. He took some time off when his three daughters were going through high school, but he’s back and set up to win, with great horses and a great partner. And there’s always the challenge of being able to rope with the next generation of greats.
“When my kids got up and gone, I had it in my mind to see if I could go back and compete again,” Cooper explained. “It was a decision I made, and I’ve been very blessed to get to the partner level you need to rope with guys at the top ability level. God’s taken care of me.”