As Colorado’s Tonozzi family is saying goodbye to the patriarch who made their multi-generation team roping fame possible, the rest of us are reminiscing and sharing happy stories and memories that will live on as Tony Tonozzi’s legacy.
Born Emil Frank Tonozzi Jr. to Wilda and Emil Sr., Tony and his wife of 65 years, Delores, were blessed with four kids in Bret, Michelle, Stacey and Trevor. Bret’s a nine-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo heeler. Michelle’s son, Garrett, is a two-time NFR header who followed Uncle Bret in serving as the team roping event rep for many years. Garrett’s also married to newly crowned 2023 World Champion Barrel Racer Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi.
Tony passed away on January 3 at 84. But not before making an unforgettable mark in the rodeo and team roping worlds.
Tony’s memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on January 27 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in his hometown of Loma, Colorado. A reception will follow at Absolute Prestige in Loma from 1-5 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, because Tony would have wanted it that way. Appropriately, a roping in Tony’s honor is being planned for this spring.
Tony is survived by his beloved Delores, their children, Bret, Michelle and Stacey, 14 grandkids and 11 great-grandchildren. Tony and Delores lost their baby boy, Trevor, at 15 back in 1990.
I’ll not forget seeing that tall, skinny, sweet, handsome, rising-star header around at the ropings and rodeos when I lived in Colorado. The sudden, heartbreaking loss of that talented kid in a car accident with Delores and Michelle is something I’ve never stopped staying sad about.
A woman fell asleep at the wheel, and hit them from behind. Trevor was in the back seat. Bret was 29 when he lost his little brother. Tony and Delores’s grandson Garrett was 5 at the time.
“Garrett saved my dad’s life when we lost Trevor,” Bret said. “Garrett was at the age where he was just starting to rope, and he and Grandpa Tony were tight. My dad always had 20 horses around, and he’d have seven of them saddled when Garrett got out of school. He’d pick him up, and they’d head straight to the practice pen every day.”
“My grandpa was my dad and my best friend—he was everything,” Garrett said. “I told him I didn’t like riding the bus home from school when I was a kid, and from that day on, either he or my grandma picked me up every day until I could drive. My grandpa took me to every single high school rodeo all four years. He did not miss one.
“On the roping side, I worshipped Bret. My horsemanship and so many of the things I still do today go back to my grandpa. I watched him ride so many horses, and he put me on so many horses. When he was buying and selling horses, he put me on them to try them. Some of them were nothing nice. But in hindsight, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it taught me how to get around one, and how to not ruin one.
“My grandpa also taught me how to be a dad—the father I wanted to be came from him. He was such a fun-loving person, but he also demanded respect. There was no cussing around women, or he would get after you. Grandpa was old school, and might just whip your ass right there. He really did demand respect.”
And he got it.
“My dad loved people, but respect was not optional,” Bret agreed. “He loved life, he lived a great life and he loved roping. If you were going to be around my dad, you were going to rope.
“When I was in my early 20s, and we were rodeoing, my dad would get in and go rodeoing with us. When we were amateur rodeoing around Colorado and it was go twice, Dad would head for me and whichever other heeler was with us.”
Tony also had a sense of humor.
“I asked him one time why I never saw him drink,” Garrett said. “He told me, ‘Because I turn into Cassius Clay, Elvis and Romeo when I drink.’”
Tony didn’t let a deformity on his roping hand get him down.
“He couldn’t open his little finger or the one right next to it,” Bret remembers. “They just wouldn’t open very far. So he had to learn to head by pushing his rope out there. Whether it was roping or anything else, if Dad liked it, he worked at it and was going to be good at it. But every time he missed, he’d look at his hand and say, ‘Hung it on my little finger.’ That got to be a running joke.”
Tony Tonozzi was a rodeo roper who also loved to jackpot. He was a Senior Pro Rodeo Association heading champ with World Champion Heeler Ken Luman’s brother, Phil. Tony was just a winner in all he did.
“Everybody knew if he wanted to bet on something not to do it, because Dad was a hustler,” Bret grinned. “Whether you were shooting pool or playing cards, if he was betting, you didn’t want any part of it.
“Everybody hung out here in the spring and summer. We played a lot of basketball, and if Dad was guarding you, he was fouling you and probably got you on the ground. He was also famous for stretching a rope out on the ground at slacks, and we’d play quarters. Whoever was closest to the line got all the quarters. He’d make $30 in quarters a day.
“You couldn’t beat my dad at anything. He could grab a broomstick out of the corner at the pool hall, and beat you with it. That was one of his favorite tricks.”
Tony—whose old classmates called him Punk all his life—always had a special fashion flair around the ropings and rodeos. Shirt unbuttoned an extra hole or two, collar flipped up, gold chains—“He thought he was Elvis,” Bret chuckled.
“We didn’t have a lot when I was growing up, but Dad always found a way. Our first arena was made out of barbed wire. We roped more cattle that got out into the pasture than we did in the arena. But if Dad got into something, he wanted to be good at it.
“He was a wonderful dad, and I’ve gotten hundreds of texts from people since he died. It’s been crazy in a cool way to have so many messages from people saying he impacted their lives and helped make them the men they are today. Everybody knew my dad. No regrets, he had a great life.”
One of the countless cowboys who considered the Tonozzi place a second home when in Colorado is Clay Cooper.
“When I first started rodeoing, the Tonozzis’ place in Fruit was kind of my base camp in the summertime,” Champ said. “I was roping with Bret (Beach) those first few years, and we buddied quite a bit with Bret and whoever he was roping with.
“I was around Tony and the whole Tonozzi family a lot. We roped at their arena when we weren’t at a rodeo. Tony was a real character. You could just tell he was an old-school guy, which I liked. Tony was a tough guy. He didn’t talk tough, but you could tell he was cut from that side of life.
“Tony had a great personality, he liked to have fun, and liked to tell good stories. I felt at home at their place, and being around Tony and his family. We had some good times. Bret Tonozzi and I have always been very good friends. He was one of the good guys out there rodeoing. As as the patriarch, it all goes back to Tony.”