Rodeo Says Goodbye to Mikel Moreno

I sat on many a West Coast rodeo fence when I was a little girl. My brothers and I went with our dad, who team roped, bulldogged and roped calves, and so many of the saddles, buckles and trophies in our living and tack rooms came from Rosser-run rodeos.

Patriarch ProRodeo Hall of Famer Cotton Rosser was and still is the consummate showman. He’s been there with a smile, tip of his hat, hug or handshake for everyone who crosses his path all my life and long before that.

When I was a kid, Cotton’s son, Lee, was the quiet one who often put on the pickup-man chaps. Over the years, the Rosser family grew. I went to college at Cal Poly with Brian, and was at the Reno Rodeo with my dad the year they announced baby Reno Rosser’s grand entry into the world. In more recent times, Katharine has joined the crew.

But growing up a little girl, Cindy Rosser was the coolest. She was the blonde bomber who carried the American flag down the cliff-like hillside that overlooks the Rowell Ranch Rodeo in Hayward; the gutsy girl who burst through the gargantuan paper horseshoe on her black horse and lit up the arena at the Cow Palace; the one who rose up through the big, beautiful liberty bell, horseback, Old Glory in hand, then revolved center-arena during the national anthem.

When my brothers and I played rodeo on the back lawn, I always kicked off the festivities by racing as fast as my bare feet would carry me around the perimeter of the grass, makeshift dishtowel flag in hand, while one rodeo-announcer brother blared Cindy Rosser’s name and the other broke into a round of “Oh say can you see…”

In later years, barrel racing NFR secretary Cindy married the handy, handsome Julio Moreno. Julio had a brown horse by the name of Six Pac, and the combination proved a tall order for the rest of the pack. For many years, Julio was a perennial fixture in the heading box at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and was always “right there” for the world title. If you’re into trick and fancy roping, watch Julio today when he’s clearing the NFR arena, a PBR event or doing his pickup-man thing. The guy can do the most amazing things with a rope that even the big dogs stop to watch him work.

On January 29, 1988, Julio and Cindy were blessed with the most precious brand of gold buckle there is in the form of a bouncing baby boy they named Mikel Jay. They were thrilled, adoring, doting parents, and the darling little bundle became the center of their universe.

Mikel grew into a big, strapping young man who loved to play football, shoot a game of pool, fire off a paintball gun, rock the house running the sound system at rodeos and bull ridings, raise great bucking bulls and cook.

We were all shocked when Mikel was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago. The rodeo family was still hanging its head at the tragic loss of Brittany Gellerman, who left way too soon, at 15, after a miserable bout with the dreaded disease. The daughter of World Champion Team Roper Doyle Gellerman and Supermom Denny Dobbas was so special, bright, beautiful and young.

We would not and could not lose another. Mikel would whip it. Things would turn out differently somehow.

Again, the rodeo world rallied. “We are here for you. What can we do? Just name it,” their family of friends told the Morenos. Mikel faced the fight head-on, Cindy and Julio at his side, the rodeo community at the ready. Superstar friends such as Sandy Kenney, a surgical nurse by trade, rodeo secretary by hobby and the most amazing friend by nature, served on the front lines.

The best doctors on the planet and even an unselfish bone-marrow donor stepped in with the best that modern medicine has to offer. Mikel held his head high and fought the strong, brave fight. But by early May this year, his body had had enough. His liver was failing. His doctors sent the Morenos home to Marysville from Seattle, with the devastating news that there was nothing more they could do. Wrong answer. Rossers and Morenos don’t give up that easily. They tried it all. Then the end drew near.

Mikel’s family and friends were incredible. They gathered round him, day and night, talked to him, played cards with him, loved him. The 2006 Wheatland High Prom King was presented his high school diploma and a well-deserved academic letter to join those earned for football, basketball and track the morning of Friday, May 19. It was his wish to graduate, and he got it done.

That evening, about 6 p.m., Mikel fell into a final, peaceful sleep. He drew his last breath cradled in Cindy’s arms, Julio at his side, holding cousin Linsay’s hand.

Again, the rodeo world stopped, hung its head and cried. Then everybody gathered hands, took a deep breath and stood back up. Time to celebrate a short but nonetheless spectacular young life. Time to drop everything, get together and hug each other.

If you’re one of those people who wanted to go, but didn’t really have time to go to the memorial service, or maybe figured there’d be so many people there that they wouldn’t even notice if you were there or not, rest easy. It’s OK. I just about did the same thing, and they wouldn’t have held it against me, either.

I was swamped with work, and the 10-hour round-trip drive sounded like more than I had in my half-empty energy tank. Then the phone rang. It was Johnny and Sherrie Jones from Morro Bay, offering to pick me up and take me with them. Thank God for good friends.

If you don’t know Johnny and Sherrie, he’s John W. Jones Jr., the three-time champ of the world, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rookie of the year, ProRodeo Hall of Famer son of fellow world champion steer wrestler, PRCA rookie of the year and ProRodeo Hall of Famer John W. Jones Sr. They’re legends who don’t act like it. I went to Cal Poly with Johnny, and Sherrie Whitlow was that cute, slender Arizona girl who roped with power she wasn’t built to have.

Johnny and Sherrie set sail on his professional rodeo career together, and pulled up in the prime of his career the day their oldest daughter, Katie, started kindergarten. Katie turned 20 on May 13. Their baby and my goddaughter, Shannon, is 17 now and graduated from high school with Mikel and the rest of the Class of 2006 this year. Sherrie was diagnosed with MS a few years back, though you’d never know it. Like Cindy, she’s right there behind Johnny and their kids, a smile on her face and an encouraging word at the ready, every step of the way. Johnny gives Sherrie a shot in the arm once a week, but she’s not about to complain about that or anything else. Rodeo people don’t tend to do that. Instead, they cope and conquer.

Johnny, Sherrie and I sat in the front row of the Wheatland High football-field bleachers at Mikel’s May 24 memorial service, and what a breathtaking experience it was. The bright blue sky, dotted this day with cotton-like clouds, was the perfect backdrop to this festive farewell that also featured floral hearts, stars, crosses and horseshoes. Blue and white are the colors of Mikel’s beloved Wheatland Pirates, after all. How magically appropriate to send him off that field he’d starred on so many times one last time.

Mikel’s closest friend since second grade, Ashley Claire, kicked things off with some special remembrances of the dear boy she so knew and loved. Then Bob Tallman stepped up and reminded us that Mikel is God’s kid now, and asked that all the cowboys in the crowd put their hats back on their heads, knowing well it would have been Mikel’s wish.

“There must be some angels up there who think it’s slack instead of a performance,” Tallman quipped, figuring Mikel’s already busy tightening up the Heavenly ship.

“Big Mike” loved his football, and I loved Tallman’s observation that the standout high school lineman had “a grin as wide as a goal post.” Tallman recalled Cotton paying him $2.50 a day 40 years ago for such rodeo-related chores as untying calves. I’m not quite old enough to remember that, but I do recall working the roping chutes at Leo, Jerold and Reg Camarillo roping schools during the days when this skinny, wide-brimmed, upstart announcer lived in a rundown singlewide on Leo’s place. The first time I heard Tallman do his thing was at a little rodeo at Lake Comanche, and I clearly remember asking my dad on the drive home why the guy talked so much and so loud. Hey, I’d grown up to that point listening to the relatively reserved master, Cy Taillon.

Tallman has since revolutionized his craft, joining Taillon in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. He’s also single-handedly responsible for raising the decibel level at my house on a daily basis for over a decade now. My oldest, Lane-and yes, he’s named after my late, great Frost friend-has watched Tallman work in person and via NFR and BFI tapes all his life, and can and does do a mean Tallman impersonation when he and little brother, Taylor, rope the dummy in our living room.

I laughed and could relate when Tallman told us at the memorial service that Mikel used to have to help him program his cell phone all the time. My kids have to keep me techno-tuned, too.

A flankstrap, the very one Mikel used to flank bull superstars like Reindeer Dippin’ for the very first time, and a football joined the colorful spray of flowers that lay atop the casket. So it made perfect sense that Tallman turned the mike over to Pastor John Burns, aka Mikel’s high school football coach and mentor-like friend. He spoke of Mikel’s determined, strong spirit; the one that kept him on the football field even after the diagnosis.

“He never quit or gave up on or off the field, and he was always smiling,” Burns said, in confirmation of what we’d all witnessed. Mikel’s favorite play was the “832 trap,” and he no doubt daydreamed about getting back to such moves while hitting the hospital treadmill to try and stay in shape through it all.

We laughed. We cried. Then a few of Mikel’s best buddies-Nic Prather, Devin Sullivan, Jarrett Stutler, Zack Sanders, A.J. Dunn and Jeff Shearer-carried the casket over to the bed of Mikel’s black truck, Wheatland Pirates flag flapping in the breeze. Jeff was the only one in the bunch who wore a cowboy hat. The rest, including Reno, who took the wheel of Mikel’s truck for the procession to the cemetery, wore one of Mikel’s beloved ball caps.

If you don’t know Jeff, he often serves as a pickup man alongside Julio and rode broncs at the Finals a few years back. “Shetland” Shearer jumped in with Julio, Lee, Linsay’s brother, Levi, and a few Flying U crew members in 1997 when a broken railroad trussel caused an emergency flood that stranded a band of bucking horse mares and their colts. The courageous cowboys herded the horses, sometimes at a swim, to safety.

Levi is a testicular cancer survivor, who was diagnosed while rodeoing at Cal Poly. He headed for Portland for his regular screening a couple days before Mike’s memorial service, and was given a clean bill of health from Dr. Nichols, whom he shares with the likes of Lance Armstrong. Levi’s going to marry his sweetheart, Katie Wolcott, on November 18.

At service’s end, Mikel’s family and friends released hundreds of blue and white balloons, each with a special hand-written message on it, into the Heavens. As the bleachers emptied onto the field, we all fell in line on foot and followed Mikel’s truck, built-in boom box of a radio blaring his favorite Hip Hop tunes, in a massive procession down the road to the peaceful and quaint Wheatland Cemetery. As his truck left the field, it tore down the paper “Once a Pirate, Always a Pirate” sign held up by his football teammates.

Along the way, a pretty blonde woman grabbed Sherrie from behind and hugged her hard. I so felt for her. It was Brittany’s mom, Denny. When we gathered round at the cemetery for one last goodbye, I happened straight into the arms of my old stock contractor buddy John Growney. It was a powerful deja vu of that sunny Oklahoma day when we buried Lane Frost right by his fellow Hall of Famer, adopted grandpa and bull riding mentor Freckles Brown.

Cody Lambert was one of Lane’s closest friends in the world, and he was a pallbearer that day. He was there on Mikel’s day, too. I’d spoken to Cody on the phone a week or two earlier and he’d told me that he and his wife, Leanne, had just been to El Paso to bring their basketball-star son, Riley, home for the summer from his first year of college. When I said it felt like Riley’s first year away from home had flown by, Cody’s comment was, “For you, maybe.” Cody will go down in my rodeo history recordbook as the guy who got the most homesick when he had to leave his family behind to hit the rodeo trail and go to work.

Dr. Tandy Freeman flew in from Texas for Mikel’s day, too, and rodeo has known no better friend than Freeman. I know the hospitality of Tandy and his wife, Maureen, firsthand. When he reconstructed my knee and repaired leftover complications of an old goat tying injury a couple years ago, they took me into their home like family. After being turned away by other doctors because my knee was such a wreck and surgeons at Stanford had already taken their best shot, Tandy stepped in, took his best shot and changed my life. I don’t live in pain every single day like I used to, thanks to him, and he’s humbly worked the same kinds of miracles on countless cowboys.

From the cemetery, we headed for the wide-open gates of Lee and Bonnie’s place right there in Wheatland. The Santa Maria Elks, where the Rossers have run a first-rate rodeo for decades, made the journey from half the state away to fire up the barbecue and serve up their world-famous Santa Maria-style tri-tip to the appreciative crowd. The community baked up literally hundreds of homemade treats for dessert.

Clifford and Marguerite Happy joined Johnny, Sherrie and I at our table for a visit over dinner. They’re renowned Hollywood stunt people now, but when I was a little girl Clifford worked at my dad’s vet clinic for entry-fee money between rodeos. His mom was the great ProRodeo Hall of Fame trick rider and rodeo secretary Edith Happy Connelly. Cliff and his trick riding sister, Bonnie, still really miss her. They lost their pickup man and PRCA gold card member dad, Don Happy, earlier this year. And now Marguerite is missing her mom. Sally Martins died of emphysema this spring, just short of Daddy Jim’s 75th birthday. Oh how he misses his wife of 56 years.

Wow. What a day. I am so grateful to Johnny and Sherrie for getting me there to experience it. I walked in the door about midnight, wiped out, but overwhelmed with appreciation for my family, my friends, my life. I kissed my boys on their cheeks, and sat on the sides of their beds and watched them sleep awhile. I’ve done that every night of their lives, and still check to be sure they’re breathing eight or 10 times a night. The history on that dates back to long before they were born.

When I first went to work for the PRCA, straight out of college, I met a wonderful couple by the name of Kim and Tommy Keith. Kim had worked at the PRCA for many years, and Tommy was and still is a ProRodeo Judging Official. They had a darling little blonde boy named Braden, and on July 14, 1987, Braden was blessed with a little brother, Dillon Charles Keith. Their family was complete.

Kim returned to work from maternity leave on October 1st that year, and Dillon died that very day of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). I wanted so badly to pick that beautiful baby up out of that tiny casket, revive him and hand him back to my friends. Instead, all I could do was pat him and tell him goodbye. It was an experience that changed me forever. Knowing Mikel Moreno and his entire family changed us all, too. We’re better for it. We’re blessed for it.

An endless sea of friendly, familiar faces made the journey to Wheatland to say goodbye to Mikel, and give Cindy and Julio a hug. There were world champions, ranch cowboys, 80-somethings and babies in strollers. I’m sorry I didn’t get to visit with everyone. I didn’t even know them all. But these are rodeo people. These are my people.

Well, Mikel, I know you’ve got a show to run. And because you have the spirit of a Moreno and a Rosser, I know it’s your wish that the show go on. So in the words of that catchy tune your family has used to close many a successful performance over the years, “Happy Trails to You-Until We Meet Again.”

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