With all the unrest in today’s chaotic, conflicted world, it’s nice to know there are cowboy heroes among us. One of them is a guy whose life story has evolved from calf roper to jet fighter pilot to an orthopedic surgeon who’s been busy offering up surgical assists on cowboys with hand, shoulder and elbow injuries. In fact, Henderson just operated on the hand of rodeo royal Tuf Cooper after he got his left hand caught in a coil. Allow me to introduce you to cowboy patriot Chance Henderson, who has now full circled it back to helping cowboys after serving his country for 31 years and retiring recently as U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Chance Henderson.
He grew up a cowboy in Paris, Texas. Henderson’s 50 now, and practices at the Colorado Center of Orthopedic Excellence in Colorado Springs. He college rodeoed while attending the U.S. Air Force Academy in the Springs, and had a banner year as a calf roper in 1996. Henderson was high man back in the short round at that year’s College National Finals Rodeo in Bozeman, Montana, and was the 1996 reserve National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champ (Jerome Schneeberger beat him by a tenth of a second) after winning the tie-down title in the Central Rocky Mountain Region.
That same summer of 1996 and right after graduating from the USAFA with a double major in aerospace physiology and basic science (Henderson also has a biology degree from Texas A&M)—while traveling with Tuf’s uncle and fellow world champion tie-down roper (2008) Stran Smith—Chance was high call at the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne. His short-round calf got up. But at that time, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Henderson won the 1996 tie-down roping title in the PRCA’s Mountain States Circuit.
“After the CNFR, the Air Force let me defer going to pilot training, so I could go rodeo that summer and try to make the NFR,” said Chance, who finished in the top 30 in the 1996 world standings. “That last calf at Cheyenne was kind of a heart-breaker, because I’d have made the NFR for sure if he hadn’t. But that whole year was a highlight for my rodeo career.”
So here’s the thing about graduating from the USAFA—you basically pay off your college debt with five years of service to your country. Make that 10 years if you go through pilot training, which Henderson took on in Wichita Falls, Texas, and earned his wings from in 1998. Chance was an active-duty Air Force fighter pilot who flew an F-15C jet over Iraq to enforce no-fly zones for the U.S. government. He was actually airborne on 9-11.
“That was a crazy day,” Chance said of the day those towers fell under foreign attack in New York City. “We have three radios on board—one we never use unless it’s a true emergency. That was the only time that radio was ever used in my career. The voice said, ‘You need to return to base immediately.’ We were cleared to go maximum afterburner at super-sonic speed to get back to base in Turkey.”
Henderson flew fighter jets for four years, from 1998-02. His pharmacist dad planted the seed on a medical profession, so to keep that door open Chance took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Exam) in 1993 while attending Texas A&M. He spent four years from 2002-06 at medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, then finished his five-year residency in 2011 before putting in an extra year to become a subspecialist in hand and upper extremities—shoulders and elbows—in San Antonio.
“I’ve done a lot of work on cowboys’ hands, shoulders and elbows,” Chance said. “And when I was in San Antonio, I did a lot of thumb re-attachments on team ropers.”
In 2016, Henderson served as a surgeon for the Air Force in Afghanistan when called upon. One of his favorite memories from that tour was saving a little girl’s leg using Hail-Mary-style microvascular surgery after she was caught in the line of fire as an innocent casualty of war. Last Thursday, August 19, Dr. Henderson operated on Cooper’s left index finger five days after his injury at the rodeo in Logan, Utah.
“I put a screw in the tip of Tuf’s left index finger to stabilize the fracture, and put a little fake nail on there to protect it while he grows another one,” Henderson said. “Tuf will have a full recovery and a normal hand. Non-operatively, he would have been out about six weeks. With the surgery, we’re trying to cut that way back. My goal is for Tuf to be roping within two weeks of the day of surgery.”
“It’s pretty awesome to have a surgeon who understands how the injury happened and how to fix it, so that I can start competing soon and still heal properly,” said a sincerely grateful Cooper. “Big thank you to Dr. Henderson for taking great care of me.”
The story of his life says Henderson has a giver’s heart.
“I’m glad I could help Tuf,” he said. “His dad (Super Looper Roy Cooper) was a hero to me when I was a kid, and one of the reasons I named my middle son Cooper. I competed with Stran, Cody (Ohl), Joe (Beaver) and even Roy a little at the end of his career. Now that all those young man’s glory days in the arena are behind us, I reflect on how much fun I had roping and rodeoing with all those guys and so many more. I love that I had the chance to compete at the sport I love, then to serve this great country. I’m obviously a patriot, and that makes me proud.”
On behalf of your roping and rodeo family, thank you for your service, sir.