Backyard Baddies
Dominating ropers of the ’80s spurred the sport into a business.

Team roping history is marked by plenty of elite team ropers in the ’80s never went to the NFR, but were famous for dominating jackpots. These are the wolves who created the need for handicapping. These are the toughs who made it possible to make a living roping (by suing the PRCA).

Forty years ago, more than a few guys stayed home and became No. 9 heelers before it was a thing. Because jackpotting paid the bills. Catching 20 in a row was how you won all-night, enter-up ropings against go-fast NFR qualifiers killing time between rodeos.

“Phil Luman could have gone to the Finals,” said 18-time NFR heeler Bobby Harris about 13-time NFR heeler Ken Luman’s brother, who terrorized jackpotters around Montana. “He heeled as good as anybody. There were a lot of guys like that who were dominant. What everybody doesn’t understand about those guys is they made a good living where they were, and that was good enough. They actually helped me become who I was. Because you had to learn to beat them.”

True enough: jackpotters and rodeo junkies were as different from each other in the ’80s as Tears For Fears from Alabama. For one thing, the only decent money was at big jackpots, and you could enter twice at amateur rodeos.  

“The bottom line was way better going to amateur rodeos,” said Troy Perkins, a dominant heeler from Pendleton, Oregon. “Not only that, but the rodeo secretaries would help you. You could leave home on a Friday morning and go to five or six rodeos and be back at work Monday.”

By the late ’80s, more than a dozen regional rodeo associations were gaining steam, writing checks to guys like Speed Williams (IPRA), Steve Purcella (NMRA) and Mike Beers (NPRA). Basically, you had to choose whether to try to make the seven or eight NFR holes available (the Finals didn’t start taking 15 headers and heelers until 1995) or make money with your rope. Especially because the PRCA had a rule throughout the ’80s barring you from the NFR if you entered even one amateur rodeo that season [see “The Right to Rope” at the end of this article.]

[READ MORE: The Evolution of Team Roping]

Mike Fuller and Chris Henderson out of the Northwest made the Top 15 together as Rookies of the Year in 1982, but too many guys invited partners and they were knocked out. Heelers like Henderson, who dominated in the ’80s, were one reason producers began restricting ropings by age or address—including the George Strait Team Roping Classic that began in 1982.

“When Jake and I started roping together in ’85 in Texas, we got to Popeye Boultinghouse’s place before he did one afternoon,” recalled seven-time World Champ Clay O’Brien Cooper. “He was coming back from the Strait when it was Texas-only. He won the roping and was bringing the saddle into his house and I remember thinking, ‘Man, I wish we could go to that roping.’”

historic 1987 photo of Mark Fanning roping in 1987
Mark Fannings, making a 1987 rodeo run in the second round at Phoenix. | Jim Fain photo

Dominating All-Nighters

Turnouts were crazy at these ropings, considering there was no social media, cell phones or GPS to find the arena. The annual XIT roping in Dalhart, Texas, got 600 teams—a battlefield for a cross-section of all the wolves from New Mexico and Oklahoma and South Texas, Cooper said. Another in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, went all night with a short round at 7:00 or 8:00 the next morning.

“It was enter-up and paid really good,” Cooper said. “Everybody went and roped with everybody. It was a shindig.” 

That’s where the rodeo and jackpot cultures would collide, where animosity between local wolves and NFR types bounced around like the vans they drove pulling two-horse trailers. One 1983 jackpot north of Oklahoma City made the daily paper due to the guys being in the saddle 18 hours. For the record, Jerry Skaggs and Gary Ellis won it, while Mick Foreman and Mark Fanning were second. 

“Mark Fanning was a heeling dude, now,” recalled Cooper of the 1985 BFI champion with his brother, Tim.

The Fanning brothers made a living roping, and that meant going to 120 rodeos a year in six different associations, plus jackpots. They were having a blast without the NFR being part of it. 

[READ MORE: A Blast From Team Roping’s Past]

“We were just trying to make a living and went wherever we needed to go to make the most money,” said Tim, who came close with his brother to the Top 15 in ’87 despite only going to 40 PRCA rodeos. “We loved jackpotting. Springtime, we’d hit rodeos in Texas four days a week, a jackpot on Sunday, be home for a couple of days and go back at it. All we did was rope.”

That little pocket of Oklahoma was lethal. Guys like Paul Lee Foreman and Joel Maker were formidable, too, in the old stomping grounds of Tee Woolman.

“Every state had their own guys that were a handful,” said four-time NFR header Rube Woolsey, who jackpotted as a teenager with Arizona’s ’80s greats. “They’d show up and dang sure just take your money, even if you were one of the big dogs. You would try not to go to that guy’s backyard.”

In fact, when the real money was up, it wasn’t about being 5.5, Dennis Tryan recalled. It was about who never missed.

“Troy Perkins was that way,” he said. “Everybody knows about The Perk.”

Perkins grew up in the Boise Valley of Idaho around the Dorrances and Ray Hunt, and his horses reflected it. 

“Perk” still remembers the year he and Rob Black went to 129 rodeos and jackpots and won first at 69 of them. He also set some down for Pat Minor and the late Gary Sewell over the years. Sure, he won the Caldwell Night Rodeo twice, but mostly entered on a PRCA permit rather than a card. And he once matched and beat Leo Camarillo.  

Perkins, a longtime timed-event cattle manager at the Pendleton Round-Up in his hometown, also hosted practice for Blue Mountain Community College in the ’90s, and treated eventual NFR headers Jake Stanley and Jason Stewart like sons.

“Perk was The Godfather around here,” said Stanley, who bought a good horse from him. “People all over the country knew of him. He’d catch two feet every single time.”

Perkins was also a prankster who teased and made bets and cajoled friends into falling for elaborate jokes. Jake’s dad Rawley remembers that whenever Perk got low on money, he’d look in his rope bag and say, “I’ve still got some checks. I’ll be alright.”

“I wasn’t as scientific as a lot of these guys,” the now-79-year-old Perkins said while braiding reins and recovering from a late-2022 stroke. “I just threw a big one down there and let them get in it. People remember me, but there were a lot of tough heelers around here then. We called Chris ‘Sky Hook’ Henderson because he held his hand up pretty high above his head.”

Bobby Burril was dominant, too. In fact, that helped Perkins’ antics become legend.  

“There was one good jackpot a month somewhere in Idaho or Montana or Wyoming,” recalled Tryan. “Troy Perkins and Bobby Burril would be the two best heelers there, even when Mike Beers was starting to take hold. They knew one or the other would do really good that day. So Perk would get a bottle of whisky out during the roping and they’d pass it back and forth, but Perk would blow bubbles like he was drinking it. Pretty soon Bobby was drunk and Perk was not. People used to laugh about that. It was the Wild West.” 

[READ MORE: Ducking Off: The Era Before Jackpots Were Open to the World]

But Stanley said Perkins never messed with anybody he didn’t like. In fact, he’s grateful Perkins taught him how to take pressure at all those practices at his arena.

“He had a chair and would sit in that chair and mock me,” Stanley said. “He’d ask, ‘What are you going to do this time, ProRodeo? Think you can catch this one? I bet you wave it off.’”

Stanley said, thanks to Perkins’ tough love, the NFR road didn’t “blow his skirt up” like it can do to other rookies. 

“I got one compliment from Perk and I never deleted the message on my phone,” said Stanley, who won a round of the 2008 NFR with Walt Woodard. “It was on 9/19/13. I was at a jackpot and he texted me I did a good job that day. Ten years ago and I still have it.”

Pendleton-area 1980s heeling “godfather” Troy Perkins rides the grass in 2012 after years of managing the timed-event cattle at the Round-Up. | WT Bruce photo

Iron Sharpens

It’s impossible to list all the ’80s greats, but there was Mark Scobie from California, Gary Sutton out of the Northwest, Mike Garrison and Byron Wilkerson out of Arizona, and Bret and Troy Trenary out of Nebraska. 

Kress Jones out of West Texas could “heel them all day long,” according to Cooper, and New Mexico’s John and Carl Wilkens literally roped for a living. Ed Fernandez was unbeatable around Pecos, and was the first guy Jeff Medlin had ever seen that could “go all day and just catch them all.” 

In that same region was “as good a header as there was,” according to Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Cooper of eastern New Mexico, who headed for Allen Bach at the ’84–’86 NFRs. Ken Smith, who won the second round of the 1977 CNFR with Mack Altizer, chose to get married and stay home on the ranch, but Cooper said if he’d wanted to travel, he’d “have been in the top five, easy.”

[READ MORE: The History of Team Roping with John Miller]

Farther north, a trio of brothers from Wyoming also took names. Foreman, Arnie and Craig Mader grew up on a ranch north of Gillette. In the ’70s, Mader invented and built what was likely the world’s first roping machine with a motor that hopped like a steer, and was roped from atop a horse-high stand. Now, Mader wishes he patented it. Anyway, it was how he learned not to miss—roping that heeling machine for hours and hours in the wintertime under the yard light in his gloves and ear flaps.

“I wasn’t very fast, but I could kick in and catch,” Mader said. “And if you caught them by two feet, you were going to win.”

Win he did. After two trips to the CNFR for Montana State, Mader returned home and continued never missing when he wasn’t building custom fence or helping with the family sawmill. 

“I was fortunate in that era,” Mader recalled. “We worked hard at our roping and we worked hard at our working.”

Craig Mader heels at the 1993 BFI
Craig Mader, placing third at the 1993 BFI. | BFI file photo courtesy Craig Mader

He started getting barred from area ropings along with guys like Bobby Harris, Terry Selland, Dennis Tryan and Phil Luman. One time, he won first, second and third at a jackpot in Lusk with 300 teams in the pouring rain. In 1979, he won $27,000 locally. At the time, he had two good horses and, at 23, was just about to move to Oklahoma and rodeo for real. 

Then he cut his thumb off. Complications with the graft delayed healing and derailed his rodeo-star plans.

“I think it was a God thing, actually,” said Mader, who married local real estate agent Debbie Redland and became a land developer and local politician. They raised two daughters, and Mader remained “a weekend guy” with his heel rope. In ’84, he mounted Harris on and later sold him the horse he’d made in college—Harris won the world on Roany in ’91. Mader lent another roan gelding to the Hall-of-Fame heeler for the 2010 NFR.

“He always roped better than me, but my horses were great,” Mader said. “I needed a good horse to help me. He could rope on anything.”

Along the way, Mader placed deep at the 1993 BFI with Guy Howell. Eventually, he and Debbie followed their eldest daughter to Stephenville, Texas, where over the past 15 years, they’ve developed four subdivisions and acquired 11 rental properties. Craig, 67, has a great horse now, of course, like he did a decade ago when he had Playboy. That’s the horse Kory Koontz borrowed to become the high-money heeler at the 2012 NFR with $91,875.

Cutting his thumb off changed the course of Mader’s life, but it needed to happen to get him off the rodeo trail, he said.

“I’ll always wonder if I could have made the NFR,” Mader mused. “I think I could have, but it had to work financially. I’ve had a great life and have gotten to rope a lot. I chose to put something together.”

Profitability, unfortunately, has often diverged from making the NFR. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the PRCA’s National Circuit Finals Rodeo and the USTRC’s National Finals brought local wolves and NFR hopefuls together. Until then, “living the dream”—for many—was more about all-night ropings than all-night drives. TRJ

The Right to Rope

In the 1980s, amateur rodeos became so big that each of a dozen associations across the country and Canada were sending their champs to the North American Rodeo Commission (NARC) Finals each fall. The PRCA didn’t want to compete, so, throughout the ’80s it had a rule that, if you made the Top 15 but had also entered one single amateur rodeo that season, you couldn’t rope at the NFR. 

Jeff Medlin thought he was following that rule during his first NFR run in 1991 with Mike Macy. He’d already won countless New Mexico Rodeo Association titles and had heeled at the ’90 NARC Coors World Finals in El Paso for Steve Purcella. 

“Back then, the PRCA season started later,” Medlin said. “After the NARC Finals in October, I never entered another amateur rodeo.”

When he and Macy looked to be a lock on the Top 15 in December 1991, the PRCA called and told Medlin not to pack for Vegas—the ’90 NARC Finals had encroached on the ’91 PRCA season by one day. When the NFR rolled around, despite a preliminary injunction granted by a judge, Medlin wasn’t allowed to help break in steers or pick up his back number in Sin City.

A hearing was scheduled in “Medlin v. PRCA” the literal day before the first perf of the ’91 NFR, so both sides had to catch a redeye flight to Colorado Springs. Meanwhile, Macy had 19-year-old Kory Koontz waiting in Vegas as a back-up heeler.

“Leo Camarillo and Don McLaughlin flew in and testified on my behalf,” Medlin said of the Hall-of-Famers. “The judge ruled that the PRCA was no different than any other association. He said they’re all ‘professional’ if you’re competing for money.”

Steer wrestler Leonard Haraga and Medlin were both granted the “right to work” at the 1991 NFR, which fielded 16 steer wrestlers that year just to keep the PRCA out of more hot water. 

The PRCA rule had its proponents, however. Hall-of-Fame all-around hand Jimmie Cooper thought it preserved the integrity of the sport by incentivizing ropers to go pro.

Regardless, team ropers no longer had to choose to try to make money or try to make the NFR. 

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