Jake Barnes Has the Heart of a Champion

People ask me all the time to tell them about “the real Jake Barnes.” I thought the world of him from the start, and even in the early days when I didn’t know him all that well could tell you with confidence that you won’t find a more genuinely good-hearted, hard-working, do-the-right-thing guy.

They don’t get any better than Jake, and that was obvious before the first world championship and into the seven-title glory days he dominated with Clay O. But everybody knows it’s relatively easy to be good and gracious when most of your days are diamonds. It’s the dusty, dirty days that test a guy.

This last year-from the night he cut his thumb off in the heat of a world championship race that looked to be headed his way until now-has been the test of Jake’s life. And from that fateful Tuesday night-when moments after the shocking freak accident he was comforting me, to him smiling at us as he was wheeled into that first surgery, to using his first words to Kory Koontz that night to apologize for letting him down-Jake has risen to the occasion of the greatest challenge of his life with grace, dignity, humility and class.

A year ago, I had a wonderful lunch with Jake, Kory and Jhett Johnson, who I met for the first time at that table, on the river in Omaha during the Tour finale there. The food was great, and the company even better. I was pleasantly surprised to run into Jake at this year’s Rough ‘n’ Ready Challenge Rodeo in Omaha the other day. I, of course, lit up when I saw him. But I knew he wasn’t roping there, so I couldn’t figure out what he was doing there.

The Rough ‘n’ Ready Challenge Rodeo was held September 29 at the Qwest Center Arena, right there where the big boys were duking it out for tall dollars and last-ditch National Finals Rodeo qualifications efforts at the finale. This special event, which this year was a fund-raiser for Nebraska Easter Seals, matches mentally and physically challenged kids with cowboys, who take them by the hand and teach them about the Western way of life and the Code of the West. The junior cowpunchers jerk ribbons from goats’ tails, rope calf and steer dummies, ride stick horses and real horses, and bucking barrels. The goal is simple: “A smile on every child.”

I walked around through it all, and fogged up with joy and amazement. We have it so easy compared to those kids and their families, and yet they’re happier than most. They’re gutsy and game to give just about anything a go. I’ve never been prouder of my cowboy friends than I was there that day. They were patient and kind. And as thrilled as those kids were, there wasn’t one there who beamed brighter than his cowboy cohort.

Back to Jake, who was a hero of mine before, well, he took the last step to saint status with me. He’s made mention of a buddy of his named Tyler. But I’d not met him. Now I understood why Jake was in Omaha this year. You see, Jake met Tyler a couple years ago, right there in that arena. They became friends, and the bond continues to grow and tighten.

Tyler is 10 now. The son of Kim and Gary Juranek of nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, was born blind. He’s a fourth grader, and he doesn’t need or want any special privileges, thank you very much. He goes to class with the other kids, and even races them at the school track meet. Tyler’s taken up the cowboy way of life here lately, too, thanks to his buddy Jake.

“Tyler’s world revolves around Jake,” Tyler’s dad, Gary, told me. “He hasn’t slept for a week because he was so excited Jake was coming.”

Jake and Tyler talk all the time. True friends tend to do that.

“Even when Jake was in the hospital when he got hurt, he was still calling Tyler,” Tyler’s mom, Kim, told me.

Tyler’s parents are understandably grateful that this living legend has taken such a personal interest in their son. But I watched Jake and Tyler together that day, and I can promise you that Jake wasn’t even aware that anyone else was there that day.

From early that morning, when Jake took Tyler to breakfast hours before all the other cowboys met up with their kid partners at the event, to the minute Jake had to jump on that plane, those two never let go of each other’s hand. I did notice more than once that Tyler was rubbing Jake’s right thumb a lot in order to fully understand what happened to his friend at the Finals last year.

My favorite part of their special bond is the way Jake shows Tyler how to do things for himself instead of doing them for him. He had Tyler feel the rope, then walk up and get a feel for the dummy’s horns. Jake helped Tyler with his swing, then they stepped off the distance together. But when it came time to start launching loops, Tyler was on his own-which was just the way he wanted it.

When it was all over in the arena that day, and all the other cowboys said their goodbyes and sent their kid sidekicks off to the luncheon with their parents and grandparents, Jake and Tyler headed for the elevator that led to the luncheon, hand in hand. Tyler was nice enough to let me tag along third wheel-style.

We visited over cheeseburgers, fries and chocolate mousse. Then event organizer Craig Korkow served us all another pleasant surprise. Jake was going to stand up and speak to all the kids and their families. Just before it was Jake’s turn to talk, he leaned over and told Tyler he thought he might chicken out. “Don’t worry, Jake, I’m here to help you out if you need me,” Tyler reassured him. “But I know you can do it.”

Every kid in that room was riveted when Jake opened up with “I was born to be a cowboy.” He spoke of joining the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association back in 1980, and winning his first world championship in 1985. He remembered winning five straight world team roping titles and still feeling somewhat unfulfilled.

“Everything was going so great for me in the arena, but my life wasn’t complete,” he told the silent room. “I’d been seeking fame and fortune, but it didn’t do anything for me. I felt empty inside. Then I turned my life over to God. That’s when I finally figured out why this has all happened to me. It’s so I could be a mentor and role model. Any time you have a chance to make someone else’s life better, you need to stand up.”

I glanced over at Tyler, who was smiling so sincerely that I thought he might explode. Jake shared with the kids the devastation of that fateful night in Vegas last December, when the world as he knew it stopped turning for a little while. As he spoke of the walk down that semi-dark hallway that leads from the Thomas and Mack Center arena outgate over to the Justin SportsMedicine Room, and how he wondered if that previously taken for granted stroll might be his last, Jake choked up for the first time since apologizing to Kory the night he got hurt.

“I was determined not to ask God, ‘Why me?’ ” Jake told us. “I knew that with His grace and my determination, we’d turn this into a positive. It’s been an amazing ride. I’m so blessed. I’ve had a fairytale career. And I know God’s got good things ahead of me. With my faith in Him and my determination, nothing can stop me.”

With that, a young man with Down’s Syndrome I’d guess to be about 16, jumped up and yelled, “Yeah, Jake!”

And with that, the crowd went crazy. Jake sat back down with Tyler. I had to head out and get back to work. But as I looked over my shoulder one last time while boarding that elevator, the last thing I saw was Jake and Tyler, laughing, hand in hand.

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