“Please tell me Jake didn’t just cut his thumb off.”
The words blurted out of my mouth as I grabbed my brother’s arm and gasped in disbelief. From my perch on the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo press deck, just to the right of the announcers, Jake wasn’t 15 feet from me when the round-five wreck went down.
Truth is, it really wasn’t all that wild a wreck as wrecks go. Jake didn’t yell, jump up and down or throw himself on the ground. It actually happened so fast that most people there at the Thomas and Mack Center that night-Tuesday, December 6-didn’t really even catch that there was a problem past Jake losing his rope while leading the average by 3.2 seconds and in the middle of a world championship mission. He had his sights set on that eighth gold buckle, and was even more determined to grab one for the belt of Kory Koontz, who in Jake’s words, is “A good kid who deserves to win one.”
Jake stuck the steer around the neck, but dropped his slack and lost contact with his rope. He fought to get the rope back in his hand as Barney started heading left, but never did get it back in his hand clean. The warrior that he is, Jake fought desperately to salvage a dally out of the deal, but couldn’t get there. He lost his rope, but not before taking the full-on jerk of that steer hitting the end of it with his bare hand.
It appeared that rope dragging in the dirt slammed the door on the title drive. But there was a devastating injury to add to that insult. A coil from Jake’s left hand had dropped around his right thumb, and when the steer hit the end of the rope that coil came tight. Jake saw something fly in front of him, and figured it was a finger because there were six inches of tendon hanging from it. Even though it flashed before his eyes in a surreal slow motion, he didn’t know which finger it was until he looked down at what was left of his glove and hand. As they headed for the back gate, Jake and Kory’s eyes met. The ProRodeo Hall of Famer calmly informed his partner, “I just jerked my thumb off.”
In the blur of that split-second, I did not see a finger fly. But when Jake went to fighting for the horn my eyes did zoom in on his roping hand. After all these years, that’s just a reflex for me in a situation like that. It helps me know who to deliver ice, tape and sympathy to after the team roping. I couldn’t tell Jake’s thumb was gone, but part of his glove was hanging down in a weird way. That, it turns out, was his right pinky, which was cut pretty badly at the base itself. But time and a few stitches fixed that.
I jumped up and took off running up the tunnel. But before I could hang a right and get to Jake just outside the back gate, Allen Bach (who roped right before Jake that night) bounded around the same turn from the opposite direction and skidded into me with,”We have to find Jake’s thumb.” Had I had time to stop and process that information, I’d have pulled a Joe Baumgartner and barfed in the trash barrel that sits down at the arena end of the tunnel. (Joe’s a bullfighting superstar who’s never missed a pre-perf puke in all the years he’s worked the NFR.)
Allen and I resumed running, back down that tunnel toward the arena. We forked at the gate, and while he ran inside, I darted up behind announcers Bob Tallman, Boyd Polhamus and Randy Corley to try to help spot Jake’s thumb. Al scooped it up, and off we ran to the Justin Sportsmedicine Room. They bandaged Jake’s hand and put the thumb on ice. Then they loaded Jake up in an ambulance with saddle bronc rider Rusty Allen, who was suspected of having broken ribs and a punctured lung, and off to University Medical Center they went. Allen rode with Jake in the ambulance.
I briefly touched base with Jake, and in the horror of it all he shot me that genuine Jake grin of his. “I’m all right,” he said, in a clear, calm voice. “It’s OK. Really. I’m fine.” I’ve never found a flaw in this fellow, so him consoling me at a time like that didn’t even start to surprise me. “Where’s Toni (Jake’s wife)?” I asked him. “Sitting back up behind the bucking chutes again,” he said. Jake had pointed her out and we’d exchanged waves a night or two earlier, when he was working on his daily journal with me during the saddle bronc riding and tie-down roping.
I took off for the elevator, and met Toni at the door. As it happened, Clyde and Elsie Frost (late 1987 World Champion Bull Rider Lane’s parents) had been sitting with her that night, and when Toni saw me get up and race out of there, she knew something was wrong. Seeing Clyde and Elsie, who I’ve grown to adore as adopted family over the years, was just the reality jolt I needed. They were there, the rocks they are, with prayers, hugs and reassuring words that it really would be OK. Having been there at Cheyenne in 1989 when Lane died, it dawned on me then that this wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt. Jake’s still here.
I walked Toni down the hallway to Jake, and he gave her a hug and some soothing words to comfort her worries. Then we parted paths. Jake headed for the ambulance, Big Al at his side. Toni got in her car and I jumped in my truck. UMC was only a few exits down Interstate 15 away, and the traffic was mercifully light that night. I knew I needed to call someone, but who? That was a tough one, because I also knew I wouldn’t make it through much of a conversation without losing the fight with the lump in my throat. Then it came to me. Jake and Clay. Clay’s was the voice I needed to hear. So I hit Clay O on my speed dial. He picked right up. He’d just hung up from hearing it first from Speed Williams.
I was right. It was good to hear Clay’s voice. But I was also right about not being able to get very far into each sentence without pausing to breathe and swallow. The intermittent silences were OK. We both understood. That’s a friend for you.
Then my call waiting started cutting in. Joe Beaver wanted to make sure Tandy Freeman (the first face every cowboy wants to see when he gets hurt) was on his way, and suggested that Nevadan Wes Adams might have a hot tip for a handy hand surgeon in the area since his NFR heeler son, Randon, lost his thumb in a roping accident when he was a kid. My reporter’s adrenaline kicked in, and I started taking down specialists’ names and numbers rapidfire.
From the hospital parking lot, my first stop was the emergency room. What a depressing sea of sad faces that was. Luckily, Jake wasn’t there. The woman at the front desk sent me on to the trauma unit. Before long, a few familiar and friendly faces, like Peggy Bach, Mike Ingram, Paul and Gail Petska (Cory’s parents), joined me in the waiting area. Toni was in and out with Jake, and the doctors were kind enough to keep us all informed with what was going on down to the detail. They were particularly patient in answering all the questions posed by this one particularly pesky media-nerd girl. : )
We visited to nurture our nerves. I stepped aside to take another call, then spotted a young Hispanic woman across the room who was alone and hysterically upset. I headed her way, but Toni got there first. The woman’s sister, brother-in-law, little boy and little girl had been hit by a drunk driver who’d diverted their car into the side of a house. They were all in sad and serious shape, and the young woman was trying to cope with the shock alone. Toni hugged her. Then we all joined hands and prayed for that woman’s family, and for Jake. It wasn’t preplanned or discussed-it just happened.
Doctors Lewis and Menezes then explained to us that there would be a surgery, but that it would not be to try to reattach Jake’s thumb, which was severed at the joint. There was enough damage to the end of the thumb and surrounding blood vessels that a successful reattachment was virtually impossible. And because that tendon was lost with half of Jake’s thumb, the bending function of the thumb was gone. It was disappointing news, but by then Tandy had joined us and explained to me that this was, without a doubt, in Jake’s best interest. I trust Tandy with my life. He’s a dear friend, and he reconstructed my knee in Dallas a couple years ago. So hearing it from him made it true.
Toni went back in to see Jake before they wheeled him into surgery. When she came back out, she was carrying one of those big, clear, plastic bags they put patients’ clothes in when they change you into the hospital gown. I stared through the plastic at Jake’s shirt, NFR back number 41 still pinned to it, his spurs still on his boots. The last time I looked at a bag like that, Tuff Hedeman was carrying Lane’s clothes out of that hospital in Cheyenne. I didn’t see Lane again until his funeral in Oklahoma the following week.
This situation was as clear as that plastic bag. What happened to Lane that muddy afternoon in Cheyenne was a tragedy. What happened to Jake this starry Vegas night was not a tragedy at all. Devastating and disappointing? No doubt. Tragic? No way. We still had Jake. Thumbs or no thumbs, what would we give to have Lane here with us today?
As the clock ticked on, and Jake was wheeled to the operating room, everyone cleared out and headed for bed. I called NFR Secretary Sunni Deb Backstrom, and officially doctor’s released Jake out of the rest of the Finals for fine-prevention purposes. Kory had gotten the horses put away and to the hospital by then, so he and I stayed behind with Toni. There was no possible way I was going to sleep anyway. Somehow, Jake knew that.
“Jake doesn’t want you to worry,” Toni told me after taking my hands in hers. “He knows you’re going to stay up all night, and he doesn’t want you to do that.” Sweet sentiment, buddy, but when you’ve got butterflies doing backflips in your belly, a good night’s sleep simply isn’t in the cards.
Toni tended to some insurance paperwork, and I sat with Kory and talked, tears in both our eyes at first. Then he told me of his mom’s horrific car accident around the same time in 2004. There’s no way she was supposed to survive it, but miracles really do happen. He told me of (NFR header) Bret Boatright losing his mom in a recent explosion. My God, Boater, I am so sorry.
Kory explained how he lost his thumb the exact same way Jake did when he was 8 years old, and showed me the scar up by his left shoulder that’s left over from where they sewed his hand inside his chest. Meanwhile, that’s what the doctors were doing to Jake. They laid a flap of skin open in his abdomen, over by his left ribs, and stuck what was left of his thumb into the incision for blood-supply and skin-grafting purposes. It was to stay there about three weeks.
Kory was shocked and sad like the rest of us, but when people expected him to be disappointed that the gold-buckle dream was dashed, he just smiled. All he cared about and prayed for was Jake’s physical and emotional comfort. He also had a decision to make. Kory’s options for finishing out the week included roping with either 16th-place header Chad Masters or picking up someone who was already entered in another event. Because he was already in town and well into the swing of NFR week, he opted for Trevor Brazile. And together, they set up a seat for Trevor on Travis Tryan’s bay bomber, Walt.
Then Jake woke up. They wheeled him past us, and he shot us a smile. Groggy, foggy, whatever-it was so great to see him. Toni, Kory and I walked behind the wheelie bed to the main hospital, where we got Jake settled into room 435. We visited awhile, then transformed the big chair in the corner into a makeshift hide-a-bed and made it up for Toni. Jake asked me what had happened at the rodeo after he left. I hadn’t a clue, but had been handed the team roping results for the night on my way out. “It looks like Wade (Wheatley) and Kyle (Lockett) were 3.9 and won the round,” I told him. “Wow,” Jake said, IV rolling at a quick drip. “Good for them.”
It was the middle of the night, and time for Kory and I to let Jake and Toni try to get some rest. I gave Jake a big old hug while he apologized for ruining my night. Really, mister. Then he got us all good.
After a shocking and miserable end to his gallant run at the gold, and losing a little piece of his roping hand forever, the one and only thing that choked Jake up that night was his sincere sorrow for leaving his heeler high and dry in the heat of the title race. “I am so sorry,” he told Kory. All our waterworks were tested, and were found to be in fine working order. They don’t make better people than Jake Barnes. Tough, talented, brave, kind, gracious. That’s all just Jake, who then lightened the mood by telling Kory to, “Go kick some butt.”
Kory walked me through that cold, dark parking lot to my truck. What a wonderful human being. I headed to my hotel, took a shower and caught up on a little work. I left for the hospital again as the sun started up, with one stop along the way to pick up some juice, fruit, flowers and doughnuts. I didn’t last long in the first store of the strip mall, because they had no fresh fruit. As I walked out the door empty-handed, I heard, “Miss Kendra.” Clay always calls me that, and it was the perfect first hug for that morning. I gathered up a quick cartload from the neighboring market, and off we went to room 435.
When we stepped out during the occasional check of Jake’s vitals, Clay shared some special stories with me. He told me how he sat alone and bawled for a solid hour when he first heard of Jake’s accident the night before. He recalled all the Jake-dominated thumb-wrestling matches they had in their younger years, and swore Jake still had more thumb left than Clay was born with.
Clay left town sooner than previously planned to drive Jake’s rig and horses home that day. It was a relief to Jake to have his horses in such dependable hands. Those two will always share the special bond that owned this sport all those years.
Jake was in great spirits the morning after the awful ordeal. His hand and side really didn’t hurt much, he said. It was his shoulder that was bothering him. Taking the jerk from that steer started it, and having to hold it high and perfectly still the rest of the night didn’t help. Right before they gave him the sleepy gas, the doctors told Jake not to fight the sling when he woke up or he’d tear open the incision. He remembered, and was the model patient.
Pain or not, Jake wasn’t about to complain. He was gracious to all the doctors as they made their rounds, and anxious to fly to coop and steer Toni’s car for Scottsdale. When the discharge papers appeared to be in order, I headed back to the Thomas and Mack Center for round six. Jake and Toni ended up spending that night in Vegas before making the five-hour drive, but couldn’t wait to get home to (sons) Bo and Tuffy’s basketball games.
Kory came back that night and, as if divinely scripted and following Jake’s orders to the letter, tied the 3.7-second NFR record. He and Trevor struck again in round seven with a 3.8-second run to share the victory lap with Wade and Kyle. The whole rodeo world got behind Kory, and Jake was the leader of the fan pack. After a fourth-place finish in round eight, Kory actually slipped into the world standings lead. Now that was wild.
When Trevor waved his loop off of their ninth-round steer, Kory wowed the capacity crowd by ocean-waving the steer around slick horns. He called the move “Vintage Jake Barnes.” Trevor also missed their 10th-rounder (Kory wasn’t eligible to place in the average), but they went down trying to be 3 again. Kory held his head high, appreciatively tipped his hat to the crowd and thanked God for the week’s experience and many blessings.
The morning after we crowned Clay Tryan and Patrick Smith the 2005 world champion team ropers, I finished up a few emergency deadline stories and turned my truck toward the desert that divides Nevada and California. It was Monday, December 12, and Jake saw a hand specialist at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Scottsdale that day, who told him to expect a recuperation period of anywhere from three months to a year.
Jake called, and I was nothing short of thrilled to hear his voice. He was upbeat, and optimistically looking forward to the surgery to release the remaining half of his thumb from his side on December 30. During that procedure, doctors covered the end of the bone with tissue and skin grafted from his half-thumb’s temporary home near his abdomen. Two weeks before that was even scheduled to happen, he told me he was going to go ahead and enter Denver.
“Say what?!” I said. “Did you just stutter, or did you say you’re entering Denver?”
“I feel great,” said as optimistic a soul as I’ve ever known. “I have no pain whatsoever. I feel if my hand wasn’t attached to my rib cage that I could go rope right now. My fingers are still a little swollen, but I can make a good fist and I have a good grip. My heart tells me I can rope right now.”
Still, he knew he wouldn’t know anything for sure until after the surgery.
Kory went ahead and entered Odessa-the first rodeo of the new year-with David Key. David was then planning to rope with Brad Culpepper. Kory was content to take a chance on Jake when Denver entries opened just 10 days after the injury. If it turned out Jake wasn’t ready to roll and had to doctor’s release Denver, Kory could then go ahead and draft a calf roper who was already entered, like he did Trevor at the Finals. The other option he considered was just sitting that one out and regrouping.
“I don’t want people thinking I’m trying to be a super hero,” Jake told me. “If I physically can’t do it, I won’t do it. But the way I feel right now, I’m ready to try it. I’ll have to wait ’til I get my hand out and get a feel for a rope again. But if I can do it, I will.
“What happened to me just goes to show you that even team roping is a dangerous event, and that it doesn’t discriminate against anybody. The worst part of the whole deal was the unfortunate timing of it. I’ve experienced a world championship, but I dropped the ball for Kory. But I’m optimistic about it. I feel really fortunate that it wasn’t worse. I could have lost it at the base, and that would have been way worse. Who knows the reason this happened, but I’ve already seen a lot of good come out of it. It’s touched a lot of people. I thought about questioning God at first, but decided not to stoop that low.
“I’m thankful. The most important thing is my family and friends. This has been an eye-opener not to take things for granted. We think there’s a security blanket over everything we do, but it can all be taken away in a flash. My goodness, I feel lucky.”
And with that, the hero drove off into the Scottsdale sunset, managing the stickshift in the manual-tranny truck he won at George Strait’s roping despite his right hand being sutured into his side. “It’s no big deal,” he assured me. “I hold the wheel with my left hand, then keep it steady with my knee when I need that hand to shift gears. I’m doing great.”
Late-Breaking Press-Time Jake Update
Sunday, January 1, 2006:
I rang in the new year with a couple welcomed phone visits with Clay and Kory. Jake, we’d learned from messages from Toni, was in the intensive care unit at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Scottsdale for the week, as the December 30 surgery hadn’t gone exactly according to plan. Toni’s message regrettably told Kory he needed to find another partner, as Jake’s road to recovery had been extended by what Mayo hand surgeon Dr. Anthony Smith had discovered when he detached Jake’s hand from his side. Clay optimistically philosophized that the break would give Jake a chance to spend more time with his family and draft a reinforcement or two to get behind Barney, who’s 18 now. Kory told me about sending his sixth-round NFR buckle to Jake, with a note that it was a gift from God, and that he figured maybe an NFR heeling buckle was just what Jake needed to make his trophy case complete. Those guys make me smile. We were all very anxious to talk to Jake, but no cell phones are allowed in the ICU.
Tuesday, January 3, 2006:
I picked my phone off on the first ring this afternoon, and about dropped it with joy when I heard Jake’s voice. Friday’s surgery took about three and a half hours, he told me, and now his thumb “is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. It looks like they stuck a meatball on the end of my thumb, only it’s kind of in the shape of a triangle.” He had expected to be released on Saturday, the day after the surgery. The skin graft from his side was successful, but the new tissue wasn’t draining itself so they enlisted leeches Jake described as “little greenish looking worms with suckers at both ends. Blood just pours out of my hand when they bite, because they secrete a blood thinner and they leak blood, too.” New leeches were attached to the thumb every hour the first two days. Dr. Smith scheduled two additional surgeries, at six-week intervals from the December 30 operation, to whittle and reshape the end of Jake’s thumb. The three weeks of immobility made Jake’s shoulder, elbow and wrist stiff and sore, but his grip was good and he remained optimistic. “It’s very obvious to me now that this is going to be a much longer process than I’d previously planned on,” he said. “I was hoping to jump right back in and be ready to go, but now I have to be a little more realistic. There isn’t any big hurry now, because the winter rodeos are out of the question. The best feeling of all has been all the concern from everyone. What a blessing. This is a whole new chapter in my life, and I’m excited to see what the future holds. I believe everything’s going to be great.”