An era has ended. Another is just starting to blossom. It's time to stop to applaud, appreciate and celebrate the full body of Joe Beaver's work throughout his legendary tie-down roping career. And Brody Beaver's first national championship-in the boys cutting at the 2009 National High School Finals Rodeo in Farmington, N.M. this summer-rings in the next round in this cowboy-style Circle of Life story.
I'd just left the Reno Rodeo and was in Gallup, N.M., for my son Taylor's Wrangler Junior High Finals Rodeo the end of June when I got a text during a night perf from my old buddy Joe B. Joe and I have been friends forever. I love the guy. It's been my pleasure and privilege to share so many precious and private conversations with him over the years, from the glory days when he was stacking up eight gold buckles and being inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame to the devastating loss of his dear dad Walter a few years back. So it kind of startled me that night in Gallup when his text simply said, "Call me asap."
Ironically, when I got Joe's text Taylor was about to run his first calf at the Junior High Finals on Butter, the great old horse Joe found for him a year earlier. I let Joe know Taylor and Butter were about to do battle, and that it was too loud to hear him there at the rodeo anyway. He texted back, "Tell him to rope to win." I was up in the stands, so I whispered it into the wind and told Taylor telepathically.
Joe and I texted back and forth that Fourth of July week, with the plan of getting together in person to have the big talk about whatever was burning a hole in him the night of the Fourth, when he'd be driving by Gallup en route to another rodeo around midnight. He asked if that'd be too late for me, and I laughed and told him it'd be fine, as long as he didn't mind me greeting him at the motorhome door in my pajamas.
The Cowboy Christmas Fourth of July fireworks flew into the night there at Red Rock State Park in Gallup, and my family was pretty pumped because Taylor came out of that night's short round the national all-around champ. The boys and I were determined to wait up for Joe B. But by the time he got to Gallup, he had to keep burning rubber for the next one or he wasn't going to get there in time. Joe and I called it a night with our last text exchange at exactly 3 a.m. straight up.
Two weeks later, I was grabbed from behind with a big old bear hug at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Farmington, N.M. Joe was there to see his senior son Brody in the boys cutting. I was there to watch my high school rodeo rookie son Lane rope calves on another horse match made by Joe B. by the name of Peaches.
Along with the hug, Joe B. handed me a silver tape recorder. It was the greatest gift. He'd made it for me from behind the wheel on the rodeo road trips taken between Gallup and Farmington. On it were hours and hours of priceless reflections and memories of a life spent taking his premier event up several notches from when he grabbed the baton from Roy Cooper, after Roy took the torch from guys like Dean Oliver and Phil Lyne. The boys and I listened to that thing for days. I laughed. I cried. I remembered things I'd long since forgotten, and found out a lot I'd never before known. After I'd heard it all, we talked again. I had more questions. I always do. The first was about the day he really knew-for sure-that he'd run his last calf.
It was June 26, during the first round at the Ponoka Stampede up in Canada. "I blew out the barrier, caught him quick and got to him good," Joe said. "I got him flanked with one knee on the ground, but I couldn't sit down to tie him. My (right) hip would not let me do it."
His heart-the one that never was satisfied with less than his personal Joe B. best-said yes. But his body-the one that at 9 was running 50 goats a day from the back of a Shetland pony, roping and tying calves at 175 rodeos the year he got his driver's license, stepped it up to 220 rodeos a year by 17 and wore tires and trucks out rapidfire at 18 getting to 237 rodeos in a single season-said enough already. Remember, that relentless rodeo itinerary was in addition to his merciless match roping schedule.
"And people wonder why my body's shot at such a young age," chuckles Joe, who hangs his hat in Huntsville, Texas. "Besides the rodeos, there were all those matches. I didn't always know they were coming before they happened, but when I did, I'd run 300-400 practice calves that week getting ready for them. I'd match whoever was living with me in four 10-head matches a night to get tuned up."
And the harder the boy wonder worked, the harder the headwind in his young face. They kicked the kid out of the B-league jackpots and made him face off against the best in the world in the A-league ropings when he was 14. Fences flew up in front of his face, but they could not keep the baby-faced Beaver boy out of the winner's circle. He'd drive all night every Sunday, and turn his pockets inside out onto Walter and Bonnie Beaver's breakfast table before school on Monday morning.
To put a period on Ponoka-and his tie-down roping career-Joe Seven (that's what Rich Skelton calls him, because the first time he saw Joe B. rope he was 7 when everybody else who won anything was 9) called in the untie crew without even attempting to tie the calf. In basically his third year of finding out for sure whether or not his body could keep up with his brain and his love of the game, he had clarity right then and there that it was game over.
"I was done right then," said the guy who knows about playing with all kinds of pain, from his knees to his groin, back and hip. He handed that horse's reins back to his owner, Chad Johnson, and said, "Thanks for the ride." When Joe let Chad know he wouldn't be needing his horse to run his second calf that afternoon, Chad assured Joe it was OK for him to ride the horse again. "You don't understand," Joe said. "I'm done. I'm through." He turned out his second calf, and rode away.
"I don't think people realize the wear and tear your body goes through when you rope as much as I have all my life," he said. "I've had wrecks in the arena and bad wrecks that should have killed me out on that road. I've roped with casts on my arms, and braces on my knees. I cracked my pelvis three days before the Finals one year when a horse tried to buck me off, and roped 10 calves in Vegas that year with a fiberglass device that tried to hold me together. I broke my ankle the second week of October one year at Liberty, Texas, when I needed to win $7,000 more to make the Finals (to finish that story for him, he won $22,000 on the broken ankle before Vegas).
"The champions are going to get hurt, because they try harder. Jake Barnes cut his thumb off at the National Finals. You know why? He was trying to hold a neck shot to place in the day money. Most people would have turned their rope loose, but we're different. We fight harder. Cody Ohl tore his knee off in the arena at the National Finals. Most people miss with their second loop, because they don't have the guts to jump off in the turn when their life's at stake. I've had five knee surgeries, and it's hard to have your knee operated on and hit the ground holding your slack that first time. You have a choice: You can learn to live with pain and come back after the surgeries, or you can just be a regular guy. My dad would tell me, 'Hey, suck it up. You have to get off sometime. Come on.' It was so hard. And I didn't want to do it. But when I hit the ground, I hit the ground running."
There's no telling where the likes of Trevor Brazile and young guns like Roy's boys, Clint, Clif and Tuf, will take the event from here. But they're all clear that the event was brought to where it is today on the backs of guys like Dean, Phil, Roy, Joe, Fred (Whitfield) and Cody, and the rest of the rodeo world should stand back and give thanks to these guys for revolutionizing roping too. We can't possibly let any such era end unceremoniously. All hats are off to you, Joe B. You deserve it. Thanks for a million memorable runs, and always taking time for your family, friends and fans-and even making time when you really didn't have any to spare.
"It's hard to convince yourself that it's really over," he said. "But there's a time to quit-a reason for the season. And I finally got there. I won a little bit this year, but I don't want to win a little bit. I want to win a lot. There were times I'd be getting my butt waxed and beat bad in a match roping, and my dad would say, 'You aren't roping for money now; you're roping for pride. And pride's a whole lot more expensive than money, so finish strong.' That means something to me. And my pride's worth a lot more than money right now. I'm going to let 'em have it while I still have my pride."
Though this officially turns the page on his headliner chapter, Joe B. will continue to build and improve the event through the kids he mentors, the horse upgrades he brokers and the advice he's often asked for by the big dogs. He'll also continue to team rope. The four-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header has been spinning for Florida's Arky Rogers, and will keep heading in the foreseeable future. "As long as I have a good head horse, a good partner and think I can win, I'm going to go," said the three-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy (1995-96 and 2000), who's closing in on $3 million in career earnings and is second only to Trevor on the all-time earnings list. We're all so glad Joe will still have a rope in his hand. But each December, when we head to the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas-which Bob Tallman years ago nicknamed "The House That Joe Built"-we'll be longing for the days he dominated the tie-down roping event with encore after standing-ovation encore.
"I've been a winner all my life," Joe said. "I came in a winner and I wanted to go out a winner. I should have been 7 on that last calf at Ponoka, if my body had let me do it. But I've run 5 million calves, and time has taken its toll. I didn't break the barrier or miss, which is what cowards do when they're trying to rope hurt.
"You can't stop a winner's heart from trying, and that's why I had to walk away. My heart still wanted it, but my body gave out and had to give up. My heart is as strong as it ever was. And my ability from the waist up is as good as ever. But my bottom half can't keep up. That's a sick feeling. But you've got to walk away with your pride and dignity."
He's not the first great one this sport has ever known, and he won't be the last. But good luck replacing Joe Beaver. The 1985 Overall and Tie-Down Roping Rookie of the Year won his first of five gold buckles in his premier event that same year-the first year the NFR moved to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The ProRodeo Hall of Famer, who'll be 44 on October 13, has roped calves at 18 NFRs, shares the record for most NFR tie-down roping average titles with Roy, Fred and Olin Young at four, and has won tie-down roping titles at rodeos all over the map.
Joe was not the most naturally gifted athlete of them all, but no one could outwork him or ever tried any harder. "When I started roping tie-down, I was the underdog," he smiles. "I was young, I was heavy and I wasn't very fast. But I would not say die."
Joe Fabulous roped calves and team roped at his last NFR in 2006. He dedicated the feat to his father, friend, coach and mentor, Walter, who died earlier that fall, and won $127,915 those 10 days along with the prestigious NFR all-around crown. He placed in seven of 10 tie-down roping rounds and five of the team roping rounds heading for Cole Bigbee. He had his right hip-the one that finally shut down the Joe B. show-operated on immediately thereafter.
To fast forward back to Farmington this summer, Joe was there to cheer for his boy Brody, an 18-year-old high school senior who's suddenly all grown up. Joe B. was there to support the kid who's been his best friend from birth.
Then duty called, and Daddy Joe headed for "The Daddy" in Cheyenne (Wyo.) to team rope. I had a call on my cell phone from Joe B. right after the Farmington short round. But when I picked it up, there was another voice on the line. It belonged to the guy who followed Joe in the order of all-time great tie-down ropers; you know, the one who took the torch from Joe before handing it off to Cody Ohl. It was Fred Whitfield, and he and Joe were having a big time at the Capital Café in Cheyenne. They were toasting Brody on his big win and first national title from a couple states away in, appropriately, the Cowboy State.
Brody's been the sparkle in Joe's eye and the skip in his every step since the day he was born. Brody is incredibly close to both Joe and Jenna, and getting behind Brody in his cutting vision quest has been a great diversion for Joe as he says goodbye to his own first love. "His support of my dreams has been incredible," said Brody, a freshman at Weatherford (Texas) College. "It's been totally unwavering every step of the way. I learned from him that you can't do anything halfway and be great at it."
Brody's passion for his sport spurs him to pursue his own lofty goals. But the more he loves his own calling, the better he savvys the significance of what the tie-down roping event has meant to his dad. "It's more painful than you can imagine to see somebody like my dad, who totally revolutionized tie-down roping and was so incredibly successful, have his body stop him from doing what he loved and was so great at," Brody said. "It's pretty rough. Now that I have something I love that much, and have the drive and desire to be great at it, I understand better what he's going through."
Brody's roped. He's also played polo and polocross (think horseback lacrosse), and has even ridden jumping horses. But it's no coincidence that a rope bag isn't Brody's bag. "Those were bigger boots than I wanted to fill," he said. "That did not make sense to me. In fact, that was not even up for consideration."
Neither was force-feeding his only child. "People always told me I should make Brody rope," Joe said. "I didn't like the word 'make.' The fact that he loves cutting is so cool to me. I'll always back him. I'm all-in no matter what he wants to do."
Ironically, it was a rodeo that led Brody to the cutting pen. "About three years ago my dad was roping up at the Calgary Stampede, and they have a huge cutting up there," Brody said. "I watched our friends Don and Kathy Boone show, and that was it. I had to try it. It hooked me instantly. I'd never seen or done anything like it. There's no other feeling like when a good horse hooks up with a good cow. There's nothing more beautiful to me. I'm pretty well in love with it."
Regardless of which arena he applied it to, Brody grew up on the philosophies of a great champion. Sure, Joe had words of wisdom to share with his son along the way, but most of his theories were taught by example. This is a kid who never heard his dad make an excuse or take the easiest, laziest fork in the road when he had a choice to make.
"A winner is the guy who has that different look in his eye," Joe says. "He's the guy who figures out how to win, no matter what, and always wants to run another pen when everybody else has put their horses up. He may not have the best horse or the fanciest rig or the most practice cattle, but a winner figures out a way to beat you."
There is nothing average about Joe and Brody's bond.
"When he was little, Brody and I spent every day together," Joe B. beams. "We've been through it all together, and we're a lot alike. We've been so many miles and have been so tight together that we can deal with just about anything. I've been proud of Brody since day one. He's an amazing kid, and is good at so many things. He speaks fluent French. When he was 15 I needed a nap, so I asked him to take the wheel for a little while. Eight hours later, he woke me up when we were pulling into Cheyenne."
By all accounts, they're a lot alike, which includes strong opinions and an open-book policy on emotions. "It's hot and cold with us," Brody laughs. "We're either a raging inferno or a block of ice. We are so tight and so emotional about each other that we're really aggressive in both directions. We're either doing everything together and having a blast, or we're really bad. Because we're so close, the highs are really high and the lows are really low. We're all-in all the time, and we both push the envelope in all directions. You never know. I might just end up in law school. I'm kind of stubborn and pig-headed."
Brody's successful young cutting career has also had its trying moments. He won the NHSRA championship on a 14-year-old bay gelding, Lorrens I Lee. He calls him "Ali." He also shows a little 8-year-old sorrel mare, Lean On Stylish. He likens "Amy" to a "My Little Pony doll."
Brody's next goal is to qualify for the 2009 National Cutting Horse Association World Finals in December in Fort Worth. "Amy was out earlier this year, and Ali was a little tired earlier this year," he said. "I got to fighting my head so bad that I had all but quit showing. I was totally upside down. Competing is from the neck down, but winning is from the neck up and that's especially true in cutting. It's a major-league mental game, and sometimes things happen that you can't control. It's hard to explain how much thinking goes into it. You sometimes have to take chances in order to win, and on the flipside of that if you go too far you're done. The line is very fine. You have to know when to step on the gas and when not to."
Brody's a smart kid. He understands the odds are steep when it comes to landing on the all-time greats list in any sport, no matter what natural talent you were born with and how hard you're willing to try.
"It has to be in the cards," he said. "I love cutting the way my dad loves to rope. It's pretty intense. Now if I can just win the world eight times and be the highest money earner of all time, we'll be done." He also inherited his dad's sense of humor, thank goodness.
Las Vegas will celebrate the quarter-century
mark as home to Rodeo's Super Bowl in December.
Joe Beaver should be the grand marshal (with Jenna and Brody riding shotgun, of course). No one has meant more to "The House That Joe Built" than Joe Fabulous himself.
"There's an exit sign in every building you walk into," he said. "Sooner or later, you've got to leave. Even Elvis had to leave the building. Like Rich says, 'Joe Seven has left the building.'"