Cutting my thumb off at the (Wrangler) National Finals (Rodeo) last December gave me a whole new perspective on roping and life. There's no telling how many people lose thumbs and fingers in this sport every year. I honestly didn't know just how common an injury this is, but it's changed my attitude and my whole life. In the past when I went to an event, people would always come up and talk to me about their roping or their kids' roping, and that's always been pretty cool. Now it's a whole new conversation, whether it's strangers, friends or my peers. You can't believe how many people come up to me and show me their hand injuries from roping, and tell me about what happened to them. Before, I felt bad for those people. But now I have so much sympathy for every single person, because I know all about the pain and suffering they've gone through. And the physical part is just the start. You go through a lot of head games when this happens to you. I'm going to have to make some adjustments, but the more people come forward with their stories, the more I realize that I don't have it half as bad as some of these people I'm meeting.
This whole deal has been a gut check for all team ropers of all ages and skill levels. If it can happen to me, it really can happen to anyone. I've had a lot of confidence throughout all this, but the mental part has definitely been the hardest part. Not knowing what the future holds is hard. I was mentally geared up to start roping right after it happened, but I couldn't physically do it. First my thumb was sewn into my side, then I had leeches draining blood out of my thumb. I couldn't raise my shoulder that whole time. All along, the doctors have been saying it would be six months to a year before I could rope. That was hard to hear. When I was standing there in the hallway at the Thomas and Mack Center that night, not knowing if I'd ever be there again, I just wanted to go in a room somewhere and cry. This has been one tough deal. But I love to rope way too much to let it stop me. And this whole deal has really opened my eyes to people who have it a lot worse than I do. I'm much more aware of other people's ailments and handicaps now. I do not take my health for granted like I used to, and I realize that things could be so much worse.
With the doctor grafting soft tissue and skin from my side onto the end of what's left of my thumb, I didn't lose much length. It's disfigured, and larger around on the end than normal. I may have to have another surgery at some point to cut that down if the swelling doesn't go away on its own. But I'm really thankful that I have so much length left. My thumb's going to function differently without a joint. It's going to be stiff, because I can't bend it anymore. Little things, like zipping and buttoning my jeans, are tough. But I've already learned little tricks. I was at San Angelo the other day, and a guy gave me a tip on buttoning my left sleeve, which is about impossible and very frustrating if I try to do it normally. The trick is to button my sleeve with my left hand before I put the shirt on, then slide my right hand down the sleeve after it's already buttoned. People are speeding up the learning curve on this stuff for me, just like I try to speed up their learning curve in the roping arena every month.
Jake's been roping with Brock Hanson of Montrose, Colo., who's been living at NFR header Rube Woolsey's place while attending Central Arizona College in Casa Grande. Jake's first roping after the injury was the USTRC event in Globe, Ariz., where he placed twice. His first rodeo back was the ProRodeo in Yuma, Ariz., on February 10. He and Hanson placed second on their first steer with a 6.8-second run, and Hanson lost a leg on their second run to win the average. Still, they finished fourth.
"It was pretty emotional for me," Jake said. "They roped fresh steers that'd only been roped twice, and one of my limitations with my shoulder is that I have to get pretty close. My shoulder will not let me reach right now. Luckily, we drew two good steers and I didn't have to reach.
"I've had a little mental block since I started roping again. I think to myself, 'Man, should I be doing this, and can I do it?' I've been going against doctor's orders (his surgeon tells Jake he might be able to start roping by about July…if he only knew), and I know I'm taking a chance on re injury or infection. But I just have a heart and a love for the sport that I want to get back as quick as I can. I've taken some risks and chances I probably shouldn't have taken, but that's just me. I'm just that determined. I'd advise others to listen to their doctor. In other words, do as I say, not as I do."
I haven't really changed the way I hold my rope since this happened, but I can't feel my rope as much now because so much of my thumb is numb. It does feel different, in that I can't really feel it when I'm feeding my rope. My rope hasn't gotten away from me, and everything's probably pretty much the same. But I can't feel my rope like I used to on the tip of my thumb. It feels kind of like your face feels on Novacaine after you've been to the dentist. You know it's there, but you can't really feel it or control it as well.