I remember seeing Mark Arnold around at the ropings and rodeos when I was a kid, but really didn't know him more than a smile and a hello. From a distance, he seemed kind of quiet to me, but then I wasn't one of his close, personal friends.
I spent the better part of a week with Jake (Barnes) and Clay (O'Brien Cooper) at Clay's house in Glen Rose, Texas, the first week of October. We got up in the dark before the chickens a couple mornings to go to slack at Waco, and worked inside while our photo shoot got rained out outside each afternoon. The optimists in us saw the grass grow before our very eyes.
Rickey Green came by one day to rope, and I'm sorry to say I missed him. When he was down at the arena, I was up in the house downloading files I needed to edit. Then he left because of the rain. Had I known he was going to head out so soon, I'd have shut this thing down and gladly run through the rain to see him. Rickey's another one I never really got to know all that well, but I have had a few chances to sit down and visit with him over the years and the guy is gold.
Anyway, it's interesting how life goes. Just a few days later, Jake called to tell me Mark had died, suddenly and unexpectedly at home in Cave Creek, Ariz., on October 9-at 47. I knew I needed to respectfully remember Mark, who was a respected and renowned member of the roping community. Mark qualified for nine Wrangler National Finals Rodeos from 1979-89, won the 1984 BFI with Rickey and the 1991 George Strait with Allen Bach. But how do you memorialize a guy who was only a casual personal acquaintance? Easy-you talk to his friends.
"We called him Pickles," Jake said of Mark, who was the vice president of his family's Klein Pickle Company. "I moved to Arizona in 1981 and Mark was a native, so I was around him a lot. At one time, Mark Arnold was one of the premier ropers. And he acquired one of the best head horses of all time from Ramon Figueroa. They were close friends, and when Ramon decided to become a full-time jockey, Mark bought that horse. Rebel was his name, and when Mark bought that horse it elevated him to the next level. He was one of the all-time great horses. He was an awesome average and rodeo horse. He was phenomenal."
And Mark appreciated that fact. "Mark babied that horse like he was his kid," Jake continued. "He really thought a lot of him. And if you ever needed to win something and had the opportunity to ride him, he was the one to get on. I rode Rebel every chance I got. Mark was a good guy. He loved roping. Roping was his life."
As was his family. Mark is survived by his wife, Shetlan; two daughters from his first marriage to Susan, Cailee and Mollie; a son, Matt; his dad, Byron, who lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.; his mom, Earline of Monterey, Calif.; a sister, Susan DeMuro of Portland, Ore.; and three step-brothers, Brian, Jeff and Joe Knapp. A memorial service was held October 15 in Scottsdale. Mark's family would appreciate memorial donations be made in his name to the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, in care of the PRCA at 101 Pro Rodeo Drive, Colorado Springs, CO 80919.
Next, I called Clay. Jake had mentioned that he thought Clay won Salinas (the California Rodeo) with Mark one year, and sure enough, he did.
"Mark and I won Salinas in 1983," Clay recalls. "I only roped with him for a week right there, but it was a heck of a week. I roped with Bret (Beach) at the start of that year, then I started roping with Jake and then Tee (Woolman). In the process of switching around, I didn't have a partner for a couple weeks, so I entered Salinas with Mark and we won it."
Just in case you're curious, Clay won Salinas three times, once each with Bret, Mark and Jake. But Clay's not too much into talking about himself, especially when he's just lost an old friend.
"I first got to know Mark when I moved to Arizona when I was 16," Clay said. "There were half a dozen guys in Arizona at that time who could really, really rope, and Mark was one of them in that age bracket that was amateur rodeoing and jackpotting. He was in that elite group of guys. He was really a solid header."
It was neat getting to know more about Mark. And I quickly learned that no one can get through a conversation about Mark Arnold's roping career without mentioning the legendary Rebel.
"As the years progressed and we all joined up in the PRCA and got to rodeoing, Mark bought Rebel," Clay continued. "Mark was really hitting his stride right about then. He'd been in for a few years and knew the rodeo game. Then he got that horse, and had some really good years right through there, where he was about as good as you could get.
"Mark was really a smart roper. He wasn't really a reacher, but he scored good and roped when he got there. That horse was so outstanding and he knew it. He played to his strengths, and had some really good years there in the mid-80s."
Roping aside, they all have soft spots in their hearts for this guy.
"Mark was a good kid," Clay said with a smile. "He was really good-hearted and lots of fun. He's always been funny-a cutup and a crackup. He was always making you laugh. Rickey and Jake and I were just talking about how many stories there were of Mark making people laugh. He was the life-of-the-party kind of a guy."
Rickey grew up in California. But he lives down near Clay now, in Morgan Mill, Texas. Rickey roped at 11 NFRs, and was the crossfiring wildman of his day. He rode a black horse by the name of Cowboy much of his career, and those two would go off on a steer like no one else.
Rickey and Mark held a winter roping camp for several years at Mark's place in Cave Creek. Mark mentored many an aspiring roper, and freely shared all he knew with whoever asked over the years. He and Rickey roped together at two NFRs, and shared the 1984 BFI winners circle after roping six steers in 57.99 seconds over an 18-foot score in the Reno Rodeo's outdoor arena.
"Mark scored good, and he rode a horse good," Rickey remembers. "He knew how to ride a horse that could run, and he knew what it felt like to ride a horse that could run. He could go try one and tell if he could run or not. And he rode quiet enough that he could get the run out of one.
"Mark also had really good focus. He could handle pressure good at the big-deal events. He was kind of a Charles Pogue type at the big-money events. He would go catch every steer and be aggressive with it."
Mark was a true talent, as was his bay ace in the hole.
"Rebel was the best," Rickey stated straight up. "He was the Scooter of his day. When you had that horse on your team, you just won everywhere you went. And Mark was the most talented athlete. He had unbelievable reflexes and focus when he competed. He could play pool or anything that had to do with accuracy and quickness-he was just amazing."
Mark wasn't big on being behind the wheel, as in "he didn't drive a lick," in Rickey's words.
"But he was such a likable guy," he said. "Everybody who met him liked him, and he was fun to be around. He was always in a good mood. He was a good friend of mine."
Rickey started roping with Mark in 1984, and their first event together was the BFI, which they won. They went on to win that year's "Playoffs to the NFR," the Grand National Rodeo at San Francisco's Cow Palace, before advancing to the Finals.
"We went to the Finals that year, placed in the first four or five day moneys and were leading it halfway through the rodeo," Rickey remembers. "Then Rebel fell down on the fifth or sixth steer and put us out of the average."
Sometimes, that's rodeo. They held their heads high and went on.
"I roped with Mark two or three years, then off and on after that," Rickey rolled on. "He was probably the best in his day at an average like the BFI or Salinas. When it came to scoring good and just going and catching, Mark was the man. He was one of the best of his time all the way around. And during the last few years of his career, he got to where he could really reach, too."
"Mark was a real kind guy, and a real generous guy. The only person he was hard on was himself. He was a perfectionist, and he was always trying to get better. He was one of the best at what he did, but he never realized it. He trained very hard. Mark was a guy you could call and ask for anything he had, and he'd give it to you. It didn't matter what it was. He was a good friend."
This is where my story ended originally. But when the phone rang right as I reached to hit the "send" button and the first words out of George Aros' mouth were, "Mark was my best friend," I knew there was another chapter to add.
George, who alongside the likes of Ramon Figueroa and Doyle Gellerman was a pallbearer at Mark's memorial service, told me of how Mark's Uncle Joe got him started roping in an otherwise non-rodeo-type family. Mark was a state champion team roper in high school, and a West Coast Region team roping titlist heading for Joe Parsons in college. When he got his amateur card, he won that, too. Mark and George got their PRCA cards together in 1979, and Mark made his first NFR that same year. George roped at his first of four Finals the following year.
"He made it the first time, and I didn't," grinned George, who lives in Picacho, Ariz. "Mark and I were really tight all the way through. He was extra serious, to the point of ridiculousness. We used to make fun of him because he was so focused."
Mark roped at that first Finals with Dennis Motes. His other NFR partners included Rickey, Rick Marron, Jerold Camarillo, J.D. Yates and Shawn Howell.
"Mark was a guy who could win first place," George said. "He didn't just go. He won first. Besides winning the BFI and George Strait, he also won the Riverside Rancheros roping with Tommye Flenniken. He won my Tubac Pro Roping with Bobby Harris when it was winner-take-all. Mark won every major roping and rodeo you can come up with that mattered when he was roping. And he was a professional, from his rig being immaculate to dressing sharp.
"Mark was a competitor. He didn't like to lose, but he was a good sport and he was humble when he won. He was not a cocky person. He was extra focused and humble when he won. What a lot of people didn't know was that Mark Arnold knew every best place to eat from coast to coast, and he would drive out of his way to find them. Once he found a really good place, he remembered how to get there and what to order. On the way home from the George Strait when he won it, we stopped at least at 15 places along the way and ordered the best food. That's just one more thing I'll miss. He also left behind three lovely children, and I'm going to do everything in my power to pick up where he left off with them."
Like Clay, George remembers Mark's funny bone.
"Mark was a comical guy," he said. "And he was a generous guy. He'd give you anything he had. He'd loan you his horse or his rig. He was also a practical joker. He'd have a trailer full of hay, but he'd take your hay and laugh. He'd throw a snake on your bed or in the shower with you. You didn't really want to get on his bad side or it was war. Paybacks were terrible."
Naturally, George mentioned Mark's main mount during the course of our conversation.
"Most of his accomplishments were on that horse," he said. "Mark always knew the importance of riding the best horse, and he pretty much did just that. Before he got Rebel, he had another really good one. When he lost Rebel, he bought Bret Boatright's good black mare."
George holds a weekly roping, and the first time Mark's 17-year-old son Matt showed up, he left with the saddle.
"I'm telling you, look out," George said. "We're going to hear lots of stuff from this kid. He's a natural, and he has that same gleam in his eye that Mark had."