Broc Cresta, 1987-2012
“Cowboy” was rarely defined more fully than by the late Broc Cresta.

When professional rodeo lost one of its brightest rising stars this year at the age of 25, it brought to light what we truly value about cowboys in the first place. And “cowboy” was rarely defined more fully than by the late Broc Cresta.

Groomed to be a world-class roper from the time he could walk, Cresta grew up on a fourth-generation ranch outside Santa Rosa, Calif., with rodeo royalty for relatives. I first met him on a sunny rooftop in historic Deadwood, S.D., just after the 20-year-old rookie had joined the pro circuit.

Cresta’s movie-star good looks and cool, charismatic grin could have landed him in a Western romance novel. He didn’t use a lot of words, but usually nailed it – with a low drawl – when he did speak.

A combination of teenage angst and the need to devour team roping had driven him from home at 17 to live his dream. On that July day five years ago, Cresta’s partner had given up mid-season and gone home. But Cresta did things his own way. He was determined to stay on the road; I was pretty sure he wouldn’t.

It takes a certain inner strength to survive the pressure of even one season in rodeo. Cowboys are only paid if they win. That means that the rodeo veterans fighting for one of just 15 slots at the annual $6 million National Finals Rodeo generally eat rookies for lunch. But Cresta stayed cool. He was named the 2007 Rookie of the Year. The following summer with another new partner, Logan Olson, he claimed one of the most prestigious prizes in rodeo – victory at old Cheyenne.

When a pro cowboy misses the NFR cut by $800, like Cresta did in 2008, he often doesn’t have the stomach to jump back into the fray. But Cresta never questioned his passion – or his childhood promise to Spencer Mitchell. Since they were in diapers, the two had twirled ropes together all over the ranch. As kids they’d chased thousands of steers together and told each other that they’d one day rope together at the NFR.

Cresta made the big-time first, in 2010, then returned last year with Mitchell, as promised. In Las Vegas, Cresta’s younger, more inexperienced best friend struggled, but the lifelong team roped their last steer in 3.6 seconds to strap on matching trophy buckles, just as they’d dreamed as children.

“Broc called me after the 10th round and said, ‘We pulled it off,’” said Doug Clark, the mentor who’d taken Cresta in and shown him the ropes. “Nobody would have been ready to win the round after the week he had, but Broc was. He was so mature and so cool. He’d overcome a lot at his age and he knew how to move forward.”

If it took courage to get the gold, it took even more to get the girl. The cowboy who never talked to girls found the guts to approach rodeo’s biggest female superstar. Beautiful and headstrong, Brittany Pozzi was a few years older than Cresta and a former Rookie of the Year herself. Cresta was drawn to her because she’d won two world championships and built a business empire out of her talent. Soon they were inseparable. She coached him on business; he coached her on compassion.

“I’ve always been a hard person,” Pozzi explained. “Not hard to get to know, but just…hard. He softened me; opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t even realize were going on. He just made me a better person. We made each other better people.”

His was a compassion that his three best friends – Mitchell, Justin Davis and Russell Cardoza – knew well. Surrounded by surfers and software gurus, the holdout cowboys on the West Coast shared a bond tighter than brothers as they chased their cowboy dreams.

“Most people never met a group of guys who could just look at each other and say, ‘I’m short a couple thousand,’” said Broc’s brother, Brent Cresta. “They just had this trust and respect for each other. It was about doing what needed to be done to get each other through.”

A lot of people, including me, underestimated Cresta because he was quiet and unassuming. I hadn’t known about his courage, his loyalty, or his willingness to stay hooked. I hadn’t known what a throwback he was; what an old soul.

“Once you got to know him, Broc was such a straight shooter,” said Olson. “If you wanted his opinion, he’d give it to you – good, bad or indifferent.”

In July, Mitchell and Cresta roped their first steer at the rodeo that launched Cresta’s rise to fame – the Daddy of ’em All. But the next morning, on the day Pozzi was scheduled to compete, she discovered her love dead, in his trailer, having inexplicably slipped away in his sleep. The million-dollar barrel racer, in the midst of a record-breaking season, didn’t compete that day or any day thereafter. She couldn’t imagine rodeo without Cresta.

A few days later, more than 1,000 people came together as Cresta’s considerable friends and family buried him with his favorite rope. The loss of competitive talent before it reached its potential is staggering. But Cresta’s cowboy character will forever inspire.

Brent, who is still getting letters from strangers recounting Broc’s impact on them, has borrowed a horse to start roping again. Because Cresta didn’t wait for tomorrow, or pull in and play it safe.

“There aren’t many guys you can count on every day, without fail,” said Mitchell. “He was not a guy who was going to quit anyone – or anything – in the middle. He had a lot inside that you don’t find in very many people anymore.”

Update 9/18:

Laramie (Wyo.) County Coroner Martin Luna has released the autopsy results on the July 28 death of Wrangler National Finals Rodeo heeler Broc Cresta, 25, at the 2012 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.

“My brother’s death was a tragic accident,” said Broc’s big brother, Brent, 28. “Broc took his own prescription pain medication, and combined with alcohol and a climate he wasn’t used to, it caused the perfect storm. He went to sleep and never woke up.”

“The world of professional rodeo lost a talented young cowboy and a fine young man the day Broc Cresta died,” said Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Commissioner Karl Stressman. “He left an impressive mark in his quarter century on this earth, and he will not be forgotten.”

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