Roping Above My Weight

photo by Matt Cohen   

photo by Matt Cohen


Dad bet on me, even when the odds were long.

by Mike Johnson

My Dad, Roy Lee Johnson, passed away on September 28, 2016. After the funeral, my wife and brother and I were going through stuff at his house in Oklahoma, looking through photo albums and newspaper clippings, things I hadn’t seen for years. That’s when I found the flier.

“Mike Johnson, junior rodeo qualifier vs. Danny Torricellas, NFR qualifier.” Seeing it made me giggle. I was only fourteen years old, and Danny was a twenty-eight-year-old man, a top roper headed to the National Finals Rodeo.

It all started at a jackpot roping in Kellyville, Oklahoma, back in November of 1978. The guy who put on the weekly jackpot, Tom Denham, approached me and asked if I would put up money in a match roping with Danny. Mr. Denham knew I roped pretty good and had match-roped a lot for my age. I think he felt like it would be a good tune-up for Danny before the NFR.

I remember being a little nervous. I asked Dad if it would be okay.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We’ll do it.”

Me and Dad pooled everything we had—two-hundred-and-fifty bucks. In 1978, that was a lot of money! Part of it was mine from my winnings. I didn’t want to lose it, but I didn’t want to say no.

Dad’s mentality was to match me with older guys. I didn’t know any different. From a young age, I was competing at a higher level.

Dad loved horses and roped locally at amateur rodeos. He knew I was born to be a roper and he always supported my passion. There’s an old home movie of me from when I was three years old. I had a pigging string in my mouth and put the tip of it down my diaper instead of my belt.

Anything that moved was in danger of me roping it from the time I was two or three years old. My mother would come home, and I would have the dog tied up.

I remember being five years old and really wanting to rope off a horse.

“When you turn six, you can rope off a horse,” my Dad told me.

He was true to his word. At age six, I knew I was going to be a calf roper for life.

Back in Kellyville, the day of the match roping rolled around. It was an eight-header. Me and Danny each picked four calves. We would rope those and then switch. The winner on eight head would win the match—and the money. There was a big crowd. Extra people came to the weekly jackpot just to see the match roping between the boy and the NFR qualifier.

It was a friendly match, but any time you put up money, it’s serious also. It’s hard to critique yourself, but I could rope and flank and tie as good as lot of adults. I had a good horse, a bay called Kansas City that was one of my favorites.

Was Danny thinking this was easy money? I can’t see him thinking otherwise.

Both of us caught all our calves. Neither one of us broke the barrier. Danny beat me, but honestly, in my heart, I believe the only reason he beat me was because of my size. At fourteen, I was pretty weak. I had to flank at the calves twice to get them down.

Me and Dad lost our money, but it was worth it. Times like that gave me the confidence to compete professionally. Dad was willing to bet on me, even against long odds. That meant the world to me.