Cowboy at Heart
From NFL tight end to bulldogger at the ripe old age of thirty.
It was the spring of 2005, and I was sitting down for my end-of-year football evaluation. I was a freshman on a full-ride scholarship at Fresno State. We were in a conference room. Beside me, at the head of a long table, was head coach Pat Hill, an intimidating former offensive lineman with a bushy goatee. Also at the table were the assistant head coach, my college advisor and the entire offensive staff.
I had a cast on my hand, a broken bone from where a young filly smashed it in the trailer during a recent trip home to the Central Valley.
“You need to put all this cowboy stuff behind you if you want to go on and play,” Coach Hill said. It was a perfectly reasonable request. He and the other coaches were investing a lot in me, and I was grateful for all of it.
“Coach, you have my full attention at all times,” I said. “But if I have a chance to go home and help out on the ranch, I’m going to do it.”
“Look at Logan Mankins,” Coach Hill said, referring to the Fresno State senior who had just been drafted that spring by the New England Patriots—in the first round. “Logan grew up on a ranch, like you, but he forgot about the cowboy stuff and focused on football. Now, look where he’s headed.”
“Well, I’m not Logan Mankins,” I said.
Coach Hill just shook his head.
Man, that was tough. I had tremendous respect for Pat Hill, and I looked up to Logan Mankins. Drafted in the first round by the Patriots? He was living the dream. But I had to stay true to my roots. I couldn’t give up being a cowboy. That’s just who I was. It’s who my Dad was. All my life I wanted to be just like him. I was in fourth grade when I roped in my first jackpot. Dad was the header, and I was heeling for him.
Cowboying was too deep in my blood to put it on a shelf. Besides, the values I learned growing up on the ranch helped get me to Fresno State. I wasn’t the most athletic player on the team, and I certainly wasn’t the most talented. But I was darn sure one of the hardest working guys on the field.
Dad taught me to rope, and Dad set the example when it came to work ethic. When I was growing up, he was head cow boss on a ranch in California’s Central Valley. He was a top hand. I wanted to be a top hand. I was right there in his hip pocket. From a young age, all I wanted was to be a good cowboy.
I remember this one time when we were helping a neighbor cut wood. I was maybe seven years old. The neighbor gave me and the other kids some old grain bags and told us to pick up the bark. He could use it as kindling. I did a half-assed job. All I wanted to do was play.
Dad pulled me aside later. “We’re here to help a friend,” he told me. “Let’s do a good job the first time, so we don’t have to come back and do it again.”
That lesson stuck with me. It was how my Dad worked, whether he was building fence, gathering cows or training horses.
Or playing football.
Turns out he did that, too, before I was born. Dad played outside linebacker for Colorado State University. As a kid, I remember finding recruitment letters from the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys invited him to training camp, but he turned them down. He had a banged-up shoulder and was burned out and wanted to go rodeo. Dad was a steer wrestler, calf roper and team roper, but he only rodeoed professionally for a few years. He and my mom had twin babies—my older brother and sister—and Dad decided to settle down. That eventually led to his ranching job in the Central Valley.
Another time, when I was around twelve, Dad had me digging irrigation ditches with an older man named Elmer. It was mid-summer in the Central Valley and hotter than hell. I didn’t want to be there, but I figured the quicker I got the work done, the sooner I could get a cold drink and relax. So I was going at it.
I looked back and Elmer was sitting on the ground. He rolled his own cigarettes, and he was sitting there having a smoke. I thought, Dang it, Elmer, get up and let’s get this done! Soon, Elmer was up shoveling nice and easy. I was still getting after it, working and sweating. Next thing I knew, Elmer was back on the ground having another smoke. I shook my head and stabbed the dirt with my shovel.
When Dad came back a couple hours later, he looked at me and asked, “What parts did you do?”
“I dug from here all the way up to the creek,” I said. “Old Elmer’s probably still back there having a smoke.”
“Yeah, but his work looks a heck of a lot better than yours, son.”
Elmer would dig for five or ten feet, clean out his hole real nice and then take a break. He found a rhythm. I just wanted to finish and be done with digging, but my work was rough. I had to go back and smooth it all out. I created more work for myself by not doing it right the first time. Working hard’s not always just asses and elbows. It’s also working smart.
Super Bowl Ring
That lesson came in handy during my redshirt freshman year at Fresno State. I’m a big guy. At the time, probably six-foot-five and 260 pounds. One day during a special-teams drill, I went one-on-one against a wide receiver named Paul Williams. He was my height but thirty pounds lighter.
In this drill, Paul was on punt return, and I was on punt protection. I had to get down the field and stop the punt return. On the snap of the ball, I set back to protect the punter. I made contact with Paul, and then tried to shed him and get down the field. I couldn’t shed him. Paul was extremely strong. He got his hands on me, got inside my frame and locked me down. I tried to spin out of it but couldn’t. I tried to knock his hands off. I hammered them, but I couldn’t do it. I slipped, and Paul stuck me on the ground and held me there, while the coaches and players watched. It was embarrassing.
I made sure that only happened once. I would stay on the field after practice to work on using my hands and quickening my feet. I’d get out there before practice and work at it. I used leverage and special techniques to escape contact. I kept it up all season. It was ingrained in me: If you want to get better at something, you have to work hard, whether that’s playing football or team roping or cowboying. Sometimes you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes.
I played tight end at Fresno State and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. I ended up playing for the New York Giants for five years. The highlight of my career came in 2011, when the Giants played the Patriots in the Super Bowl. By the end of the game, I was the last tight end standing, so I saw lots of playing time. I caught four passes. Turns out that Logan Mankins was playing offensive line for the Patriots. I spoke to him before the game. He was just as excited as I was and definitely deserving of a Super Bowl ring. But in the end, the Giants won. I was the one who left with a ring.
Back in 2013, I married into a steer wrestling family. My wife, Katie, is the daughter of Johnny Jones, a three-time bulldogging world champion and mentor to many. Her grandfather, John W. Jones, Sr., who passed away later in 2013, was even more of a bulldogging legend. Both men were Rookie of the Year. Both won multiple gold buckles. Both are in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
When Katie and I started dating, I told Johnny I wanted to become a steer wrestler. My dream has always been to retire from the NFL and go back to rodeoing. He thought it was a great idea, but he made me promise that I wouldn’t chute-dog or bulldog a single steer until I was retired from football. He called it the Steer-Wrestling Ban.
I kept that promise—until he gave me the nod to start practicing.
It was in 2015. I wasn’t retired yet, but I was in that stage of my career where I was bouncing from team to team. I had just been released from Chicago partway through the season. I was back at home, working out every day and staying in shape, hoping to get a call from another team. One day, I told Johnny I wanted to start learning how to steer wrestle.
“I’d be okay with that. If you want to start chute-dogging and learning the groundwork, I’ll lift the Steer-Wrestling Ban,” he said. “But if a team calls, the Ban is back on!”
We had a good laugh over that. The very next day, some college kids were at the house practicing, and I jumping in and started getting after it.
Man, it hurt. I was in great physical shape, but I wasn’t in steer-wrestling shape. Johnny wouldn’t let me jump in gripping and ripping and throwing. He made me learn the way he did. First, I learned to slide a steer out and shape him. For two or three weeks, all I did was run next to them and slide. I worked on my head catch and being light on my feet. I’d try to slide them from one end of the arena to the other. My feet would get jammed up, and I’d fall and get dragged, trying to get back to my feet. I’d go again and get buckle-dragged all the way across the arena.
At the end of 2015, the Detroit Lions called. The Steer-Wrestling Ban was back on.
I played the last three weeks of the season. The Lions did not extend my contract. I caught a plane back to California. The Ban was lifted, and I got right back in the arena.
I practiced through winter, spring and summer. In the fall, the Patriots called me in for a workout. They signed me the day before fall training started. I stayed a month, but things didn’t work out. I tried my hardest, but I wasn’t performing at my best. I think deep, deep down, my heart wasn’t in it. I had gotten a taste of being home and being able to steer wrestle and team rope at jackpots and be with my family. As soon as the Patriots let me go, I was on a plane for California. The next day, I was back in the arena.
That was the fall of 2016, and I still hadn’t jumped off a horse.
Taking the Leap
By the following spring, I decided it was time. Either jump off a horse and stop worrying about it, I thought, or go do something else. I’ll admit, I was nervous. I was riding Scotch, a big palomino that a buddy of mine let me borrow. I’ve taken some mean hits on the football field, but jumping off a running horse onto a steer was something new. I didn’t know what to expect.
I saddled up and eased Scotch into the box. The chute opened, and the steer bolted. I left the box and blew my right stirrup. On the next steer, my buddy missed the haze. The steer went right. I reined Scotch over to him and tried to jump him anyway. It didn’t go so good. I hit the ground and rolled. But I’m glad I did it. Dirt doesn’t hurt so bad, I realized.
After that, the fear was mostly gone. I caught the third steer, but he flipped over, and we rolled, and I let him go. On the fourth steer, I got him in the hole, caught him, slid my feet, shaped him up and threw him. Holy cow! That was a great feeling. I had been practicing for this moment for almost two years. Steer wrestling is about the only thing that comes close to the adrenaline rush of the NFL—of catching a pass or making a block that springs the running back for a touchdown. Those days were over, but I had found something to replace football. Bulldogging.
This was in April of 2017. Around the same time, I was helping organize a steer wrestling jackpot in Clovis in memory of Katie’s grandfather, John, Sr. Whenever John Sr. would come out and watch the college kids practice, he’d say, Gosh, these steers are so small. They were monsters in my day—six- or seven-hundred pounds. So, to honor him, we were putting on an old-school jackpot—long scores, big steers and all of them dead fresh. Never been thrown.
After I made those first jumps, I had it in mind that I was going to enter that jackpot. I wanted it to be my first outing as a steer wrestler. The week leading up to it, I took some pretty good diggers off my horse during practice. At one point, I looked at Johnny, my coach for the past two years. He looked at me.
“You know what,” he said. “Maybe you don’t enter this jackpot.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” I said. “Let’s keep practicing.”
I was disappointed but after watching guys who’d been bulldogging for fifteen years having trouble with those steers, I was glad to be on the sidelines.
What a Rush!
I practiced the rest of that spring and summer. By August, I reached the point where I was tired of practicing. It happens in football. You just have to compete.
I asked Johnny for advice. Should I start by going to amateur rodeos? Or would it be okay to enter some pro rodeos? I already had my PRCA permit.
“The season’s almost over,” he said. “If you want to top off the year and get your feet wet, why not enter a pro rodeo.”
I started with the Santa Barbara Fiesta Stock Horse Show and Rodeo. My family was there to watch. Katie’s family was there, too.
After the bareback riding finished, they called all the steer wrestlers into the arena. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was the first cowboy out.
Bob Feist was announcing the rodeo. I could hear him talking. I looked at my buddy, Cody Mora, who was hazing for me. He had his hat pulled down, ready to go.
“Hey, Cody,” I said. “Can we ride in the box yet?”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
“Good. Let’s hurry up and get this done,” I said, “or I’m going home!”
I was in the box taking deep breaths, when I looked up and saw Johnny sitting right behind me. He looked over and gave me the old thumbs up. It was like, whew, okay. After that, everything kind of fell away.
I went out and made a solid run. When I looked at the clock, it read 4.9 seconds.
What a rush!
I walked back to the box and got some hand slaps and bulldogger high fives from the guys. I looked up at Johnny.
“How was my start?” I asked.
“Good,” he said. I could tell he was happy.
I got lucky that night. Nobody beat 4.9 seconds. I won my first professional rodeo.
I may have started steer wrestling later than most. And I definitely have a lot of work to do. But if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s work.