Winning and Loss

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

This was one of the best years but also one of the worst. I take it day by day and keep moving forward no matter what, knowing God has a bigger plan.

by Caleb Smidt

I thought a lot about my Dad when I won The American this year. I had tears in my eyes coming out of the arena thinking about him. Not just him, but my brother-in-law, Will, and his wife, Bailee. All three of them.

The American is not really my setup. I like bigger cattle and tying them in seven or eight seconds. I rarely tie calves in six like a lot of guys do. I mean, Marty Yates has tied more calves in six than I’ll ever tie. I like to run them a ways. I never made it into the top four at The American—until this year.

I usually don’t think about much when I rope. I’m pretty laid back. But I remember backing into the box and asking my Dad, I said, Hey, I’m gonna need a little help on this one. This ain’t me, this is not what I do. And then to actually tie one in six and win it. Dad and Will and Bailee were dang sure there helping me. I think that’s why I won.

It was an emotional win after the year I had.

Year of Winning and Loss

My Dad, Randy Smidt, had been fighting cancer for a couple years, going to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center for chemotherapy treatments. In my head, I always thought he’d get over it. The cancer disappeared once, and then it came back a month later. It disappeared again. When it came back, my parents decided not to tell me until after the 2017 National Finals Rodeo. Dad was at the Thomas & Mack every day that year. I’m sure he was hurting. I could tell a little something was wrong because of his demeanor, but he would never really let it show. He was as tough as they come.

Right after the NFR that year, they told us that the cancer had spread throughout his body and brain. The doctors gave him six months to live. He went straight downhill. It got bad and worse and worse. We were with him every day. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen cancer take over somebody, but it’s one of the worst things ever. It was like he wasn’t my Dad, like he was somebody else. It was hard to go over there, but I knew there weren’t going to be very many more days, so I went. Dad passed away on January 20, 2018.

One of the first rodeos I entered after that was The American. I did my best but didn’t make the top four. At the winter rodeos last year, it was hard seeing my Mom there and not my Dad, but I managed. In a way, he felt closer, like he was in the box with me helping me get through my whole run instead of up in the stands. I realized then that he sees me run every calf now. That’s what he always wanted.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Dad pretty much taught me everything I know about roping. Roping is pretty much all we did from the time my brother and me were three or four years old. We grew up in Yorktown, Texas, southeast of San Antonio. Dad roped. His dad roped. Our parents took us to every rodeo we wanted to go to.

Dad taught me more than just roping. He knew me and my brother had talent, and he pushed us. He made us try. That was his deal. He didn’t care if we didn’t catch a calf all day, as long as we were trying and not quitting. That’s one thing I always admired about him. I could go a week without catching a calf, but as long as I was doing my best, he never got mad at me. The only time he ever got mad at me was when I was halfway doing something.

When I was little, Dad worked at a prison in Cuero. When I was sixteen, he left there and went to work for a feedlot. A couple years later, I went off to college and, when I married my wife, Brenna, she and I moved to Bellville, west of Houston, where her family lives.

About two years before Dad passed away, he retired and him and my Mom, Denise, moved to Sealy, ten miles from Bellville. They wanted to be closer to us and to M.D. Anderson for his treatment. For those couple of years, we did everything together. He was here every day, turning out calves for me. It was awesome to have him. He did whatever I needed him to do, whether I was here or gone, any time I needed him.

For years, it has been a tradition: When a Byler gets married, the newlyweds leave in the Byler company helicopter. Brenna and I left our wedding in it. Brenna’s sister, Lynette, and her husband, Rowdy Parrott, left in it. And so did Will and Bailee.

Like I said, Dad was tough. He would drive himself to the doctor for his chemo treatments at 8:00 a.m. and then show up at my house at 10:00 a.m. ready to help out. He never complained. He put all that aside and did whatever I needed help with. He sat out here in the hot sun and on cold days turning out calves. I mean, he had full-fledged cancer and was sitting out here every day for me. I didn’t make him do it. It’s what he wanted to do. He wasn’t just gonna sit in the house beat-down.

He also loved spending time with our son, Cru. I think that’s another reason why God moved my folks closer to us, because He knew in two years Dad wasn’t going to be here. I’m glad they did. Cru still asks about Gramps every now and then. They were together a lot. He really loved him.

Another Setback

Despite the sadness of losing Dad, I had a pretty decent winter last year. I rode my good horse, Pockets. I’ve had him since February of 2015. He helped me win the gold buckle that year. Pockets is an unbelievable horse. I don’t know how I ever ended up with him.

Pockets is a big horse. He weighs right at thirteen hundred pounds. Most calf horses weigh closer to a thousand or eleven hundred. He’s really fast—and quick, too. For a big horse, he’s not very long-strided. I don’t like a long-strided horse. He’s more like riding a miniature pony. He scores like a rock. He does not move in the box. When he stops, he’s done. He doesn’t trickle out of his stop. He jerks calves hard, really takes it out of a kicking calf. Pockets works in the buildings. He works outside. The only thing I don’t like about him is in those fast setups, like The American. He’s so big, it’s hard to get a fast throw sometimes. He makes things happen fast out in the middle of the arena more than he does by the boxes.

In early May of last year, I was riding Pockets at the rodeo in Guymon, Oklahoma. I won the first round on him. The next day, he was crippled. He had an abscess. I had to pull the shoes off to let the abscess grow out. Generally speaking, Pockets has bad feet. There’s nothing seriously wrong internally, but he has no heel. He’s a big horse with little feet. I let the abscess heal and decided to turn him out longer to let his heels grow out. It sucked, but I knew it was good for him in the long run. I was thinking about the future. I knew I’d have a better chance of riding him for six or seven more years if I turned him out for the rest of the season.

I started riding a little bay called El Gato that belongs to Bart Hutton. When I left for Reno, I had around twenty-eight thousand won. We won a lot over the Fourth of July. You never know exactly what it’s gonna take to make the National Finals, but by about mid-August I thought I dang sure had enough money won. Most of that was on El Gato. I am so grateful to Bart for letting me ride his good horse while mine was out.

At the end of the season, I didn’t want to go as hard. I was ready to come home, like I always am. I like being at home with my family. I had even more reason to want to be home: Brenna was pregnant with our second child. And we were looking forward to a big family wedding.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Saddest Day

Five weeks before the start of the NFR, Brenna’s younger brother, Will Byler and his fiancé, Bailee Ackerman, got married at the Byler family ranch near Uvalde, Texas. Those two met at Sam Houston State University, where they were both on the rodeo team. Will, a bulldogger, was on his PRCA permit. Bailee was gearing up to be part of the flag team at the 2018 NFR.

For years, it has been a tradition: When a Byler gets married, the newlyweds leave in the Byler company helicopter. Brenna and I left our wedding in it. Brenna’s sister, Lynette, and her husband, Rowdy Parrott, left in it. And so did Will and Bailee. They took off just before midnight on November 3rd to fly to San Antonio. It was a perfect night—clear skies, no wind—following a picture-perfect wedding.

The next morning at around 6:30, my cell phone rang. I saw it was Lynette. She’s never called me at 6:30 a.m. I didn’t know what to think.

When I answered, her voice was calm. “They don’t know what happened to Will and Bailee,” she said. “They never checked into their hotel room. Nobody can get a hold of them.”

Brenna and I got up and eased around, but we felt helpless. We tried to stay positive. Maybe they had to land and were trying to find their way, I thought. There’s a lot of open country with no cell service between Uvalde and San Antonio.

A crew in another helicopter went looking for them. They found the wreckage on the side of a remote mountain. We still don’t know exactly what happened, but there were no survivors. Will and Bailee were both twenty-three years old. It’s the last thing you’re expecting after such a happy day. All of a sudden, it’s the saddest day.

Like I always do, I turned to God. He has a better plan than we ever have. You just gotta keep going, moving forward and taking life day by day. That’s what we did in November. A lot of families get torn apart by tragedy. Brenna’s family is one of the closest families I’ve ever seen. We just stuck together and got through it. We’re still getting through it.

Brenna’s due date was December 7, which meant she might give birth during the NFR. But our baby girl, Myla Pearle, was born on November 12, 2018, just a few days after the funerals. As my wife said, “She had an earlier than expected arrival, but God knew we needed her.”

With all this tragedy and joy, how did I stay focused on the NFR? I’m not sure. I’m not a guy that mentally dwells on stuff. I just try to do what needs to be done. You can’t sit still and let your life stop. That’s when things get bad. My wife tells me, Every day you go so fast. Every day you’re doing something. I tell her, If you sit still, you start thinking, and you get sad. That’s been my deal since I lost my Dad. I need to keep doing something and be around people. That’s how I deal with loss.

As for roping, you can never give up on what you love. And when you show up, you’ve gotta give it all you got.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

A Job To Do

After I turned Pockets out in early May, I didn’t put shoes on him until the middle of October. I exercised him for a month, month-and-a-half. He seemed as sound as he’d ever been. I only ran two calves on him back at the house before hauling him to Vegas. The third calf I ran on him since the spring was in Round One in the Thomas & Mack, and I won the round. That’s how good of a horse he is.

My family and Brenna’s family were there in Vegas with me. It would have been understandable if the Bylers decided to stay home and grieve, instead of having to face all those people. But a month later, they were in Vegas supporting me. That’s the only reason they were there. I know how hard it must have been, so it made me feel good that they came. I couldn’t have done it by myself.

Last fall, my Dad wasn’t around to help me practice. But my father-in-law, Bill Byler, came over a lot to turn out calves for me. Back when Mr. Bill was in college, he roped calves and bulldogged. Now he owns a big construction company in Houston. It’s an important job, but if I needed him to, he would leave early and come help me practice. That meant a lot to me. So after Round One, when we all stepped on the stage at the Go-Round Buckle Presentation at the South Point Hotel and Casino, I decided to give my Round One buckle to Mr. Bill.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

The NFR is a marathon. I was lucky to be surrounded by family the whole time. As the days passed, I knew it was hard for Brenna’s family. You could see it on their faces. Life just wasn’t the same. It will never be the same.

But life goes on, and I still had a job to do. After that Round One win, I placed a few more times. As it usually does at the NFR, the gold buckle came down to what happened in Round Ten.

By Round Ten, Tuf Cooper had a big lead on me in money won for the year, but he was down around seventh or eighth in the average, and I was winning the average. I’m not a guy that sits down and figures out exactly what he needs to do, but in that situation, you gotta take a look at it. The way I saw it, two things had to happen for me to win the world title. I had to win the average, and the guys between me and Tuf had to hang on to their places in the average. If they started dropping out, Tuf might win enough to take the gold buckle.

One calf roper after another left the box. Each one caught and tied his calf. None of them dropped out of the average standings. But I still had to do my job. I still needed to catch my calf and place in one of the last two holes.

I knew which calf I wanted, but that’s not the one I drew. The calf I ran was one that Cory Solomon placed on but nobody else did much good on. I backed into the box on Pockets. I made a clean run and was 8.1 seconds—good enough to split sixth place.

Then Tuf had a bit of bad luck. He got called for a jerk-down, which was not a jerk-down in my opinion, and he ended up getting no time. After that it was over.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

I don’t remember what happened next. It’s like a blackout. The whole family came down, and we took a lot of pictures. I see those pictures today, and Dad’s not in them, and Will and Bailee aren’t in them, and it just brings all that stuff back up. But the rest of the family was there. I wouldn’t have won a thing if they weren’t.

And then, three months after winning my second world title, I won The American and that $100,000 check. This year half of that counts towards my PRCA earnings, so I have a good start towards making the NFR again.

I still can’t believe all that happened to me and my family. This was one of the best years but also one of the worst. That’s just life, I think. I take it day by day and keep moving forward no matter what, knowing God has a bigger plan.

One of the things that keeps me going is knowing that the people I lost—my Dad, Will, Bailee—are closer than ever to me now. They’re up in Heaven, and they’re with me all the time. Dad always wanted to go to every rodeo. He wished he could watch me rope every calf, whether it was in Oregon or Florida. He would get frustrated that he couldn’t go everywhere. Now, he is everywhere. At any rodeo I’m at, he’s there with me. I still talk to him like he’s right here, because I know he’s with me.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen


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