Finding the Light
My family helped me find the right path as a boy. As a team roper, I got sidetracked a few years ago, but I still believe in myself. I still have the passion, and I still have faith.
I went through a real dark time after 2014, the last year I made the National Finals Rodeo.
I finished the 2014 regular season in the fifteenth spot—the bottom of the pack. I was roping with Tom Richards, a header from Arizona and a great guy. I didn’t have a very good Finals. I know that team roping is tough and that I can only control so much, but when I mess up a team-roping run, I put my partner’s livelihood and my livelihood in jeopardy. I don’t like letting people down. I don’t like it at all.
I was fed up after my performance at the 2014 NFR. I had made the Finals nine times and had yet to win the world title. I got real down on myself. Looking back, I understand now why people warned me about my temper, said I should relax and let things go. My partner Colter Todd once told me, “Cesar, when you mess up, I don’t have to get mad at you. You do a good job of it for the both of us.”
I thought maybe it was my ropes and my horses, so I got rid of everything. I sold a good horse and found a different rope sponsor.
In the team-roping game, when you get rid of your stuff, the headers see that. The headers are looking at all the great heelers out there. They want to rope with them. The headers can see that you don’t have the horses you used to have or the confidence, and you lose partners.
Now that the light is back in my life, I see things more clearly. I’ve been taking everything back to the basics. For me, the basics start with family.
“Little Crappy Arena”
I come from a long line of cowboys from southern Arizona. My grandparents, Vic and Yolanda Aros, were both raised by cowboys. They still live on the same few acres in South Tucson that my grandpa, a World War II veteran, bought with money he earned working as an electrician. Vic and Yolanda raised four children there: George, Zenaida, Julie and Victor. Long ago, Vic built an arena on those dusty acres and pursued his passion for horses and team roping, while the city grew up around them. Today, there’s a bar next door and a trailer park across the street. The story goes that one day, when my Uncle George talked back to my grandpa, Vic threatened to not let him rope. George spun around and said, “Good! I don’t want to rope in this little crappy arena anyway.”
In 2008, my grandpa planted a steel sign out front that reads: “The Little Crappy Arena, Home of NFR Team Roping Qualifiers George Aros, Cesar de la Cruz, Victor Aros.”
That sign reminds me of the Hat Creek Cattle Company sign from Lonesome Dove, my favorite show of all time. I think of Gus McCrae and his partner Woodrow Call as old-school, hard-ass cowboys. I put my grandpa Vic in that category, too. He’s hard-working and proud of his humble beginnings and all that he and his family have accomplished.
Like my two uncles, my mother, Zenaida, a barrel racer, also had NFR dreams. But her dreams were cut short when she got pregnant at the age of eighteen. My grandpa built her a little house on the same property, and my grandparents helped raise me and my siblings. My family did the best they could, but money was always a little tight. When I was around eight years old, my parents got divorced. My mom went back to school to get a nursing degree. I haven’t seen my real dad since.
Even before my dad left, I spent most of my time with my grandpa, so much time I started calling him Dad. He really had a way with horses. I remember him helping me with this colt. It wasn’t but about thirteen hands. Grandpa was patient with me and showed me the right way to catch the horse, tie the halter, put the saddle on, cinch him up—the right way to do everything. In my earliest memories of me swinging a rope, my grandpa was there. I was always trying to show off around him. That’s how I got his attention. To this day, when I send him videos of me roping, he’s just amazed. He thinks it’s so cool.
My grandpa and my uncles taught me to rope and compete. I practiced all the time. I was obsessed. They’d have little jackpots at the arena. I won my first saddle when I was nine years old. When I was twelve, I roped a steer and dallied and the rope caught me between the top and bottom knuckle of my thumb and snapped it off. The bone at the top was sticking up. It was pretty gruesome-looking and too mangled for the doctor to fix. I had to relearn how to write and button my pants. But two weeks after it happened, I was back to roping and dang near at the level I had been. You take a boy like me, focused on something, and you can’t really hold him back. When a kid wants it like that, nothing can stop him.
In our South Tucson neighborhood, rodeo wasn’t very cool. For a while, I pretended I was a little gangster, hanging out and listening to rap music. I’d go to school wearing baggy pants and come home and put on jeans and boots and practice roping with my grandpa and uncles.
We lived in a rough part of town. There was a ten-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire around the yard. Remember the saddle I won when I was nine? It was too big for me, so I was saving it for when I got older, but somebody broke in and stole it.
I wasn’t supposed to leave the yard without telling anybody. One hot day during the summer before I started high school, I took off for Circle K to get a cold drink without letting anybody know I’d left. I went around back and walked along a trail. On the way home, this crackhead held me up at gunpoint and told me to give him what I had in my pockets. I handed over the change from a twenty-dollar bill. I remember walking back to the house, my heart racing, thinking, I’ve got to get out of here. There’s got to be some other way.
I was obsessed with team roping but never seemed to have enough money to cover the entry fees at the junior rodeos and jackpots. I’d watch my buddies go, but a lot of time I would have to miss. One buddy was Colter Todd. I got to know him at the local rodeos, where our moms raced barrels. His family owned a ranch about seventy miles away.
When I was a freshman in high school, there was this one jackpot roping I really wanted to enter, but I didn’t have the money. I knew these thugs at school who used to steal cars. One day they were headed to the airport parking lot near our house and said they’d pay me to be a lookout. Man, I really wanted to enter that roping. So I went along with them. I didn’t hardly have to do anything, just walk around the block to make sure everything was cool. I’d give out a little whistle. The next day at school, they gave me a couple hundred dollars. When the weekend rolled around, I used that money to enter the roping. I won and turned that entry fee into a couple thousand dollars. But I felt terrible.
I wasn’t a bad kid, but like a lot of teenagers, I was struggling to find my path. I knew if I stayed around my house, I’d get in trouble. Gangs, crime, girls getting pregnant. Nothing but trouble. So I started spending every chance I could at Colter’s place. His family always needed help on the ranch. I didn’t get paid, but they dang sure fed me three meals a day. We prayed before every meal and went to church every Sunday. Colter taught me about tithing—giving a percentage of your money, no matter what, to the church. Once, after Colter won $15,000 at a jackpot, I watched him put $2,000 in a little envelope and drop it in the collection plate without thinking twice. I felt so guilty about entering that roping that I gave part of my winnings to the church and told myself I’d never, ever do anything like that again.
Something clicked in my brain. Roping was my way out of the bad stuff, I realized. I could travel and do everything I wanted to do with my rope. God had a helping hand. He said, If you want to rope, why don’t you work harder than anybody else.
I owe so much to my family for putting me on the right path. A few years after my dad left, my mom married Larry Olivar, who worked as a driver for UPS and still does. Larry really stepped in to raise us kids. Marrying into the Aros family, he developed a love of roping. He and my mom would work their butts off all week and as soon as they got off work on Friday, we’d load up and drive to a junior rodeo for the weekend. At the junior rodeos you roped with your parents, so I roped with Larry. The kids I met at those junior rodeos were all cowboy kids—humble, good Christian people, like Colter. I loved spending time with them, and they were a good influence on me.
My Uncle George was real influential in instilling in me a work ethic. I’d work the chutes and clean pens with him, and my reward was getting to rope. He’d wake me up at 4:00 in the morning to feed the horses before we saddled them up and started roping.
My Aunt Julie was another one. She was a school counselor who knew all the problem kids at school. Back in the 1990s, there were gang shootings at my high school because kids wore the wrong colors. Aunt Julie made sure I didn’t wear any solid red or solid blue. She was constantly checking on me and helping me stay out of trouble.
And, of course, there were my grandparents, Vic and Yolanda, who anchored the family with their cowboy values.
So I chose the team-roping path, and when I graduated high school, I won a full-ride scholarship to Central Arizona College. After my first year, I qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo. That summer, I went and rodeoed in Montana and worked at a ranch in Idaho. I fell in love with the cowboy life and knew in my bones that I could make a living rodeoing. I spent another year in school and then decided to go pro. The year after my rookie year, I was looking for a header and partnered up with my old friend Colter Todd. I finished seventeenth in the world. The very next year, 2006, Colter and I qualified for the National Finals Rodeo. I made the Finals every year for the next eight years.
Back on Track
Since those dark times following the 2014 season, I’ve been working my way back, remembering how I found my path in the first place. I kept rodeoing so I could stay in the top fifty and qualify for the big rodeos. But I’ve taken the time to get my horses all lined out.
The most important thing my grandpa taught me was how to care for horses. A horse is a grazing animal and needs to eat all day long, he taught me. Grandpa’s horses were always beautiful. I’ve seen him buy a horse that was a little cheaper. The horse would look horrible. You could see ribs and tailbones. But it wouldn’t take long before grandpa had that horse slicked off and beautiful.
For grandpa, it was all about developing a relationship with the horse. It didn’t matter what horse he had. They all seemed to really like being around him. He always stressed the importance of riding your rope horse. He would ride everyday, sometimes twice a day. I’d watch him ride circles and figure-eights. He’d ride both ways, using both leads. He used his legs. He’d say, “fingertips, son,” while lightly picking up on the reins. Grandpa is ninety-four-years old, and he only recently quit riding. It hurts his hips too much.
During my younger days, when I was making the NFR every year, I felt like I knew everything there was about my event—about roping and the team-roping run. I’ve broken it down with some of the greatest ropers that ever lived. But during these last three or four years, as I’ve stepped back and looked at how competitive these younger guys are, I’m learning how important horsemanship is to gaining an edge.
As a heeler, I ask my horses to run hard, stop hard and take a hit. The way I rope, I want my horse to do it properly—to really run nice and slide and get up underneath himself and take a jerk really hard to help finish the run. Nowadays, a tenth of a second matters. If your horse isn’t going to help you get the flag, it’s costing you money.
I’ve tried to spend more time riding my horses and getting them to the level where they’re really broke before I start roping on them. I’ve been spending time with cutters and reined cow horse guys—guys that don’t even pick up a rope—to learn how to do the things they do with their horses. That’s what I want to do with my team-roping run. I was always taught to never turn the horse loose, to keep control of the reins at all times. Now I’m learning how to guide my horse more with my legs so I can put my hand down on the horse’s neck. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be, but it’s making me rope better. I feel like my old self again.
There have been times when I caught myself trying so hard to win that I treated my horse like a machine. This time of year—August and September—there’s not a horse out here that’s not sore and having a few soundness issues. If you don’t have a relationship with your horse and treat him well, he’s gonna lose his heart.
I’ve been trying to remember that this game was invented by cowboys and that I rope best when my cowboy instincts—reading the cow, riding the horse—take over.
Finding a Balance
I’m also trying to go easier on myself. I’m still obsessed with roping. I’ll be driving down road and thinking about roping. I dream about it. It consumes my brain. Sometimes I need to let it go, especially now that I have a family of my own. In 2008, I married my amazing wife, Arena. We have three boys—Camilo, Gio Rocco and Zorro—under the age of ten. And you know what? I found out that I love my boys more than I ever will love rodeo.
Before I had kids, I would never miss a practice session. I’ve always wanted to be perfect when I rope. Even if I did catch, and it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right. But now I will miss a practice session to go watch my boy’s baseball game. After my dad left, even though my grandpa and stepdad were there for me, there was always something missing, a little hole in my life. I want to be there for my boys to show them, Your dad’s here to support you, whatever you want to do. I’ll drive all night so I can see my boys—just to see that look in their eye at how happy it makes them.
This lifestyle I’ve chosen for myself requires me to leave home for long stretches. The only way I can justify it is that maybe my boys will live their dream someday because they saw their dad sacrificing a little bit to live his dream.
I’m still hard on myself. I still don’t take missing very good. But I have a great partner, header Lane Ivy. His positive attitude really helps. Lane shows me that if one member of the team is having hell it really helps when the other partner lets him know it’s gonna be okay.
When I was a teenager, I got pulled in a couple of different directions, but I found my path. As a team roper, I got sidetracked a few years ago, but I still believe in myself.I still have the passion, and I still have faith.