Change of Heart

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

After getting off the spinning wheel of rodeo, I’m back and willing to do whatever it takes to win. But I’m trying to get there in Real Time.

by Jade Corkill
 
 

Last year, I got to the point where I hated what I love to do—roping. I’ve built my life and career around this one thing, and it was like I reached a line in the sand. If you cross this line, I told myself, you’re going to quit roping and never come back.

That was an extremely dark place.

How did I get there? I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ll try to explain, even though it’s hard to talk about. It’s almost scarier now that I see more clearly how close I got to crossing that line.

Everybody talks about rodeoing being a rollercoaster because of the ups and the downs, and they’re exactly right. You have to have the right mindset to deal with the highs and lows weekend after weekend, month after month, year after year.

But rollercoasters also go around and around. For me, rodeoing started feeling like I was trapped on a spinning wheel. I felt hypnotized by the routine of it all. I was caught and couldn’t get off the wheel.

I’ve always pushed myself to be better and better. In any sport or job, you want to do better next year than you did the previous year. After I won my first world championship in 2012, I pushed myself and won another gold buckle the next year—and again the year after that. The wheel kept spinning, but I didn’t really have anywhere to go. All I could do was equal the year before or do worse, and I didn’t want to do worse.

But I started doing worse.

When I made a mistake, I got mad at myself. I went deep into my own head, which has always been a problem for me. There have been times, back when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, when I might not have spoken for a month. I would mess up, and you couldn’t make me talk. It sounds unbelievable, but there are people who have gone through it with me. I wouldn’t be mad at anybody but myself, but it gets to where nobody wants to be around you because of it. And I truly didn’t care. It pains me to admit that, but that’s the truth.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen


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Things in my personal life started changing, too. I married my wife, Haley, in 2013, and we had two boys, Colby and Kelton. When they were little, it was easy to bring them along with us. But then, all of a sudden, they were playing baseball and basketball and going to school—having lives of their own that kept them closer to home. And I was out on the road wishing I was home.

If you’re doing bad, like I was, you want to be home even more. So I kept rodeoing and trying harder and harder to do good. And when things didn’t go my way, I got madder and madder at myself. I was stuck on the wheel, running myself exhausted. At the time, I hardly noticed. I just kept trying harder.

Team roping takes concentration. When I’m in the zone, heeling feels like sitting at home in your chair and watching it on TV. There’s just a calmness to it. I mean, once you know how to brush your teeth, you never stick your toothbrush in your ear on accident, do you? You know how to brush your teeth, and you don’t get nervous about it. You do it without thinking. In a way, roping can be that simple.

Until it’s not.

A couple of times, I found myself at rodeos riding around before the team roping event started and running through my head exactly how to heel a steer. How does the loop go on the feet? How does it not bounce off the ground and go somewhere else? What do I need to do? I would slap myself to try to clear my head. I was like, You gotta be kidding me. You want to win, but you don’t even know how to heel a steer.

That’s when I knew something had to change. That’s when I started hating what I was doing. As painful as it is to admit, I hated myself. That’s when I knew that if I kept going, I risked pushing things past the point of no return.

Getting off the Wheel

Dealing with the rodeo rollercoaster is one thing, but I needed to get off the spinning wheel. Stop rodeoing. Pull out of the race for the gold buckle.

This was in early 2018. It’s not like this idea came out of the clear blue sky. Something inside me had been telling me I needed time off. The first person I talked to was Haley. She knew it, too.

“I could tell this was coming,” she said. “I’ve been expecting this talk for weeks.”

One way she could tell was because I wasn’t practicing as much as I used to. I used to wake up every day knowing my roping plans for that day, waiting for my horses to get done eating so I could saddle them and start roping. But it got to the point where I didn’t even have a plan. It was weirder if I practiced than if I didn’t practice.

The next person I told was my partner, Clay Tryan. At first, he didn’t believe me. I’ve gotten mad at myself before and told him he should rope with somebody else because I was roping terrible. But those times I was just venting, and he knew it.

“I’m being serious this time,” I told him. It had nothing to do with our partnership or me not wanting to rope with him. We have a great partnership. We never had a cross word for six years. But I knew that if I tried to keep going and roped bad and was in the wrong frame of mind, I might risk our friendship. As a team roper, your partner and his family are counting on you to do your job. Their lives depend on it. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


The talk went well. Clay understood. I told him in late February of 2018, so he had enough time to get a new partner for the 2018 season. He started roping with Travis Graves, and the two of them finished the year by qualifying for the National Finals. Today, me and Clay are second partners at the jackpots, and he’s still as good a friend—maybe even a better friend—than he was then.

Stepping away from rodeoing was, honestly, the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I’ve spent my whole life roping. It’s how I feed my soul and support my family. But the only way to be great at something is to be real with yourself.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have understood the position I was in. I would have fought it and fought it and fought it to try to keep going. I’ve beaten myself up for years. It was finally time I worked on healing myself.

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Real Time

The first thing I did was to go home and be with my family. I stopped thinking about what I needed to do to win the gold buckle. I rested. I got off the wheel.

Right away, I started seeing things differently. I realized there’s a whole world out there besides roping. I mean, the guy who works at Burger King is perfectly fine, and he doesn’t have a gold buckle. Steph Curry is not thinking about a gold buckle, though he is preoccupied with winning the NBA Finals. I used to think roping was the end of the world—life or death—but is it really? There’s so much more to life out there.

I also realized that all these intense thoughts I had about roping—all my anger and frustration—meant nothing to anybody else. If I put on my sunglasses and kept my mouth shut, I was just a dude sitting in the corner. The stuff going on in my head was a one-man horror show. When my kids get back to the trailer, they don’t care about whether I caught my steer or not. I mean, they’re happy if I do good and they feel bad if I don’t, but it has nothing to do with our relationship. It’s just another day for them. What they really want is to be with me. I realized, I have to learn to be okay with the outcome no matter what. From there, it wasn’t long until I came to another simple but essential realization: I can only control what I do. There’s a lot of power in that.

As my mind settled, I relearned what it’s like to live in what I call Real Time.

You know how it is. When you’re late somewhere and rushing around, you forget stuff. It might seem like it takes forever to get through the day, or the day might fly by. But there are exactly twenty-four hours in every single day, no matter what. If you stay in Real Time and focus on doing each thing you need to do, you have plenty of time.

In team roping, when guys break the barrier or get into a speed jam, it’s just their mind getting ahead of what their body’s doing. All of a sudden there’s a clash between their mental time and Real Time. Guys talk all the time about how they see things in slow motion when they rope. No, they don’t. They see it in Real Time. Nobody sees life in slow motion. They’ve just trained themselves to see it in Real Time. In other words, they’re not blanking out or getting nervous or letting their adrenaline overtake their mind.

When you’re in the stands watching a run, it goes by fast, but you see it all. If you’re paying attention, you see it in Real Time. When I’m in the zone, that’s what a run looks like to me. Getting off the wheel helped me rediscover Real Time.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

Let It Come

Some of the things that happened after I decided to take a break are harder to explain. I’m a pretty skeptical guy, but some of what has happened kind of freaked me out. It’s almost like I had been fighting off fate. As soon as I stepped off the wheel—as soon as I quit trying so hard to control everything and instead just let it come—all the stuff that I was missing started happening for me.

I started winning at amateur rodeos and jackpots around the house. I probably ended up making more money than I did before because I wasn’t going anywhere and spending any money.

Another thing that happened: I bought a horse. His name is Huey, and he fits me as good as any horse I’ve ever had in my life.

Huey was Travis Graves’s horse. I mounted out on him once in March of 2017 in Redmond, Oregon. He felt good. I told Travis that if he ever wanted to sell Huey to call me. When Travis called in August of 2018 to say that Huey just didn’t fit him, I bought him over the phone. Travis was on the Northwest run, and John Harrison, the rodeo clown, drove Huey from Washington to his house in Oklahoma. I drove to Oklahoma and picked him up there on a Wednesday. Two days later, on Friday night, I rode Huey at an amateur rodeo in Decatur, Texas, and again in a jackpot the next morning. He felt great. In fact, during my first two weeks riding Huey, I won $60,000 and a pickup truck.

The funny thing is, if I hadn’t gotten off the wheel—if I was still out there fighting to make the 2018 NFR—I would not for a second have bought that horse. I had such a negative mindset, I would have thought, I don’t want a horse no matter how good he is. I wouldn’t have seen the opportunity trying to knock down my door. But here I was not rodeoing, and instead of asking myself, why buy an expensive horse when you’re not going anywhere? I had this gut feeling that it was the right thing to do. I trusted that gut feeling. And it was right.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point I remembered why I love roping. Roping used to be the biggest deal in the world. Back when I was ten years old, I couldn’t sleep the night before the Bob Feist Invitational. The BFI was my favorite day of the year. I didn’t have to go to school that day. I’d get to go see all my heroes.

When 2019 rolled around, I knew I was ready to go on the road again. I started out roping with Colby Lovell. He’s one of the best headers in the world, but he was having trouble finding the right horse. He’s at the point where he knows the kind of horse he needs to be competitive. He was trying a bunch of horses, but nothing was ever quite good enough. He told me a few times, Man, if I can’t find a horse, you need to find another partner.

In my negative mindset, I would have thought, Man, I need to find another partner. Instead, I told Colby, I’m perfectly fine. I want to rope with you. If you find a horse, great. If not, don’t worry about it. I thought, If it’s not meant to be, I’ll stay around Texas another season. That would be perfectly fine. I’ll do what I did last year.

Instead of getting ahead of myself, I just waited to see what would happen and took it from there. What happened was that last year’s world-champion header, Clay Smith, called me out of the blue one day to ask me to heel for him.

I called Colby to tell him first, before the word got out. Those are hard phone calls, but Colby said he understood. I’m going to get a good horse one day, he said, and anywhere you need a partner, I want to rope with you. He and I are friends, and we always will be friends.

I started roping with Clay in early May, nearly halfway through the season. I think I had about $16,000 won. Normally, I would have been focused on how much catching up I needed to do. But I was still operating in Real Time. I didn’t care what everybody else had won by then. I just stayed in my own lane and did what I needed to do. Instead of thinking, I need to win a bunch to make the Finals, I roped like I already had the Finals made.

It worked. Three months later, I have $80,000 won, and I’m seventh in the world standings.

Warrior Mode

It hasn’t been easy. Coming back after a year away, I felt like I was out of the loop, big-time. I mean, during the Fourth of July, I felt like a rookie. I was, like, Holy cow! You guys travel like this all the time?

There’s a mode you get in out here. It can be intimidating. When I showed up at the BFI, I thought, Man, these guys are like lions walking around in a circle, and we’re just little hyenas in the middle of the circle. These guys aren’t playing. They had an aura. It was like those guys woke up planning on winning the BFI, and the rest of us were just hoping to win.

Now, all of a sudden, I’ve got the best header in the world, and he’s in warrior mode, and I’m trying to get back into warrior mode. But it’s a fine line. I need to stay in Real Time and not fall back into my negative mindset.

My strategy now is to not look back. No regrets. Sometimes I catch myself getting back into old habits, and I’ll say out loud, Hey, don’t even think like that. If I miss, I can’t go backwards. If I catch and do good, I can’t go backwards. I have to move on. I’m driving a truck that doesn’t have reverse.

Another thing that hit me after I got off the wheel is the understanding that there’s going to be a day when I don’t get to do this anymore. And that really scares me. I feel like the guys I grew up idolizing are getting too old to rope. You know those arcade machines that have the coins that get pushed off the edge? Those coins are like the ropers I grew up watching, and they’re getting pushed off the edge. I see guys like Leo Camarillo, and they all say they wish they could still be out here rodeoing. That’s going to be me someday, wishing I was thirty years old again and still roping full time.

I remember deep down what it’s like to really want it. I want to be the world champion again, and I don’t care what I gotta do to get there. It had gotten to the point where I was, like, Man, I don’t want to spend that or I don’t want to travel all the way out there. That’s how you don’t win it. The years I was winning, I didn’t care what it took. If I needed to spend $2,500 to charter a plane just to try to win $2,500 towards the standings, I’d say, Here’s my check!

I’m back there. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. But I’m trying to get there in Real Time.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

 

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