All in at Any Cost

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

At the age of thirty-nine, after everything I’ve been through, I’m treating this NFR like it’s my first and last. I don’t know if it will be my last. That’s for God to decide.

by Joey Sonnier

Our 2018 National Finals Rodeo countdown continues with one contestant’s story of rodeo dreams, darkness and redemption. Stay tuned for Part Two and, after that, The Chase for the Gold Buckle, our daily stories from the NFR.

When the cops showed up at the house, I was hiding next door. I watched them knock. I called my lawyer.

“What’s the deal?” I asked.

“Let me do some checking,” he said.

Later, after the cops were gone, my lawyer called back. “The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department is looking for you, and bonding out is not an option.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Your bond is $1.2 million,” he said. It turned out that some of the guys I was shoeing horses for were under federal surveillance, and the Feds had a warrant out for my arrest for the conspiracy to possess and distribute methamphetamines. He said I was probably looking at ten years in jail.

This was July 10, 2013. I went to my barn and grabbed a lariat rope and started swinging it, trying to pick out a rafter to hang myself. God, what have I done? This was a solution I had been contemplating, and now my mind was made up. Everything will be better if I wasn’t here. I remember it was 4:30 in the afternoon. My wife, Michelle, didn’t get off work until 5:30. I feel so alone. I bent my head and prayed to God to forgive me for what I was fixing to do.

I Could See Myself at the NFR

I learned to swing a rope as a boy. I grew up in tiny Youngsville, Louisiana, about ten miles south of Lafayette. My family always kept horses, but we didn’t know anything about rodeo. Dad worked in the oil fields. The oil business is an up and down deal. When oil prices fell in the early 1980s, we had to sell our place and move to town. No matter how bad it got, though, we ate, and the horses ate. That was my introduction to rodeo. The son of the people who owned the barn where we boarded our horses was a steer wrestler named Mike Smith, who later won a World Championship. Mike and his buddies used to hang around the barn playing with ropes. They made little bucking barrels for me and my younger brother. They treated us like brothers. When I was around six years old, my parents took us to watch Mike at the Lafayette Rodeo. I loved it! The cowboys were out there having a good time. It was fast and exciting. I just wanted to be like them guys. I was hooked.

I started out just showing horses and then, when I was nine or ten, I ran barrels and participated in playdays. But none of that was exciting enough. I wanted to ride bareback horses, but Mom and Dad didn’t let me. I kept after them, and when I was in the eighth grade, they finally gave in—as long as I paid the eighty-five dollar entry fee.

Nobody would hire me, because I wasn’t old enough to work legally. I ended up helping the guy who shod our horses. I pulled shoes off, grabbed tools and toted stuff. Pretty soon I had enough money to enter a rodeo in DeQuincy, Louisiana. It was the first time I’d ever been on a bucking horse, and I won the rodeo using borrowed gear. But after the whistle, my riggin slid down the side of the horse, and I got drug around and stepped on. Honestly, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be, but when we got home, Mom and Dad said no more bucking horses—at least until I was eighteen. I’d been after them to sell my horse and let me buy a calf-roping horse. When they saw how much try and effort I put into winning that rodeo, they agreed to help. I just wanted to rodeo, and calf roping seemed as good a way into it as anything.

We found a calf-roping horse, Dad put up an arena at the house, and we bought a couple of practice calves. I was playing football, too, and was getting home from practice after dark. We didn’t have lights for me to practice roping. One day my Dad said, “I don’t care if you play football and rodeo, but I’m not going to keep feeding those calves if you don’t rope them.”

The very next day, I turned in my football gear.

Ever since I was a kid, I loved watching the National Finals Rodeo on TV. That was the Superbowl of rodeos, and if a guy wants to reach the highest level, that’s where he wants to be. I could never see myself playing pro ball on a Sunday in January. But I could see myself at the NFR. I had no idea how to get there, but I kept dreaming.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Mind If I Try?

I was making good money shoeing horses. When I turned fifteen and a half and got my driver’s license, my Mom signed for a truck loan. I paid the down payment and covered the note every month. I put up enough to buy my own shoeing tools and pretty soon I was running my own business. I had to pay my own entry fees at that first rodeo and, well, since then it’s been like that my whole life.

I stuck with the tie-down roping throughout high school. I was dang sure competitive, but I wasn’t consistent. I won rounds at the state finals and barely missed making the National High School Rodeo Finals. It’s like a marathon of earning points, but I was always going for first. That’s not the way you end up being state champion. I didn’t use my head good enough to put it together for a whole season. Then my calf horse died, and I couldn’t afford to buy another. I got to bumming rides on horses. I tried to train one, but it didn’t work out.

My dream was to get my PRCA card and rodeo in the pros. But the dream was fading. I knew in the calf roping I was limited, and now I didn’t have a horse. The year after I graduated, I was shoeing horses and mounting out at a lot of amateur rodeos. But that got old. I always felt like I was imposing. I enjoyed watching the saddle-bronc riding, even in high school, where most of the horses didn’t look very fun to get on. They ducked and dived but didn’t really buck. But at the amateur rodeos I was entering, the stock contractor, Flying J, brought the nicest set of saddle-bronc horses. They would leap up in the air and jump and kick. He didn’t have any dirty ones. Just a bunch of fun ones, the kind we call hoppers. Watching them, I thought, Maybe that’s what I need to do? But I didn’t know anybody on that side of the arena.

One Wednesday in the spring of 1998, when I was eighteen, I drove over to the Rebel C Ranch in Maurice to shoe a horse. They had a roping arena and a bucking machine that guys could rent out. This one guy showed up with a brand-new bronc saddle. I watched him practice for a while and then said, “Do you mind if I try?”

“Sure, go ahead,” he said.

I’d never sat on a bronc saddle. This guy was three or four inches taller than me, so the saddle didn’t really fit. I didn’t know any different. I just jumped up there, grabbed hold of the rein where they told me to and put my feet in the stirrups. They left the bucking machine on the same setting as the other guy. I didn’t think to ask them to turn it down.

From the very first jump I remember being in time with the bucking machine. Man, it just felt like I was at home.

After I got off, a few of the guys watching accused me of lying, in a joking sort of way. “There ain’t no way this is the first time you’ve ever ridden that thing,” one guy said. “If it is, you’re a natural.”

I stayed up all night thinking about that bucking machine ride and how it felt. It felt natural. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I couldn’t sleep. My mind was too active. How can I make fifteen hundred dollars to go buy me a saddle, chaps, a bronc rein, spurs and the right kind of boots? I had a few racehorse accounts that owed me money for shoeing work. I was doing the math trying to figure out how long before I had enough saved up.

The very next day, I got a call from one of the guys who had been watching me ride the machine. “Hey, Joey,” he said, “I found a guy who’s gonna let you borrow all his gear.”

Four days later, on a Monday, I entered the saddle-bronc riding at a rodeo in Crowley, forty-five minutes from my house. I was nervous but excited, too. I made the whistle and then got bucked off. Man, it felt great. Two days later, I took that borrowed gear back to the Rebel C Ranch and practiced on the bucking machine. A guy there helped me get the stirrup links set up right. I entered two more rodeos that Friday and Saturday. I made the whistle on the first four horses I got on. I think it was the fifth one that finally bucked me off. One of the horses I drew that weekend was the local amateur association’s Bucking Horse of the Year. The horse’s brand number was twenty. I remember it like it was yesterday. I talked to guys who had been riding a couple of years and still hadn’t stayed on number twenty, even after four or five tries. I rode number twenty to the whistle. I didn’t spur him, but I rode him.

Those first rides were a blur. The jumps were happening so fast that when I got off, it felt like I had blacked out for eight seconds. I had no idea how I did or what I looked like, but all these guys were high-fiving me and calling me a natural. After that, man, I just went to entering. The more bucking horses I rode, the more those eight seconds started slowing down. The more aware I was of the experience, the more I loved it.

At first, I was still tie-down roping. When I first started saddle-bronc riding, I was sitting third in tie-down in the amateur association. I was still mounting out. My buddy Todd Broussard, who’s a calf roper and leather artist, often let me ride one of his horses. One day Todd showed up at a rodeo and saw my name entered in the saddle-bronc riding. He did a double take. That’s gotta be a different Joey Sonnier, he thought. That, or they messed up the day sheets.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Crash Course

Early that summer, it was pouring rain one day, and I was sitting in a bar in my little hometown drinking a beer with a buddy named Jason Mouton when my cellphone rang. It was one of the guys from the Rebel C calling from Cody, Wyoming. He and some buddies had gone up there to spend the summer riding broncs at the Cody Night Rodeo. He started telling me about how good the weather was and how they were getting on quality bucking horses every day of the week.

I hung up the phone and turned to Jason, a bareback rider I met when I started in on the other end of the arena. I told him about the Cody Night Rodeo. We decided right then and there to go.

During the Fourth of July week that year, I made a decision to put rodeo in front of everything I knew was right.

I called my clients and told them I was leaving for eight weeks. I shod as many horses as I could to catch up. I had a roommate and paid two months rent in advance. Three days after getting that call, we loaded Jason’s pickup truck with a Capri camper and struck out for Cody.

Entry fees at the Cody Night Rodeo were low, around twenty bucks a shot. The bronc riding paid a hundred-thirty a night. I probably won fifty-percent of the time or more. On weekends, me and Jason entered some other amateur rodeos in the area. Back in Louisiana, I had only been able to get on two horses a week at the most. During our two months in Cody, there were probably only six days when I didn’t enter a rodeo. Mr. Jim Ivory, who ran the Cody Night Rodeo, was an NFR bareback rider, and he gave us pretty good instruction. That summer in Cody was my crash course in saddle-bronc riding.

A rodeo coach from Central Wyoming College, Rick Smith, would sometimes come to Cody to recruit. He offered me a full-ride scholarship to ride saddle-bronc horses. I accepted. I went home for three weeks, packed up my clothes and shoeing tools and came back and spent the fall semester in Riverton, Wyoming. When the fall rodeo season was over, I asked a guy where we were rodeoing next.

“Man,” he said, “there ain’t gonna be no rodeos up here until the spring.”

Spring was months away. That didn’t work for me. I wanted to be rodeoing. I had also been shoeing a lot of the rodeo team’s horses to earn money. It got so cold and snowy up there, it didn’t make sense to keep them around. My scholarship covered tuition and books, but the college didn’t have dorms, so I had to pay rent. And I was still paying the note on my truck. There just wasn’t a lot of money for me to make that winter. So I left and went home. I realized later it was a selfish decision. The college had invested in me, but I was too young to understand that.

In January of 1999, I bought my PRCA permit and went to entering pro rodeos. I was getting better and better. I was winning checks and probably had my card filled by March of that year. I remember drawing a bucker at a rodeo in Jonesville, Louisiana. He was kind of an eliminator, and I was eighty-four points on him. Man, I thought I’d made it. I took that ride as proof that I belonged. But, there’s so much more to rodeoing than making the whistle on a tough bucking horse. I didn’t understand that at the time. Even if I did, the train had already left the station. Once you fill your permit, you’re forced to get your rookie card. That’s when things started to get hairy.

Another thing that happened around that time is that I became a father. Before I left for Cody, I had dated this girl. We broke up, but later on she told me she was pregnant. My son, Kade, was born September 6, 1999. His mom and me tried again to make it work, but we just weren’t compatible. I was still just a kid, and I was finally living my dream of rodeoing in the PRCA.

By the summer of 2000, I was in a battle for Resistol Rookie of the Year. It was me and Cody Martin and Cody DeMoss. Each week, we were all within a thousand dollars of one another. At one point I was winning, and then one of the other guys would edge ahead. Winning Rookie of the Year became my only goal.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

I Knew It Was Wrong

During the Fourth of July week that year, I made a decision to put rodeo in front of everything I knew was right. One of the guys I was rodeoing with got hurt, and the other guy didn’t draw good. He didn’t have enough money to go chasing bad bucking horses. So I got stuck rodeoing by myself over the Fourth. I remember I was in Greeley, Colorado, and was entered the next day at Park Rapids, Minnesota, on a really good horse. Park Rapids was a thousand long miles away, and I was already behind on sleep.

I was carrying gear out to my truck, when I ran into a bareback rider I knew. “Man, I don’t think I can make it up to Park Rapids,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, another guy walked up. I didn’t know him. “Hey, I hear you need a little help getting down the road,” he said. He showed me a packet of crystals that looked like three grains of rice. “Put one of them in your coffee, and you’ll make it to Park Rapids.”

I had never once done drugs. In high school, I had buddies who did. I was always the guy who drove them around. It was something instilled in me from an early age. Don’t do drugs. I never wanted to. I knew it was wrong.

I looked at the packet and thought about winning Rookie of the Year. Aw, shoot, I thought, why not keep it as a backup.

After three or four hours of driving, I reached for the packet. But then I put it back on the console. I kept grabbing it and putting it down. I was exhausted. I stopped for coffee and dropped one of the grains into the cup, thinking, Oh well, the guy said it would get me there.

It got me to Park Rapids, and then it got me to Red Lodge, Montana. I didn’t sleep for two days. That one little piece lasted me that long. The drug he gave me was methamphetamine, what people back then called crank. I didn’t know anything about crank except that it was wrong, and I took it anyway.

That’s where my life started going downhill, right there. Like a lot of guys that rodeo, I was all in at any cost.

After falling in love with rodeo as a little boy, trying for years to be a calf roper and shoeing horses to pay my way, I had finally found my true talent. It was way more than that. It was like I found my identity. To this day, I remember those early high-fives. Even guys who saw me ride my very first broncs said I had what it took to go all the way. They just knew it. Deep down, I knew it, too.

I still get emotional thinking about it.

Read “All in at Any Cost,” Part Two, here.


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