My Other Half

 photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

After a lifetime learning what makes a good roping partner, I found Junior Nogueira.

by Kaleb Driggers
 
 

A lot of people think you just gotta work hard at your roping if you want to be the best. But roping is only half of team roping. The other half is your relationship with your partner.

You’re with your partner a good six months out of the year. You’re only roping for a fraction of that time. The rest of time you’re hanging out. It’s a long year if you don’t get along with your partner.

I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to rope—and just as long figuring out what makes a good partnership.

One of my earliest lessons happened when I was eleven years old. We were in Marianna, Florida, at a U.S. Team Roping Championships event. I was heeling back then. At that age, you don’t have a steady partner. You show up and find out who needs a run that weekend.

I partnered with a header my age—I forget where he was from—and we were roping real good. After three head, we were fastest in the average going into the short round. They roped us from slowest to fastest. We went last, so we knew exactly what we had to be. All we had to do was catch, and we’d win the roping.

I was just a kid. It was my first time in a situation like that, a high callback at a big roping. I was as excited as could be.

Even now, thinking back, I wish I could go back in time and do it all again. But if that’s what it took to make me realize how I needed to be, I guess that was the best time for it to happen.

 photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


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My partner that day backed into the box and nodded. All we needed to do was be smooth and catch. But he broke the barrier. He caught the steer and turned him. I just threw my loop—not even trying to catch—and jerked my rope back in anger.

Dad met me at the trailer. I was unsaddling my horse.

“Hey,” he said. “We need to have a talk.”

I knew what it was about. I was already upset with myself.

“That’s not the way we do things, son,” he said. “We’re out here having fun. Everybody’s going to make a mistake. You just have to be ready and capitalize the next time you’re in that opportunity.”

I nodded, tears welling in my eyes, as he continued.

“You never know,” he said. “You might have been the one who messed up. How would you feel if he acted that way towards you?”

By this point I was bawling. “I understand, Dad. I’m sorry.”

“You can’t go out there and apologize to each and every one of the people that seen you,” Dad said, “but you need to apologize to the flagger.” He was a good friend of ours, which made me feel even worse.

I found the flagger at his trailer.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I told him. “I won’t ever let that happen again.”

“I know you’re a good young man,” he said. “I know you mean it when you say you’re not going to do it again. I see great things in you, Kaleb.”

I never did anything like that again. You can ask anyone. If my partner messes up, I’m never mad. And if I mess up, I’m only mad for maybe two or three minutes before I get over it and move on to the next one.

To my mind, that’s what you have to do if you want to win.

 

Early Partners

I come from a big old happy family in South Georgia—cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. My Dad was a team roper. There were four roping arenas within a mile of the house. It’s what we did on weekends. Roping, eating and hanging out with family.

I started roping when I was four. I had a cousin who was a year older than me. He and I would terrorize everything. We roped and tied goats. We’d try and bulldog ’em. We’d come home black with dirt. He was less a roping partner than a partner in crime.

As a teenager, I roped with a good buddy named Clint Summers. He lived in Lake City, Florida, and he and I used to spend summers together. My Dad always had outside horses, and me and Clint spent weeks making heel horses out of them. I took the roping seriously, because I wanted to be the best, but we always had fun.

 
 photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


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My first professional partner was Brad Culpepper. I met him in Albany, Georgia, after my family moved there from Hoboken. He’s twenty years older than me, and he took me under his wing. We amateur rodeoed for a while. In 2009, I bought my pro card and we went on the road.

During our first year as partners, me and Junior were seven months behind the other team ropers. We had zero dollars won. Our chances of making the National Finals looked slim.

I could already rope decent, but I was a total rookie when it came to knowing where to go, what to do and how the setups are at different rodeos. Brad helped me understand all of that.

As far as getting along, I was learning. I was all ears. Brad had a family. Whatever made him happy made me happy. I felt very fortunate to have him. To this day, I tell him how much I appreciate what he taught me.

That first year, we had a great winter. We were first or second in the world going to Reno in June. Normally, in that situation you go on to make National Finals. But I went out that summer not knowing what to expect. At the winter rodeos, the barrier was about the same or just a touch longer than it was back East. But at the summer rodeos, you get outside, and the arenas are bigger, and the barriers get longer. I didn’t rope good at all that summer. My horse was a little short. He kept wanting to duck on me. I was upset with myself but tried not to show any attitude.

In team roping, it’s not just you. The thought that you’re letting down your partner is always in the back of your mind. Roping is their livelihood as well, and when you’re not doing good, that affects them. Brad knew I was struggling, but he didn’t get down on me. One thing led to another, and I ended up missing the NFR by like seven-hundred bucks that year. Brad made it, but he had to find a new partner.

Man, I used to practice a lot when I was younger, but when I got home after that year, I roped more than I ever have.

Pecking Order

During my first few years pro-rodeoing, I didn’t know what makes a good partner. I hadn’t been around long enough to know about the personalities and quirks of the other ropers.

Plus, there’s a pecking order when you’re just cracking out. You don’t know where you rank with everyone. You want to think you’re good enough, but you just don’t know.

In 2010, I saw Cody Doescher at some winter rodeos. He was roping good with a local guy. I didn’t know if they were rodeoing together through the summer. I shot him a text, and we ended up roping most of 2010 together—all the way until the last month of the season. We didn’t do as good together as we wanted. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

I teamed up with Travis Woodard to finish out the season. I had zero chance of making the NFR, but I was learning. And I had found a good horse—Champ—and wanted to be prepared for the following year.

In 2011, Brad asked me to partner up again. He knew I had a good horse. Man, it felt great that he trusted me enough to give me another chance. That year, we both made the National Finals. Getting to Vegas was a huge deal.

After 2011, I partnered with some really good ropers—Jade Corkill, Travis Graves, Patrick Smith—and made the NFR the next three years straight. I was buddies with all of them and still am, but none of us ever roped together for more than a year.

 
 photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

Meeting Junior

When I first met Junior Nogueira, he couldn’t speak English, so I couldn’t hardly talk to him. This was in 2014. Junior had recently come from Brazil and was heeling for Jake Barnes.

Around the middle of 2015, me and Junior teamed up as second partners at some of the jackpots. I would send him texts, and he would translate them into Portuguese using his phone. We had some good success as second partners. Later that year, I asked him about roping together in 2016. I knew it would be a hard decision for him, because Jake took him under his wing the way Brad did me. I didn’t want to put any pressure on him or make anybody mad.

Lucky for me, Junior said yes, and we partnered up in 2016.

Junior is a phenomenal heeler. He has more talent than anyone I’ve ever roped with. He’s tall and long. He can reach out and heel steers from a ways back if they get away from him. If a steer doesn’t come out perfect, he can overcome that. His hand-eye coordination allows him to pull off shots that people don’t even think is possible.

Junior learned to ride and rope in Brazil. Watching videos from there, I realized the team roping is pretty different. For one thing, they rope muleys. They head them around the neck, since muleys don’t have horns. We rope steers and turn them, but they rope muleys and let them come around more.

I did notice one thing Brazil has in common with the kind of roping I learned in Georgia. Back East, rodeos don’t pay as good as they do out West. You go for first, meaning you go for broke. That makes the roping fast. It was the same way with Junior. Over there in Brazil, they give away cars and dirt bikes for first. Junior said that’s what he was always roping for.

Junior is a really good horseman. He takes the time with his horses. He grooms them and trains them. He can make them bow or stretch out so he can saddle them. Junior’s Dad was a cowboy and calf roper in Brazil, but his Dad died when Junior was just five years old. He was sitting in calf-roping box and had a heart attack. After that, Junior’s grandfather stepped in and became a father figure. Junior describes his grandfather as a horseman—stout, stern, with a big mustache. A man’s man.

I really respect Junior’s horsemanship and roping, and he respects my skills. That naturally helps the partnership. We also have the same mentality. Even though he’s from a different country, we talk about stuff. Our values and morals line up. He’s a family guy. I’m a family guy. I have a fiancé. He has a girlfriend. Before Junior, I always roped with guys who were older than me. They were married with kids and had different priorities. Me and Junior are in the same place in life.

 photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

Rocky Start

In 2016, the year we partnered up, Junior was living at Jake’s place in Arizona. Any time we wanted to practice, he had to come to Texas and stay with me. By then, his English had gotten better.

That year, we toured with the new Elite Rodeo Association, which meant we had to stay out of the PRCA rodeos. In May, we decided to start rodeoing again with the PRCA, but that put us seven months behind the other team ropers. We had zero dollars won. Our chances of making the National Finals looked slim.

But something clicked between us. Within three or four weeks, me and Junior were in the top ten! We were going to a lot of little rodeos and winning money. During one stretch, I think we placed on twenty-four steers in a row. That just doesn’t happen. In four months, we each won more than one-hundred-twenty-thousand dollars—enough to win the regular season in heading and heeling.

The other thing that made our first year together difficult. My grandmother, Momma D, and Junior’s grandfather were both sick with cancer. It was sad to go home for holidays and see Momma D too weak to cook for her family. And Junior’s grandfather was thousands of miles away, in Brazil.

Throughout 2016, Momma D got better, but Junior’s grandfather got sicker. Junior and I talk a lot about our beliefs and faith. That’s where we lean when times are tough. We talked about our grandparents as people of faith, which helped us rest easier.

I remember the day Junior got the news. It was early November of 2016, and we had just gotten done practicing for the NFR. We were at my place in Stephenville. We had put up all our tack. Junior always goes and sits in his truck and checks his phone. I walked over to see if everything was all right. That’s when he told me his grandfather had died. We hugged each other. We both knew this day was coming. What made it worse was that Junior was in the middle of getting his green card and couldn’t leave the country to go to the funeral. If he left, he might not be able to get back in for the NFR.

Meanwhile, my grandmother had just been declared cancer-free.

Every year at the NFR, one of the go-rounds is Pink Night, which is all about cancer awareness. I forget if it was Round Five or Six, but that year, we won the round on Pink Night. That was pretty cool.

We had a great NFR. We ended up reserve world champions and Junior won the gold buckle in the All-Around.

The next year, me and Junior won the regular season for team roping again. This year, 2018, is our third together, and we’re working on winning gold buckles in December.

 photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

Funny story about the 2016 NFR: Since we’ve been together, I do all the entering and planning for us both. It’s not that Junior couldn’t do it, but I have more experience. And I remember how grateful I was when Brad entered for me. Anyway, in 2016, I was up at the USTRC finals when the books opened to enter for the NFR. I forgot to call. By the time I remembered, it was too late. I called anyway, with my heart going about fifty miles-an-hour.

“There ain’t no way Junior entered for us, is there?” I asked, frustrated with myself for letting my partner down.

“Yep. Looks like he did. You’re all set.”

I couldn’t believe it! That was the only time Junior has ever entered for us. Later, when I asked him about it, he said he didn’t know why he did it. He saw the books were open and just called.

 

Brothers

If your average team ropers are together six months out of the year, Junior and I are together a good eleven months. For a while he was living in a trailer at my place in Stephenville, but not long ago, he rented a house a quarter mile down the road. I see Junior every day. We eat lunch and dinner together. We go to the movies. He doesn’t do spicy food. If we’re eating Mexican, he gets a chicken quesadilla every time, no matter what.

Junior’s English keeps getting better and better. He’s such a fast learner, real witty and quick. But sometimes he’ll have to look up the translation of a word. I’ll say, I don’t think that’s what that word means in this context. I don’t stay on him about it. If it’s something that I know he’s gonna want to learn, like to help him during a TV interview, I’ll tell him. I’ve been trying to learn Portuguese, but I can’t hardly pronounce the words. And, heck, I don’t speak proper English either, so he can say whatever he wants, in my opinion.

One thing that makes this a good team is we’re both light on each other. I learned my lesson that time I was eleven at the USTRC high callback. We’re always trying to do our best. Positive things happen to positive people. Some guys run into being negative. Their partner might mess up two or three times, but when they’re badmouthing them or discouraged with them, that takes away from their focus. You gotta have faith that your partner is gonna do his job the next time. I just try to do my job. That’s one reason it doesn’t bother me when my partner messes up, because as long I do my job, I’m happy with myself.

We teamed up because we’re both pretty fierce competitors, and we want to win, but we really enjoy being around each other. I think being buddies helps us win.

Honestly, we're more like brothers.

It’s crazy. Junior and me have roped together for nearly three years, and I can’t remember one time when we were mad at each other. A couple of times a year, I make sure to tell Junior how thankful I am to have him in my life. Not only as a partner but a friend and brother. He tells me the same.

 photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

 

 

 

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