Fighting to Finish
A pop like a gunshot, and my life changed. But God has plans for me.
Of all the calves I’ve ever roped in my career, there’s only one I didn’t finish tying. Even in the practice pen, I never give up. Even if I’m going to tie one after the whistle, I always finish. It don’t matter if it’s twenty seconds or thirty seconds or forty seconds. You gotta be a finisher. If you want to be a champion someday, you’ve got to be a finisher in life. You cannot be a quitter.
So that calf, the only one I didn’t finish tying, that was back in 2011 in Guararema, Brazil, at the first roping of the season. If I missed that calf, I don’t know, maybe my life would be different.
Like a Spirit
I was born in 1990 on Christmas Eve in a little town called Iretama in Paraná state. My Dad worked on a ranch and my Mom was cooking food for a school. When I was fourteen, a man came to my town from Sao Paolo, Brazil’s biggest city, to give a horse clinic. His name was Mr. Bezerro, which means “calf” in my language.
Mr. Bezerro was from a ranch that trained cow horses. I went to his clinic. He saw me and said, this boy has a talent. He asked if I wanted to come live at the ranch and learn to train horses and rope. I was one of six children. My family was poor, and this was an opportunity for me. Can you imagine going home and giving this news to your Mom and Dad, that you want to move a thousand miles away? They were crying a lot, but they understood.
This opportunity turned out to be a gift from God.
I lived in a little room by the horses. I stayed there for nine years. People would send their horses to be trained. I would get up in morning and work all day, shoeing and riding horses. I started going to the junior ropings. When I turned seventeen, they didn’t let me rope with the juniors anymore. I had to rope with the big-time guys. But I grew bigger and by the time I was nineteen, it was like a spirit went with me, and I started winning.
In 2010, I won everything it was possible to win in Brazil—all the rodeo associations, the nationals, the congress, the four-year-old futurity. I wasn’t riding one particular horse. I worked with twenty-five seasoned horses. I could close my eyes and pick one and go rope.
I had always dreamed of going to the United States. But it was hard for us to get the visa. You need a reason for the travel and enough money to go.
The first roping of 2011, on January 9, was the one I mentioned, the one at Guararema. It was part of a series organized by an association called Copa União, or Union Cup. You compete for points at six monthly ropings. I had won the Union Cup in 2009 and 2010. This year, whoever got the most points after six months would win a free trip to the United States to go to the National Finals Rodeo. This was my chance to get a visa and an airplane ticket.
I had a good first calf. It was the second calf that changed my life.
I remember everything. It was nighttime. I backed up in the box. I roped the calf about halfway across the arena. He was wild, you know, big and strong. He weighed about two hundred eighty pounds. They rope bigger calves in Brazil. I just ran through him like always. But he took me out of my position and caused me to flank him on the top of my leg. That had never happened before.
That’s when I heard it—a pop, like a gunshot. The whole building heard it. I started stringing the calf, but after one second I couldn’t control my leg. The pop was my knee. The ligaments. Everybody was in shock.
I was in a lot of pain, the most terrible pain of my life. They put me in a truck and drove me to a hospital. It was almost midnight when I finally saw the doctor.
“Your knee doesn’t look good,” he told me.
From the MRI, he saw that I had torn my ACL and meniscus along with some other stuff. “You’re going to need surgery,” the doctor told me. I had never been hurt before. I didn’t know anything about surgery.
“How long before I’m ready to rope again?” I asked.
“Oh, no. That’s no good,” I told him. “That’s no good, man.”
I went back home, to Iretama, for physical therapy. I had bought my parents a few acres in town and built them a house and a horse pasture with money I earned. But now I couldn’t work or compete for months. Reality really sunk in. I lost my chance to win that free trip to the United States. When I thought of that, man, I cried like a baby.
It was terrible, but I tried to stay calm and keep my faith.
I was in therapy every day for seven months. It was pretty rough. I had never worked out before. I was an old-school kind of cowboy. I always said, the best workout for a cowboy is working. You know how that is. I used to get up in the morning and ride twenty-five horses a day. I never did any exercise. But in therapy I worked out at a gym, and that helped me get better at calf roping.
I practiced roping a dummy every day. Soon, I was roping breakaway. I just couldn’t flank and tie.
At the end of seven months, in July of 2011, I entered my first roping. I was in the best shape of my life. I tied my first calf in 6.7 seconds. At the time that was a record in Brazil. I kept winning the rest of that year. Until December.
In December, I was back in Sao Paulo training horses. I was in the practice pen roping breakaway on a good horse. The calf ran to the right. The horse tracked right, lost control and fell. I fell under him. The saddle hit me in the back. I was pinned and in pain. Mostly coming from my back. But I knew my knee was messed up. My right knee, the same one I had injured a year before. I was scared. My brother was there. He had to drag me out.
The doctor said I burst everything in my right knee again. Two weeks later, I was in surgery.
No roping for seven more months.
By the summer of 2012, I was back in the arena. I was doing pretty good, trying to catch up from all that lost time. But by the end of the year, my knee was hurting again. I kept ice on it. I went to a doctor who worked with a Brazilian soccer team. He said my ligament had slack in it, like a fence with a loose wire. Whenever I bent my knee, the screw came out and hit my patella bone. Oh, my goodness! It was some pain.
“You have two choices,” the doctor told me. “Change your ligament or take the screw out.” If I changed the ligament, I would be out for another seven months. But if I don’t fix it now, when will I?
“Your muscles are strong,” the doctor said. “If I was in Las Vegas, I would bet on you that you’re going to be okay for now.”
In January of 2013, the doctor removed the screw but did not change my ligament. That was my third surgery. I had to stop roping but only for a couple months.
This was a hard time. I asked God why that happened to me, but God always gave me strength and faith and never let me down. Nobody thought I would ever rope again. Or if I roped, nobody thought I could win again.
God gave me a chance to prove them wrong.
Coming to America
In March of 2013, my life changed again when I met Stran Smith.
I was working again for Mr. Bezerro in Sao Paulo. Stran came to Sao Paulo with Tuf and Clif Cooper to teach a roping clinic. These guys had roped in the NFR! I took the clinic. Stran said he saw something special in me. He said I could be a world champion. He invited me to come to the United States to rodeo. I explained about my situation—my family, girlfriend, training horses and roping, my three surgeries. I also told him about my dream of going to the United States.
“Do you have the courage to leave everything you have here and go to the United States?” he asked.
I thought of the decision I made nine years earlier, when I was thirteen, to leave my family and move to Sao Paulo to live beside the horse stalls.
“Yes,” I said. “I have the courage.”
“Good. But you need to do three things before you come to the U.S.,” he said. “Get your visa, learn some English, and don’t get hurt.”
I arrived in the United States in November of 2013. I lived with Stran’s family in Texas. He started me in the small jackpots and rodeos. I learned the rules of American rodeo. I got my PRCA pro card in 2014 and by the end of summer, I had roped in thirty-five pro rodeos and was leading the race for Rookie of the Year. It was part of our three-year plan for me to win the world championship. But that September, at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon, I broke my ankle. One more fight.
Stran was always giving me lots of confidence. “Don’t worry about Rookie of the Year,” he said. “Our goal is for you to be world champion.”
First NFR, Fourth Surgery
During the 2015 season, my ankle had healed, but my knee started hurting again. After the Fourth of July run, the pain was so bad that I went to see Dr. Tandy Freeman, head of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team. He said I needed surgery. I told him to wait until after the National Finals Rodeo. I wasn’t qualified yet, but that was the dream, you know? It was a difficult decision, but I had to do it.
I did make the NFR—my first time—but in Las Vegas the pain was really bad. On my first calf, my knee froze. I couldn’t walk. Dr. Tandy gave me an injection. I placed second in Round Two. But my knee kept hurting. I could barely bend my leg or walk. I had friends bringing me ice and medicine. I did okay at the Finals. I finished 2015 eleventh in the standings.
After the NFR, I went straight from Vegas to Texas, dropped my horse and drove to Dallas to see Dr. Tandy. He said my ACL was loose and covered in scar tissue. Fixing the ligament meant another six months away from roping. I didn’t want to stop. I was fighting to be world champion. So Dr. Tandy just opened up my knee and cleaned it up. That was my fourth surgery.
“If the pain gets worse, you come back, and we’ll fix it,” he said.
Instead of six months, I was in recovery for just over one month. I think that was God’s plan.
I was roping again by the end of January—the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. My knee felt better. I started winning. By the end of the year, my knee was hurting again, but I finished first in the standings. I went into the NFR in first place but finished second in the world. I was getting closer to my goal. But how long would my knee hold up? Dr. Tandy said I had to fix my ligament. Should I have the surgery now or put it off again?
I decided to live with the pain.
Time to Finish
In 2017, I had a good year despite the pain. By October, I had earned a spot at the NFR.
That month, at the San Angelo Roping Fiesta, I had another setback. During one round, I had to run fast to catch my calf and then break to the calf kind of hard. I planted my right leg to flank him, and something went wrong. It wasn’t a loud pop, like before. And I finished tying him in eleven seconds. But I knew I was hurt on that calf. I won six-thousand dollars at San Angelo, but it was a hard six-thousand.
I think I tore my meniscus. I don’t know for sure because I never went to a doctor. I knew what he would say—that it was time to schedule surgery. But that’s not what I wanted to hear. Stran and I were working on a three-year plan. For the plan to work, I had to give everything. It was time to finish.
After San Angelo, it was pain, pain, pain. Three weeks before the NFR, I went to Mexico for stem-cell therapy. I came back, practiced for a couple weeks and then it was time to go to Vegas.
At the NFR, I was in pretty bad shape, but I tried to ignore the pain. My horse Paraguay really helped me out. She’s fast and she don’t give no slack for the calves. She dominates the calf on the rope so I can flank and tie.
I entered the 2017 NFR in fourth place. After nine rounds, I had moved to second in the world. Stran figured that I had to win the final round to win the world.
The calf I drew in Round Ten had run three times. One roper tied her in 24 seconds. The other two were no-times. I just prayed to God to help me finish.
He answered my prayer. I tied that calf in 7.8 seconds. I won the round and the average. That was enough money for me to win the world championship.
This was not a human plan. When I was a boy and Mr. Bezerro came to Iretama and picked me to move to Sao Paulo and train horses—nobody would come to my little town hoping to find one of the top ropers in Brazil. That was not a human plan.
If I had fixed my ligament during my third surgery, I would have been in therapy for seven months and never would have met Stran. That was not a human plan.
When I first hurt my knee, I was always asking God why that happened to me. But He always give me strength and faith and never lets me down. I give all the credit to God.
This past April, I made the toughest decision of my career—to take the year off to fix my knee.
A friend of mine introduced me to Dr. Daniel Cooper, the team doctor for the Dallas Cowboys. I went to see him, and he said we had a shot. He rebuilt my right ACL with a piece of tendon he took from my left knee. That was my fifth surgery. Dr. Cooper was happy with it. He said he did his part. Now it’s time for me to do mine—physical therapy for seven months. I go for four hours a day Monday through Friday. I’ve been counting the days. As of now, I have less than twenty-nine weeks lefts.
It was hard at first to see everybody trailering their horses and entering the rodeos. I’m trying to be strong. My plan is to be healthy enough to rope at Odessa next January. I’m counting on 2019 to be a big year. I want to get back to roping and working with horses, just do what I love to do. That’s my plan. We’ll see what plan God has for me.