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Remembering Jesse and Mike

by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Jun 01, 2015

[PHOTO] BASICALLY BROTHERS: Jesse Andrus and Mike Hillman were the best of friends since they were little kids. They were so close that they chose to take their senior pictures together.

Tis the season for Mother’s Day. And Father’s Day. As parents and kids, that makes it a great time to count our beloved blessings and thank our lucky stars.

This Mother’s Day, as I realized yet again how fortunate I am to have the kids and parents I do, there were a few other people on my mind. I was thinking about Donna McSpadden, Cindy Rosser, Julio Moreno, Joe and Jenna Beaver, Cody and Stacey Custer, Linda Smith, and Clyde and Elsie Frost. The world will never forget their unforgettable children—Bart McSpadden, Mikel Moreno, Brody Beaver, Aaron Custer, Wyatt Althoff and Lane Frost—and I will never stop wishing I could wave a magic wand to help their heartbreak after those unthinkable backfires in the circle of life.

I just met a new rodeo friend and fabulous father who five years after losing his only son, Jesse, still misses his boy all day every day. Marc Andrus and his wife, Kathy, were in final-push mode in preparation for putting on the inaugural Jesse Andrus and Mike Hillman Memorial Pro Rodeo, which was set for May 15-16 at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Roswell, when I talked to Marc on Monday after Mother’s Day Sunday.

I remember seeing a haunting overhead photograph of Jesse Andrus’ truck and camper—parked in a Safeway parking lot in Scottsdale, Ariz.—when Jesse and his best friend, Mike, were found dead of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in April of 2010, apparently related to some sort of malfunction with the generator.

I’ve been paranoid about carbon monoxide poisoning for years, since Wrangler National Finals Rodeo barrel racer June Hipple McGee lost her only son, John Roberts, to carbon monoxide poisoning just before his 13th birthday. June’s husband, Freddie McGee, had to say goodbye to his only son, who was 13, that same day, when their beloved boys fell asleep for the last time.

Jesse Andrus and Mike Hillman were fun-loving all-American boys—cowboys—and the best of brotherly friends. The popular Goddard High School seniors, who were 18 and winning up a storm in the New Mexico High School Rodeo Association when they headed to Heaven together, were so close to being brothers that they took their senior pictures together. The super sad irony is that the boys did the responsible thing that we as parents ask them to do—when they were too tired to drive, they pulled over to get some sleep instead of risking falling asleep at the wheel.

Jesse and Mike went to bed on Cloud 9 that Saturday night, after riding at the Fiesta Days PRCA Rodeo in nearby Cave Creek, Ariz. Mike won the bronc riding—and his first PRCA check—with a 79-point ride on Honeycutt Rodeo’s Painted Sparrow. It was bull rider Jesse’s first-ever PRCA rodeo, and he too got his first check as a ProRodeo cowboy.

Their parents expected them to be back home in Roswell by Sunday afternoon. Marc, who’d had a lively conversation with a pumped-up Jesse after the rodeo Saturday night, tried Jesse’s phone Sunday morning. It kept going to voicemail, and that wasn’t like Jesse, who was always good about checking in with his mom and dad, and picking up when they called.

“We had an uneasy feeling Sunday afternoon when they hadn’t made it home,” Marc remembers. “We called the Roswell Police Department and let them know the boys were missing. They put them in a national data computer, so police would be on the lookout for them.”

When there was still no sign of their sons that Monday morning, April 12, 2010, Marc and Mike’s dad, Ron Hillman, took off driving toward Cave Creek, scouting for any sign of the boys on those rural roads. There were two ways to go. They chose the Northern route. They were getting close to Cave Creek when Marc got the dreaded call from Kathy with the worst possible news. Police had tracked the GPS in Jesse’s phone to that Safeway parking lot in Scottsdale. Roswell policemen had come knocking on Marc and Kathy’s door, just like in the movies.

“They wouldn’t let us see the boys, but it was probably for our own good,” Marc said. They probably did us a favor.”

That way, they got to remember their boys just as they were all their lives. Smiles on their faces. Pranksters who loved to laugh. All-around great kids.

Jesse’s nickname was “Psycho” when he played youth football, because “he was a madman on the field.” It devastated him to have to choose between football and rodeo as a high school sophomore, but that’s about the time all-in mode kicks in with coaches and the Little League mentality fades. No more “everybody plays.”

Jesse loved riding bulls, but started riding bareback horses as a junior and made the National High School Finals Rodeo that first year. He was in good shape to make the high school finals in both events his senior year, and despite numerous college scholarship offers planned to rodeo full time after graduation.

Mike was planning to start college at Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla., that fall, where the tie-down roping, team roping saddle bronc rider was going to be in the best possible hands to fine-tune his main event—in Latham and Etbauer Country.

“To describe Jesse is to describe Mike,” Marc Andrus said. “They were two peas in a pod. Mike came from a ranching family. Those two were spitting images of one another. And if you weren’t watching them, they’d get you. You always had to keep one eye on them.”

The boys’ bodies made it back to Roswell that Thursday, just in time for that Friday’s crowd of thousands at the Roswell Convention and Civic Center. Thousands of people packed the place to say goodbye to Jesse and Mike, who were supposed to graduate with their Class of 2010 that May 21.

Ironically, the most memorable well-wisher was a kid Marc and Kathy hadn’t met before. The boy was not part of the “in crowd,” and yet Jesse always took the time to talk to him. “Your son cared about people,” the kid told them, as he recounted how Jesse never would turn his back on him like so many others did.

“All the accolades in football and rodeo, but what that young man told us that day far exceeds any buckle or saddle Jesse ever won,” Marc said. “It went beyond sports, and talked to us about Jesse’s genuine feelings for people. That was a really proud moment for us.”

The Andrus family named the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund as their charity of choice for memorial donations. In its 25th year, the JCCF just passed the $7 million milestone when it comes to helping hurt cowboys and their families. People still donate to the JCCF in Jesse’s name each year. The Andruses, who started a memorial event for the boys the year they died, pick a Roswell area charity each year.

This year it’s Chaves County CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children. The Andrus family also sponsors the bull riding and saddle bronc riding buckles in Jesse and Mike’s names at both the RAM Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeo and the Fiesta Days Rodeo in Cave Creek, where the boys made their last rides.

JESSE AND MIKE’S GIRLS: Jesse’s mom, Kathy Andrus, Mike’s mom, Licia Hillman, and Jesse’s sister Brenna Chaves with a shot of their beloved boys at a memorial event.

This annual labor of love in memory of Jesse and Mike gained enough momentum to this year become a PRCA rodeo. “I’ve put on several pro rodeos with Jerry Nelson and Bill Owen over the years,” said Marc Andrus, who owns Saddle Barn, which manufactures rodeo equipment, and raises bucking bulls—a love he shared with Jesse. “The natural thing for me to go to is a PRCA rodeo. That’s what Jesse and Mike’s plans were—to rodeo for a living in the PRCA. It’s taken me five years to build my sponsorship base to where we could make it as a pro rodeo. This year, I figured I’d take the plunge and go for it. The PRCA name carries a lot of clout. People want to work with a professional rodeo.”

So, Marc, do you have a title on the committee? “I do,” he said. “Jesse’s dad. That’s why I do it. Jesse’s the first thing I think of every morning and the last thing I think of at night. And I think about him a thousand times every day. We have pictures of him everywhere. We’re constantly reminded he’s not here.

“People say time heals, and they’re right. As time goes on it gets easier to deal with the pain. But it’s never going to leave us. The alternative to going on with life and doing good things is to never get out of bed. That’s not how we raised our kids. And doing the things he and I did together is my connection to Jesse. Jesse would be proud of us for doing this. And I don’t want people to forget Jesse and Mike.”

Marc and Kathy became grandparents to daughter Brenna’s twins, Jackson Wade (who shares the same initials as his Uncle Jesse Wade) and Ava Rose last December. Jesse has a second big sister, Kristine. Mike has a little sister, Katie.

I have always begged my boys to keep a window cracked when they’re sleeping in a motorhome or living quarters trailer, no matter how hot or cold it is outside. The Andruses have given hundreds of carbon monoxide detectors away to cowboys. Marc gave a couple of Jesse’s cowboy friends his truck and camper—now equipped with two CO2 detectors, in case one fails—and told them to “go rodeo and run the tires off of this thing” as he handed over the keys.

Jesse grew up singing—with or without the radio—on family road trips. His dad swears he knew the words to every country song. Jesse sang and his friend Dylan Henson played guitar at high school rodeo talent shows in New Mexico. When 2009 Goddard High grad Tayte Hankins died the year before Jesse did after wrecking his truck, Jesse was so sad he wrote a song for him. Unbeknownst to the Andruses, Jesse had recorded himself singing that song on his phone and sent it to Dylan.

The week of Jesse’s memorial service, his big sister Brenna got the song for the first time via text from Dylan. “When Brenna pressed play, it was Jesse singing,” Marc said. “In the last verse of the song, Jesse sang, ‘Keep my family safe and let me say one day, it’s alright, it’s OK, I’m in Heaven now.’ Jesse was telling us it was alright. We cried, but it lifted a weight off of us. At that moment, we knew Jesse was alright.”

They played the video of Jesse singing that song at his and Mike’s memorial service. A copy of it stays in the CD player of Marc’s truck to this day. “When I want to hear his voice, I hit play and it’s Jesse singing,” he said.

This story is from the May 22, 2015 of the ProRodeo Sports News. For subscription information, click here.

Courtesy of PRCA