by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Dec 22, 2015
Two of our greatest living legends—in and out of the arena—lit up the Thomas & Mack Center Arena in 1985, the first year the National Finals Rodeo moved to Las Vegas. The same two cowboy icons were the most noticeably absent 30 years later at the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris RANGER. ProRodeo Hall of Famers Lewis Feild and Jake Barnes are two of the most respected and beloved members of our rodeo family, and we missed them both so much this round for sad reasons.
Lewis, 59, who won his first two of five world titles the first year the Finals moved from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas—he won gold all-around buckles three straight years from 1985-87, and back-to-back world bareback riding championships in 1985-86—had to sit this one out to undergo chemotherapy back home in Utah, as he fiercely bucks pancreatic cancer.
Jake, 56, who won his first of seven world team roping titles with Clay O’Brien Cooper in 1985, qualified for his 27th NFR in 2015. But Jake’s head horse fell the Friday before opening night, while running a slow practice steer with his Brazilian heeling phenom partner, Junior Nogueira, at Jake’s place in Scottsdale, Ariz. Hard. According to Junior, Jake was unconscious about five minutes and quit breathing for a couple of them. Jake suffered a traumatic brain injury, including a severe concussion, bruising and bleeding of the brain, and a fractured left ankle in the wreck. He spent the week before the Finals in ICU, and gave up his NFR spot to 16th-place header JoJo LeMond.
There were “Lewis Feild No. 1” stickers with purple ribbons for pancreatic cancer, and “Prayers for Jake #91” buttons worn on cowboy back numbers and over so many of our hearts all week. Lewis has been as much fun to watch during the bareback riding as his baby boy, Kaycee, while he was busy racking up four straight NFR average titles and four straight gold buckles from 2011-14. We all so missed seeing Lewis and Veronica—typically with grandkids in their laps—in their front-row seats above the bucking chutes this year.
But I will tell the two of you this, Lew and V: Your three kids (which also include Kaycee’s big brother and sister, Shad and Maclee) could not have done you more proud. Kaycee clearly enjoyed every moment of his fantastic fight to the finish with Steven Peebles. He called the back-and-forth friendly knife fight “fun” all week long. And when it didn’t go his way in the end, the entire Feild family clapped for Steven and slapped him sincerely on the back. It said even more about your amazing family than far happier, healthier times have, and I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
A lot of the hoopla surrounding Kaycee at this year’s NFR was about his shot at more history and tying Bruce Ford and Joe Alexander’s five gold bareback riding buckles record. The race was somewhat surreal for Ford to watch, having rodeoed with Lewis back in the day.
“I was already a world champion when Lewis cracked out,” said Bruce, who won the world in 1979-80, 1982-83 and 1987. “Lewis and Danny Brady rodeoed together. They were both great hands, and they fed off of each other’s greatness. They were a strong force. Lewis was not only a great bareback rider, but a great saddle bronc rider, pickup man (Lewis picked up at the NFR in 2004) and team roper, too. Lewis Feild’s just a great cowboy. And that’s a bigger feather in your hat than anything.
“It’s pretty neat to see my friend’s son (Kaycee) do so well. I’m tickled for him. You love to see him do good, just like I always felt about Lewis. There’s no doubt in my mind Kaycee will win many more. He’s a great bareback rider and he’s got a long ways to go. You want to see the cream come to the top. Kaycee’s a great person, just like his dad. It was fun watching Steven and Kaycee out there trying to win first every night. That’s how a race is supposed to be. But the greatest gift Kaycee’s got is the family support. That’s his driving force.”
I ran into a couple of the all-time greats on the best-ever saddle bronc riders list, Brad Gjermundson and Clint Johnson, at the South Point elevators a little after midnight after the 10th round. They shared an era with Lewis, and are so similar in their level of class, in the arena and out. Brad and I got to visiting a week later, and a conversation about how many of the 1985 world titlists were repeat champs led to a little math and an astounding fun fact: The 1985 champs of the world won a grand total of 49 gold buckles in their storied careers.
Think about it—Lewis won two that year (and five total); 1985 world steer wrestling champ Ote Berry won four; 1985 team roping titlists Jake and Clay, 14; Brad, who won his last one that year, four; Joe Beaver won his first of eight that year; Ted Nuce got his gold bull riding buckle that year; steer roper Jim Davis won his first of two world titles in 1985; and barrel racer Charmayne James won No. 2 of 11.
“I was in some pretty good cowboy company in 1985,” said Gjermundson, the world champion saddle bronc rider in 1981 and 1983-85. “That was quite a year for rodeo, really, as all those guys had great careers. Lewis, Jake, Ted and I were all rookies the same year (1980), too. I remember we (Brad, Lewis and Ted) sat at the same (PRCA Rookies of the Year) table at the banquet that year.”
Brad and Lewis were buddies in their heyday, and have remained great friends ever since. Lewis has spent time up in Brad’s native North Dakota country with his trucking company working the oil fields in recent years.
“When he was rodeoing, Lewis could do anything he wanted, and he did it with ease,” Brad said. “It didn’t matter when he got to the rodeo if he had the biggest eliminator or the one to have. He never sweat anything. I was still riding when he started picking up, and he did a great job at that, too.
“Lewis has always been a great friend and an all-around great guy. He never changed a bit from our rookie year on. In his riding he was a perfectionist. Nothing’s more special to Lewis than his family, as it should be.
“Everybody was talking about Lewis and Jake at the coffee shop (in Vegas) every morning, that’s for sure. Their absence did not go unnoticed. Those two guys are usually right amongst us, and we missed them.”
Clint won his four world saddle bronc riding championships in 1980 and 1987-89.
“Lewis was probably the toughest of ’em all physically in his career,” Clint said. “One reason it’s hard to believe he’s sick is because as a competitor there was nobody tougher. He was so durable and strong. Getting on three or four bucking horses a day didn’t faze him. And he was always so tough mentally, too.
“Lewis has such a stabilizing personality. Rick Smith probably describes him the best. They’ve been friends since college. As Rick puts it, ‘Lewis’s the guy you call when you need some advice about something.’ He’s a real common-sense guy, so if you’re having trouble or need to make a decision you call Lewis. He’s such a sensible, solid guy; somebody you look up to and try to emulate.”
Like I’ve heard said about his son, Clint says you couldn’t help but be happy for Lewis when he won in his prime. He deserved it, and he’s just so nice.
“Nobody looked at Lewis as a rival,” Clint said. “We were just mutual competitors. When he was rodeoing, Lewis was the ultimate competitor. But you never really looked at him like that because you both wanted the other to do well. You wanted to see him win, and he wanted to see you win, too. You had your day and he had his. I’ll beat you today and you’ll beat me tomorrow.
“It was pretty hard not to miss Lewis at the Finals this year in a lot of ways. We just want him to be back. Lewis’s somebody you can always depend on, in more ways than one. You expect him to be there and you want him to be there. I’ve never gotten to know Jake as well, but I’ve always pulled for that guy, too. I’ve always liked and admired him. He’s always just struck me as a really good guy, and I’ve always really enjoyed watching him rope.”
This particular cowboy conversation has nothing to do with ends of the arena, and everything to do with the talent and mutual respect in this herd of Hall of Famers. What a golden era these guys gave us.
“It was the first year the Finals was in Vegas, and there was a changing of the guard among the cowboys about that time, too,” said Ote, who won the NFR average and his first of four world championships—the others came in 1990-91 and ’95—in 1985. “Lewis, Jake and Clay, Joe, Ted and I all won our first championships there that year. It was pretty cool to open the next chapter together. There were some dynasties that came out of 1985, and Lewis and Jake were right at the center of it.
“Everybody was so sad Lewis and Jake couldn’t be there at the Finals this year, and we all just want them to get better so they can be back soon. They’re both great cowboys and stand-up people. What Lewis and Jake have done for this sport really can’t be put into words. It’s priceless. They’re always positive, and they’re first-class guys you’re proud to call your friends.”
Lewis and Jake are, in fact, the first two cowboy friends I called when I got official word that the NFR contract that hiked the payoff at our Super Bowl from $6.375 million in 2014 to $10 million in 2015 was signed and sealed. I’d talked with both of them, and always so optimistically, during the trying times before the deal got done. Guys like them deserved to be the first to know. And they were supposed to be there, front and center, enjoying the record-breaking money at NFR ’15.
We were all stunned when we got word that Jake was hurt and out of this year’s Finals. Clay’s who texted me with the sad news, and it gave me the same sick feeling I had when talking to Clay on the phone while following an ambulance with Jake in it to the hospital in Vegas when Jake lost his right thumb in the heat of battle at the 2005 NFR. Jake Barnes is the ultimate warrior. He’s hobbled around on a right knee that desperately needs to be replaced at least the last couple years, but refuses to quit, complain or back down on his torturous work ethic. It’s also worth mentioning here that we’ve all been praying for 30-time NFR heeler and four-time World Champion Team Roper Allen Bach as he recovers from a recent stroke, and that Jake roped with Allen at his first Finals in 1980.
Jake’s horse wreck happened Friday. I got a text Sunday morning as I started my drive across the desert to Vegas from Jake’s friend and mine NFR heeler Rickey Green about starting a Jake Barnes Relief Fund on GoFundMe.com (www.gofundme.com/56ch4pkk). I’m thrilled to report that as this issue goes to press the week before Christmas, the rodeo family has already raised $132,270. And a big all-day fund-raiser will be held for Lewis on New Year’s Eve at the Sweetwater Equestrian Center in Heber City, Utah (www.facebook.com/buckcancerevent/timeline). It will include team roping, concessions, an auction and a 6 p.m. dinner.
Junior was one of the first people I ran into when I got to Vegas, and the kid who calls Jake “Dad” was one blue boy. “I wanted to cry the whole way here,” said Junior, who was set to rope with Jake at his second straight NFR this year. “Jake’s done everything for me. He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and taught me everything I know. I can never repay Jake for everything he’s done for me.”
Moments after the wreck, Junior dropped to his knees and prayed over Jake, just like he did his friend Leo back in Brazil when he and Junior were 14. Junior and Leo were playing around roping calves on foot, and Leo got knocked down. “It was exactly like Jake,” Junior said. “Leo hit the ground hard and quit breathing. I prayed over him, but he didn’t come back. He died. When this happened to Jake I had a flashback of that day. I was so scared for Jake.”
Jake was out cold, then out of it with a severe head injury. But before the ambulance could get there he’d climbed back in the saddle and run two more steers. “They couldn’t believe he did that,” Junior said. “But they don’t know Jake Barnes.”
Ironically, JoJo was Jake’s replacement. Yes, the same JoJo who had to sit out the backstretch of this regular season after wrecking on the Pendleton grass in the steer roping and breaking his right collarbone. Jake was in JoJo and Junior’s corner all the way. Jake texted Junior right before they roped their first steer: “Have no fear. Do what you know how to do. Good luck and God bless.”
JoJo and Junior took Jake’s advice. They were fearless. In fact, they rode into Round 10 in the driver’s seat of both the NFR average and world championship races. They were 50.2 on nine steers, and had 8.9 seconds on their last one to tie Jake and Clay’s 59.1-second NFR team roping record from all the way back in 1994. JoJo darn near jumped from 16th to the world championship. But he lost his rope. Still, Junior pointed to the Jake button over his heart, and kissed it one more time as he rode out of the arena.
Aaron Tsinigine emerged this year’s world champion header, and he was quick to credit Jake and NFR heeler Kyle Lockett for helping him through the highs and lows of the NFR marathon.
“When I got to Vegas I texted Jake to get well,” said fellow Arizonan Tsinigine. “He said, ‘Go get ’em.’ Then after the first round (which Spinigine and Ryan Motes won) Jake was the first one who texted me, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ It started there, and Jake coached and encouraged me through the whole thing. The first few rounds he would tell me good job. When I started to mess up I’d ask him what he thought. He always had a good plan for me. He kept telling me not to back off.”
No one has spent more miles in a truck with Jake over the years than his co-champ in those seven world titles, the man they all call Champ. “You can try to outwork Jake, but you’re probably not going to get it done,” Clay said. “There’s been no better roper, and his longevity is incredible. Jake just won’t be denied. When he sets his sights on something, he can’t be stopped. Jake’s like a brother to me. When you make a living together—especially how we came up, with nothing but a dream—it’s almost like going to battle together. There are great times and hard times, and that develops a special bond of friendship and camaraderie.”
When Lewis won that first world all-around crown in 1985, Clay was still roping a few calves and finished a close second just $3,598 behind Lewis. “Just like Jake, Lewis’s a class guy,” Clay said. “They’re both very humble and down to earth. I have total respect for Lewis and Jake the cowboys, and Lewis and Jake the people, and I wish them both the very best because they deserve it. Get well soon, guys. We love you.”
Courtesy of PRCA