"Ever heard of Asbury Schell?" I asked Tee Woolman one sunny May day.
Me: "Asbury Schell."
Tee: "Never heard of him."
We all know Tee. He's the guy who's competed at more National Finals than any other cowboy in rodeo history-40 total between 23 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
appearances and 17 National Finals Steer Roping qualifications. He's the guy who took the team roping triple crown in 1980, as the PRCA Rookie of the Year, world champion and NFR champ. He's the three-time champ of the world who's headed into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in August.
"So, who," you ask, "is Asbury Schell?"
He's the other three-time world champion team roper who'll be immortalized with induction into the Hall this summer. Schell was born 53 years ahead of Tee, who's 47 now, and would be celebrating just over a century of life were he still living. He'd have 101 candles on his cake this very month-July 22, to be exact-if he was still here. But at 77 he had a heart attack and died in Cottonwood, Ariz., in 1980.
To be honest, I'd never heard of Asbury Schell myself before the announcement of his impending induction. So, half-embarrassed about that, I set out to learn more about a man who by all accounts did some pretty amazing things with a rope in his hand. I never had the privilege of knowing him, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate and respect his accomplishments.
A day or two after that call with Tee, which my son Lane overheard, I stepped down the stairs from my office late one night to find Lane reading Phil Livingston and Jim Morris' book "The Driftwood Legacy." By pure coincidence, he was on the page about "that guy you were talking to Tee about."
Asbury Schell was "one of the most fiercely competitive hands ever to pick up a rope," it read. "Born in the Tonto Basin of Arizona in 1903, Asbury got his start roping at an early age. His father, Harley Edward Schell, was a cowman of the old school, and ranched in the rugged country where often the only way to catch a steer was to snare one blowing wide open off the side of some rocky mountain."
Hooked, I read on.
"Because of his small size (5' 8" and 140 pounds), Asbury learned early the value of a horse which would stop and get back, giving him control over big calves. He was also a team roper, equally adept at either end and dallying or team tying," they wrote. I've read in a number of old articles that winning the steer roping title at the 1939 Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up was, in Schell's own eyes, the highlight of his career.
Asbury Schell won the world team roping title in 1937, '39 and '52 (that last one four years before Tee was born). Some of his regular partners included Joe Bassett (Schell heeled for him), and 1936 and '38 World Champion Team Roper John Rhodes and 1930 and '33 World Champion All-Around Cowboy Clay Carr (Schell headed for them).
Schell had a reputation for always riding a good horse, among them Stranger, Midnight, Cowboy and Cowboy's sire, the legendary Driftwood. Schell bought Driftwood-he called him Speedy-for $1,000 from friend George Cline, and headed, heeled, roped calves, tripped steers and hazed bulldogging steers on the bay bomber, who also won many a cowhorse race back in the day.
According to Livingston and Morris, Schell sold Driftwood to Californians Channing and Katy Peake in 1943, after being "faced with gasoline rationing due to World War II and the curtailment of rodeos."
Schell bought another Driftwood horse, Maestro, for his son, Eddie. Heeling for two-time World Team Roping Titlist Dale Smith, Eddie won the 1954 world championship and is the only left-handed world champion in the event ever. Smith's Hall of Fame horse Poker Chip Peake was a son of Driftwood, too, by the way.
In the words of former PRCA President Smith, Schell "stayed horseback, had the best partners of his day and never claimed to be a good loser. He was quite a competitor."
"My dad was just a cowboy," added Eddie, now 75, retired and living in Peoria, Ariz. "He ranched all the time, and went to the rodeos to make extra money."
Early in his career, Asbury Schell-his friends called him Raz-stayed close to home and rodeoed exclusively in Arizona. He won his first checks at the rodeo in Payson, where Schell was once quoted saying, "All the action took place down the main street of town. There was a big wire pen on one side of town. The stock was turned loose, ran down the street and out of town on the other side. The men, including my dad, who roped steers and goats there years ago were at a disadvantage when the animals would run up on store and hotel porches. They just couldn't get to 'em."
According to longtime, legendary rodeo writer Willard Porter, Schell sold his ranch on the Agua Fria River in 1934 due to tough times brought on by draught and the Depression. That's when his travels started covering the country coast-to-coast, including trips to the rodeo at that time held at New York's Madison Square Garden.
"My dad rodeoed all year long, especially in the summer," Eddie remembers. "When I was a kid, we'd leave Salinas and have to drive day and night to get to Cheyenne before it started.
"My dad was very strict about his roping and everything he did. Everything had to be done just so. Being right-handed, he had a hard time teaching me to rope left-handed. But he never did try to change me over. He did train me to flank and tie calves right-handed, but I roped them left-handed."
Asbury Schell took great pride in his horse herd.
"Of all the attributes a horse should possess to be a first-class roping pony, speed is foremost," Schell told Porter back in the '40s. "Without speed, a man cannot overtake the fast crossbred Brahman calves that are roped in most of the big rodeos today. Before a man buys a rope pony prospect, he should see him run or at least know what he can do when it comes to running."
A competitor to the core, Asbury Schell headed and heeled his way to the winner's circle in many a big-ticket team roping match. Schell and Carr defeated 1936 World Champion Team Roper Rhodes and John Bowman, and Del Rey and Bowman, among others. Besides Bassett and Carr, Schell also traveled with Buckshot Sorrels, Olan Sims, six-time World Champ-ion Calf Roper Toots Mansfield and Jake Barnes' great uncle and 1930 World Champion Calf Roper Jake McClure.
In the late '40s and early '50s, heelers came in from the "hoop and scoop" left side. They called it "The California Side." According to Smith, Schell and his Arizona heeling contemporaries started taking their shot from the right, and "just beat 'em and moved 'em over. Nobody ropes from that (left) side now."
Asbury Schell is a legend in this sport, and legends never really die. He carried card No. 42 in the original Cowboys' Turtle Association, and PRCA gold card No. 182.
"I loved to rope, and I got that from my dad," Eddie said sentimentally. "I think he deserves to be in the Hall. He was one of the best."