Montana Day at the 2008 Reno Rodeo Invitational

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The rodeo community is amazing, and we are all so connected. I first got word on the devastating roping injury of Don Proue, whom I've never met, through my Montana friend Phil Luman. He's the brother of late World Champion Team Roper Ken Luman, and after we met at Ken's memorial service a few years ago we've stayed in touch via email.

One of my last email exchanges with Phil late last spring-before he retired and left cyberspace behind (if you're reading this, Phil, you really must write)-was his forwarding of a May 12 email sent by Don's daughter, Jenny Gilbert, with the subject line of "Pray for my Dad." It was her written reaching out to family and friends to inform them of her dad's May 9 accident, in which his head horse flipped head over heels and the first thing that hit the ground was Don's head.

Per Jenny's first email, "CT scans revealed that he suffered a brain bleed and some bruising in the brain stem. Unfortunately, the area of the injury is 'in some very valuable real estate,' as the neurosurgeon put it. The damaged nerve area is the part of the brain that controls consciousness, or the 'light switch' that controls whether or not we are conscious. There is no way to know whether these very, very important nerve cells and fibers were damaged beyond repair, or just severely traumatized and will heal."

It was one of those things that just grabs your heart and pulls you in. It could happen to any of us. I asked Phil to tell me a little bit about Don, so I could imagine him in my mind and think good thoughts for him and his healing. "Don is in his 50s," Phil wrote back. "He's a local rancher who ropes good. His daughter is a breakaway roper, and his son heels really well. They are ranch people, and really good with their horses. Just a nice family and part of our roping community here in Montana."

I was soon thereafter added to Jenny's list for regular updates on her dad, and have anxiously opened each and every one with hopeful anticipation of positive progress. I was reminded yet again June 24 in Reno what a small and wonderful world this is, when the Reno Rodeo Invitational opened with a prayer for none other than Don Proue. The Reno Livestock Events Center was packed with the 542 ropers that comprised this year's 271-team field, and all heads were bowed in prayer for this man I'd only recently started following from afar.

Not long after sunup, the guy who led the arena-wide prayer was Levi Britton, who was heeling for Don the day of the accident. Levi's heart was heavy, and he wore a pair of spurs Don made for luck at the RRI. That's when fate walked in the door. And before the sun went down on that divine day, Britton and fellow Montanan Heath Myers had not only won the $200,000 presented in the Reno Rodeo Invitational winner's circle, but Don Proue had taken his first two steps since the coma and even waved at daughter Jenny. "This is a special day," Britton beamed. And it was. Jumping the arena wall for the first handshakes after their celebratory victory lap were Big Sky boys and Wrangler National Finals Rodeo headers Clay Tryan and Shane Schwenke. Tryan had won the BFI the day before with Walt Woodard, and Schwenke used to head for Myers back in high school (though Myers won the RRI on the heading side). "We were kids together," said Schwenke, who hangs his hat in Harlem, Mont. "We learned to rope together when we were young. This is cool."

"I had to watch my Billings buddies," added Tryan, the 2005 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion team roper and a two-time BFI champ. "Seeing people do well from where I'm from makes me proud. Montana had a good couple days here in Reno. I've known Levi since I was a little kid. I've known Heath five or six years. Travis (his fellow NFR header brother) and I had a roping school at Levi's house two weeks ago." Tryan also pointed out that-amazingly enough-Britton and Myers' short-round steer was the same steer he and Woodard ran for their high-team run the day before.

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Myers, of Boyd, Mont., said he studied BFI tapes-paying particular attention to the Tryan brothers and Schwenke-as part of his preparation package for the Reno Rodeo Invitational. "Shane got to go down the road, and I got to go to work," smiled Myers, 41, who lives 40 miles south of Billings with his wife, Marlaina, and kids, Cade, 18, Bailey, 15, and Cotton, 10. "He may have had days like this along the way, but not me. I grew up roping, but haven't been able to go that much. This is going to take a couple days to sink in. I'm going to wake up and think this is a dream."

Britton and Myers hit the rich Reno Rodeo Invitational jackpot for $200,000 of the million-plus up for grabs, Cactus saddles, Gist buckles, D Bar M saddle pads and Malloy rope frames. They won the 12th annual RRI, which is a No. 11 roping capped at a No. 6, by stopping the clock four times in 39.08 seconds over the 11´ 6˝ RRI scoreline (the box is 19 feet deep).

Britton, 47, lives in Billings with his wife, Bobbie. He has two grown children, Cheryl, 29, and Luke, 26, and three grandkids. "This is my first time here," he said. "It'll be the best roping I never get to come back to."

It's true. Pocket the $100,000, and Reno Rodeo Invitational Producer Perry Di Loreto shakes your hand and says goodbye. It's far too special an experience not to spread it around a little. It was Myers' fourth trip to Reno, though he'd never had much luck beyond winning his fees back before.

Myers and Britton have roped together at area jackpots off and on for 20 years. "Heath rides a nice horse and sets cattle nice, which makes my job easier," Britton said. "The header makes the heeler. Both of us are a product of the Tryan family. I've been to all their schools. I'm one of the few people who can say they won a saddle with Clay Tryan. I've always held that as pretty neat."

Myers rode an 18-year-old bay horse he calls Jet. He broke him to ride as a 3-year-old. "He has a lot of run and a lot of try," Myers said. "He rates the same every time. When you're an evening and weekend roper, it takes longer to make horses. I sell flooring and furniture, and farm and ranch some. In roping, 75 percent of a team roper is the horse. But it's hard for a guy who works for a living to get in 20 runs before dark."

Having known Britton about 20 years, Myers said he's always been impressed by his focus. "Levi's solid at both ends," Myers has noticed. "I've seen him in a lot of pressure situations over the years. He's been there, and he's a seasoned veteran."

Myers, a USTRC No. 5, and Britton, a USTRC No. 6, arrived three days early to accommodate the perfect practice session on RRI eve. "We practiced yesterday for today," Britton explained. "We roped two sets of four steers, and we roped all eight by two horns and two feet. That was a boost of confidence. We came to run at the average and make sure, so that confidence helps. Everybody gets nervous, whether it's for $100 or $100,000. There's always an element of nerves."

Myers and Britton were the high team back after three rounds. And after five of the six teams who roped right ahead of them missed, and the other team legged, they had 14 seconds to play with. Their 7.68 plus five, which translated to 12.68, sealed the tall-dollar deal. And as if the $200,000 grand prize wasn't enough, these two had themselves bought in the calcutta. That little investment bolstered their bank accounts by another $30,000.

"I don't take this lightly, and Levi and I came here to focus on this task," said Myers, whose previous best was a $7,100 pop "for third at the Northern States Invitational in Billings, which is one of the Tryans' Wrangler ropings." "This, to me, is the world championship. I will never have a chance to go to the NFR. I've had dreams since I was a little kid roping the dummy. Every time you rope the dummy you get in the scenario, 'OK, this is the 10th steer at the NFR. That dream starts when you're 5 and is still going when you're 41.

"This is what we rope for. This roping is the NFR for amateur team ropers. I live for this roping. I cannot describe how I feel right now, because I've dreamt about it for so, so long. I'd like to thank Steve Miller of Montana Silversmiths for telling me about this roping and getting me involved. I also need to thank my wife for letting me do this. She stayed home and worked today."

When Tryan won the 2005 BFI with Patrick Smith, Myers talked to him about butterflies and nerves. "I walked up to Clay and asked him what it felt like to back in the box second high call at the most prestigious roping," remembers Myers, who used an extra-soft Fast Back Ultimate 4 ("The one designed by Clay Tryan," he said.). "I asked if he was nervous. He said, 'Not really. We get used to roping for big money. And it doesn't seem like I do as good when I'm nervous anyway.' That helped me a lot. You have to swallow the nerves."

Britton, who won it all with a medium-hard Classic Moneymaker, is best off breaking things down. "I have to break every run down into bite-sized pieces so I can think my way through it," he said. "We had to stay aggressive on that last steer, because if you don't you'll miss every time. We harped on just going and roping to catch him and not softening up or safetying up. That's a recipe for disaster."

Cecil Nichol and Jim Watson climbed from the eighth spot after three rounds to claim the reserve RRI championship in 2008. The feat was worth $125,000, Gist buckles, Myler bits, Montana Silversmiths bronze sculptures, Windmill headstalls, nosebands and breast collars. "I thought my time was going to run out before I ever had a day like this," Nichol smiled.

Nichol and Watson ran down their four steers in 40.64 seconds, with a little help from this year's high-money American Quarter Horse Association-registered head horse beneath Nichol. His 9-year-old gray horse, Espuela Cowboy-he calls him "Ike" for short-was tops among the registered head-horse herd.

The heeling half of the Montana Silversmiths/AQHA/RRI High Money Head and Heel Horse Awards in 2008 went to Britton's blue roan Dynamite Blue Bar, aka "Doc," 12. Montana Silversmiths Vice President of Marketing and Western Events Steve Miller, who annually enters the RRI, has handcrafted bronzes the last five years to honor the high-money AQHA-registered horses. "I'm as proud of this as any other prize," Britton said. "I raise horses, and my favorite color is blue roan with black points (face and legs). I am so proud to win this bronze, especially since it was made in Montana. What a thrill.

"I bought this horse five years ago, primarily as a head horse. He's really good at both ends. He's strong, stout, fast and high strung. He has a good carburetor and a lot of spirit."

Britton, a land developer who just sold the hunting camp in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada, where he's guided hunters for 27 years, had already eartagged part of his $100 grand for horsepower. "I take this from Clay and Travis," said Britton, whose previous best roping day was at the 1996 USTRC Finals, when he placed sixth with his son in the No. 6 roping (today's equivalent to a No. 10). Luke was 11 at the time. "If I spend any of this, I'll dedicate some of it to another good horse. I'll follow suit with them, and make sure there are horses coming up behind these good ones."

The RRI staff thanks every contestant for coming with a prize package that this year included a custom-embroidered Wrangler shirt, a leather Professional's Choice jacket, Professional's Choice gift certificates, a "1 Day, $1,000,000" RRI cap, a Cabela's gift card and a D Bar M gift certificate.

The RRI three-steer "bonus average" was worth $15,000 and Gist buckles to Buddy Miller and Lucas Leavitt, who put together three runs in 24.38 seconds. A separate high-team round is held for the fastest teams on two steers, from any combination of the first and second, second and third, or first and third steers.

Go-rounds at the 2008 Reno Rodeo Invitational paid $9,000 per team for first, $8,000 for second, $7,500 for third and $7,000 for fourth. Kirby Anderson and bareback riding great Mickey Young took the opening round in a rapid 7.06 seconds. Greg Miller and Bret Layne tightened things up in round two with a 6.92-second sizzler.

George Ortega and Nick Kavathas topped round three in 5.85 seconds, and took home a pair of D Bar M spurs for making the fastest run of the roping in addition to the cash. The four-steer short-round win was worth $9,000 to Doug May Jr. and Sr. for their 7.81-second run. They were the first of 53 teams to rope in the four-steer short round. Every team who catches three makes that cut.

"We give ropers as many chances to throw their ropes as we can," Di Loreto said. "We like to spread the wealth at this roping, and when people pay these kind of entry fees they're entitled to a first-class roping. That means good cattle, good conditions and a well-run roping. Based on the compliments we're getting, I like to think we're getting that done. That's what we're committed to producing, so we're always looking for ways to improve this thing."

That's not an easy task, when you're talking about "the big one" that's already all the buzz. Fact is, Di Loreto has the frustrating task of having to turn teams away every year.

"This event has grown to the point that I have to look at the number of teams," he said. "There are so many more teams who want to enter than we can take. And there are so many challenges, from stalls to parking, time constraints and other logistical limitations. We're committed to keeping this to one day, and that's not an easy task. But we'll keep working hard to tweak it and fine-tune it, and make it the very best event it can be."

The translation here is that in all likelihood, the number of teams will decrease and entry fees will increase in 2009.

"This year's 271 teams worked flawlessly, but from my perspective you can't count on perfection all the time," Di Loreto said. "There's a lot of pressure to keep this roping contained to a certain time slot. It went great this year, but we need to look at the number of teams. The ideal number is probably 250 or less. The only way this thing runs as smoothly as it does is because of the ropers' cooperation. I'm very grateful for that, and I want the ropers to know how much I appreciate it. They make it happen.

"As for the entry fees, they probably will be raised in 2009. It'll still pay $100,000 a man to win it, but it'll pay even deeper. Let's face it, if you just go catch something you get a check, because there are so many ways to win. Any increase in the entry fees will be reflected in the payout."

The payout is second to none, as is this event's commitment to worthy causes. In 2003, the Reno Rodeo Foundation and Di Loreto launched a $2.6 million capital campaign to construct a facility aimed at benefitting abused and neglected children and teenagers placed in emergency protective custody and served by the Washoe County Department of Social Services, McGee Center for Adolescent Service and the Children's Cabinet. On June 5, the 12,000-square-foot Kids Kampus Activity Center, which includes a gymnasium, computer lab and meeting space for year-round activities, was dedicated. Di Loreto spoke at the dedication ceremony on a cause very dear to his heart.

"That was a huge milestone," Di Loreto said. "It's something we started on five years ago, and as costs doubled, we doubled our commitment. The Reno Rodeo Invitational put $600,000 into that project in the last five years. We're the ones who got the ball rolling. The Reno Rodeo Foundation matched what we put in, and the Reno Rodeo Association stepped up in a big way, too, as did the state of Nevada, Washoe County and the entire Reno and Western communities. Every roper and every sponsor here made it happen."

Part of what drives Di Loreto is that he's a goal guy. When the workdays get long and the headaches get heavy, it helps to have a worthy cause to focus on.

"Next we'll focus on disabled veterans issues-those who've lost their lives and those who are disabled," Di Loreto continued. "We have a foundation set up for that, and are going to make a multi-year, long-term commitment to it. I like to give a lot of money away. But I like to work for it, and I like to have other people join with me in doing something constructive. The Nevada Patriot Fund, which is Nevadans helping Nevadans, is dedicated to providing financial support to the families of those who die at war from the state of Nevada. This will be one of the new charities that's the focus of this event. This cause will serve as my motivation now. Nevada's lost 47 soldiers in this war, and I've probably been to a third of those funerals, so this is another cause very close to my heart."

Everything about this event is a labor of love for Di Loreto, and both the charities and the ropers reap the rewards.

"Perry cuts no corners," Myers said. "This is the absolute Cadillac of ropings. It doesn't get any better than this. Anyone who's numbered right is absolutely out of their mind not to come to this. The way it's run-it's just classy, right down to the food at the banquet the night before. Everything is high class, every roper is screened so it's fair and everything about it is just excellent."

"This roping is first class," Britton said. "Perry sets up as fine a roping as I've ever been to. The staff (which is led by Di Loreto's daughter and RRI wheelhorse Teresa Di Loreto-Long), the awards, the money-he gets the best of everything, and surrounds himself with an excellent team."

Daphne Van Stavern and Kaitlin Bess Strike it Rich at 2008 Reno Rodeo Invitational Ladies Only

In 2007, Reno Rodeo Invitational Producer Perry Di Loreto decided to add an all-girl encore to his world-famous roping. He gave the Western world's finest and most ferocious female competitors a well-deserved day of their own with the introduction of the Reno Rodeo Invitational Ladies Only Roping.

The torch of this relatively new tradition was lit again June 25 at the second annual RRI Ladies Only, which features a roper-friendly format that lands every contestant in a short round. Whether you're talking about the leaders of the pack heading into the four-steer short round with three steers down, or those teams who had a bad day and basically bombed out in all three preliminary rounds, Di Loreto brings them all back for one final shootout and chance at the chips. The four-steer average is the ultimate bull's-eye, but Di Loreto's innovative all-in concept gives everyone one last bullet to look forward to, be it the four-steer, three-steer or two-steer averages, or winner-take-all one-steer.

The RRI Ladies Only blossomed from the inaugural field's 94 teams to a full 120 in 2008. The fiercest female ropers from across the land flocked to Reno to take a shot at the $20,000 brass champions' ring.

In the end, the sixth high team of Daphne Van Stavern and Kaitlin Bess catapulted to the top.

After riding into the short round a little over 10 seconds behind the leaders, they had no clue when they roped their fourth steer in 10.03 seconds that the win was a possibility. Legs by the two teams in front of them, followed by misses by the top three teams, left the Northern Californians nearly speechless.

"I am blown away right now," said a stunned Bess, 19. "My partner and I have been practicing three or four days a week for three or four months for this, but before now I've only roped at little jackpots here and there."

Bess, who's single, heeled for 28-year-old mother of two Van Stavern.

"I came and watched last year to support my girlfriends, but didn't enter because I didn't have the money," explained the winning team's heading half, Van Stavern, who is Bess's neighbor in Lincoln, Calif. "When I was here watching last year, I was so sorry I wasn't entered. I told Kaitlin, 'If you can find us a sponsor, I'm in.' "

Bess has now roped in both of the first two RRI Ladies Only ropings. She didn't have any luck last year, but said that only fueled her fire to return ready to rope up in '08. Bess's dad, Kelly, found his favorite team a sponsor in friends Keith and Kathy Harris.

Bess rode a 6-year-old gray horse, Gunner, who's been her main mount for about six months. "We bought him at a benefit for a little girl who became a quadriplegic in a bad car accident," explained Bess, whose cheerleading squad also includes her mom, Susan, and little sister, Kassi. "Her name is Taylor Parker, and the money went to her."

Van Stavern had to beg Brian and Michelle Wolf to sell her the 10-year-old black horse, Blackie, that she rode at the RRI Ladies Only. Brian's the rodeo coach up at Lassen College in Susanville, Calif. "This horse always keeps me on my toes," Van Stavern grinned. "He always has one little quirk. He scores good and runs hard, but it's always something with him. He's really improved my roping, because he was at a level above me. Learning how to keep him working has made me better."

Van Stavern is kind of like an adopted big sister to Bess.

"I've known Kaitlin since she was 5," said Van Stavern, who lives "across town." "I've always known her family, and my husband (Tim) and I practice at their house a lot. Her dad bought us 15 fresh steers this spring to practice on to be ready for this roping, so I owe him a huge thank you."

It truly is "all in the family" with this crew. Kaitlin's little sister, Kassi, babysits Daphne's little boys, Bryce and Blake, who are 3 and 22 months old, respectively, when they practice. "Then her parents cook us dinner when we're done," Van Stavern said. "I need to thank her parents big time. Kaiti is amazing, too. She's always positive. She's so much fun. She never blames me for a thing, no matter how bad my handles are. She's a great partner, she's fun to hang out with and she has an awesome family."

The feeling is definitely mutual.

"Daphne is one of the nicest, sweetest people I've ever met," Bess believes. "She's awesome, and I love roping with her. She's an amazing partner. She's always wondering what she can do to make my job easier. Van Stavern's humble response: "That's because she has the hard job."

Bess will be a junior at Sierra Junior College in nearby Rocklin this fall. The liberal studies major, who eventually wants to teach elementary school, plans to transfer to Chico State.

"This roping is amazing," Bess said. "It's just fun. Girls come from all over the United States. There's just something about this event. The payout's great, and there are so many ways to win that you almost can't go wrong. I've won a little money here and there, and some buckles in the past. But this is my first saddle. And the money I won here today doesn't compare to checks I've gotten in the past. I am ecstatic. I was almost crying before we made our last run. And when it was over, I was crying. 'Thank you Perry' isn't near enough."

That's a fair statement, considering that when he discovered 10 teams had caught their first three steers, he-spur of the moment-added two places to the four-steer payoff, so everyone who got that far would get in on a piece of the Ladies Only action. Perry pitched in an additional $6,250 above and beyond the plan to honor all those who'd fought the good fight.

Van Stavern and Bess roped their four steers in 49.17 seconds over the 10' 6" RRI Ladies Only scoreline (the box is 19 feet deep) for the victory lap, $20,000, Windmill saddles, Gist buckles, Team Equine saddle pads and King Saddlery rope certificates. Bess roped legs on their first and third steers.

"Everything was in slow motion for me today," Bess said. "When you're focused, it's all so clear. Our strategy was just to catch. There aren't a lot of teams who rope four steers in a row. When Perry decided to pay 10 places in the average right before the short round, we had nothing to lose and money to gain by going for it. So that's what we did. I love the crowd here. I love it when people watch me rope. It pumps me up and makes me want to rope better."

Van Stavern and Bess bested reserve champs Carole Rogers and Jennie Steele of Nevada by a little better than three seconds after Rogers and Steele legged their last one and were 16.94 in the short round.

"A lot of dedication and practice went into this win," Van Stavern said. "We worked at it, and I felt very confident because we were so prepared. It didn't hurt that we had four perfect steers that didn't challenge us as much as we've been challenging ourselves. We haven't gone to a lot of weekend jackpots lately, so we wouldn't revert to our old, bad habits. We stayed focused on keeping things right. This is the only all-girl roping we've been to that's even close to this caliber. It's that much bigger of a roping than anything else we've ever seen.

"We would all really like to thank Perry Di Loreto for taking a chance on us girls and doing this for us. Already having money won when we rode in to rope our last steer took a lot of pressure off. It's pretty neat when your philosophy can be 'just go catch,' and you can win big money by being smart and safe. This is by far my biggest accomplishment as a roper. It beats everything else I've done in this sport by far. Thank you, Perry, for this chance."