Joe B Launches Comeback

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You can't stop someone who never stops.

And good luck with this guy, because Joe Beaver jumps out of bed every day trotting toward the next round of challenges. Job One right now is a career comeback of big-league proportions.

After sitting out the entire 2007 rodeo season following hip surgery the end of '06 (a few short days after he won the all-around at the 2006 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo), the snickers of the naysayers sound so familiar to me. They're reminiscent of those that followed fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer Ty Murray around for a while after surgeries on both knees and shoulders; during his quest to become the only seven-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association history. "Ty's toast," the Doubting Douglases declared. He quietly put his head down, rehabbed 'til it hurt and proved them all wrong.

Now it's Joe's turn, and the Negative Nellies are again out in full force. At 42, it's their not-so-humble opinion that he's too old, too fat, too slow. They're all blow. And they obviously don't know Joe.

Is he hampered by the hip, and the aches and pains felt by every middle-aged professional athlete who ever suited up? Yes. But if you think that's enough to stop Joe B, you've grossly underestimated the competitive core of this cowboy's soul.

"I've had to regroup and change a couple things, because my hip won't do what it used to do," explained the talented Texan, who's closing in on $3 million in PRCA career earnings and has, in fact, won more than any other cowboy in the history of this game. "But it won't keep me from winning. That's going to take more than my hip."

It always does. There are too many examples-from busted bones to stretched, strained and snapped ligaments-to count when you're talking about this five-time World Champion Tie-Down Roper, who's one of the rare few who won his first gold buckle simultaneously with PRCA Rookie of the Year honors in 1985. So let's just look at one. Did you know Joe won his second of three World All-Around Cowboy Crowns in 1996 with a broken wrist? Stuff like that rarely makes the fine print in the record books, but it's worth repeating.

The barrier rope blew back over his neck and body in the team roping at the rodeo in Eugene, Ore. in the middle of June, and jerked Joe straight out the back and off his horse. He knew when he hit the ground that his left wrist was broken, and begged that they bring the steer right back before the swelling kicked in (unlike a normal person who'd have headed straight for the hospital). But they waited until after the rodeo.

He couldn't bend his wrist or close his hand, so his old buddy Mike Arnold (Joe calls him "my brother from another mother; we've been running together since I was 12 and he was 16") helped him improvise using a roll of black tape. They taped his three coils together, then stuck the bundle between the two fingers they could pry apart. They shortened up his reins, and Joe wedged them in the crook of his arm. Talk about "True Grit."

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The way Joe saw it, there were a couple of 5s, then it went to a long 7. So third, which paid $1,000, was within his hobbled reach. And, he figured, that was $1,000 less he'd have to win later in the year, when he returned after healing up. Joe stuck it on the steer and somehow managed to get a wrap around the horn. Tom Bourne, who had tried in vain to convince Joe to "let it go" and turn the steer out, hammered him and jerked Joe and his head horse around for a rather rough facing job. The flag dropped, they won third and-when the adrenaline and that strong will of his let up after getting it done-Joe about passed out from the pain right there in the middle of the arena. They then dropped everything and headed to Boise for a cast.

Joe tried to come back at Cheyenne that summer, and even managed to make the short round. But it just wasn't working. The wrist wouldn't function enough to even try to get by. He sat out some more, until Labor Day, when he got word that Ty was hurt again. That crack in the door is when Joe traded the cast in for a specially made brace and made his move.

Joe took the whole 2007 season off because he had to. His hip made the decision for him. He honestly spent a good part of it wondering if this wasn't the final roadblock; the first career obstacle he actually could not clear. He pushed the edge of his physical progress every day, one tiny test at a time. Because his hip no longer fully functions, he's had to evolve-again-with new moves to compensate. It would have been a much easier task with his dad, Walter, around. He'd have had it boiled down in one afternoon practice session. But in his absence-cancer took Walter in the fall of 2006-Joe's been on his own to ponder "what Dad would say" and figure things out on his own. Good thing Walter taught him well. Oh, and never to give up if you have half a chance.

"I've had to make some adjustments, like the way I step around calves to tie, and the way I sit on calves," Joe explained. "My hip won't rotate like it used to, so I've had to change a few things. The good news is that it doesn't hurt as bad as it did; the pain is finally starting to give me a little break."

A consummate competitor like Joe wants to play starting QB at the Super Bowl. But if injuries won't let him in the game, who better to call the action and take the fans inside the huddle? Joe again lent his expert insight-which is always honest and at times flat funny-to the 2007 NFR telecast on ESPN and ESPN2.

"Commentating at the Finals is a great opportunity and a lot of fun," he said. "It's a great deal if you're hurt and aren't rodeoing. Now if I was there because I missed 'em (the Finals), that'd be bad. But if you can't play, you might as well be on the sidelines calling it like you see it. I want to do a lot more TV work later. But I don't think my edge is gone yet, to where I want to bow out and just be happy with that."

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He clocked out at NFR '07 after Round 10 on Saturday night, Dec. 15. By Tuesday, Dec. 18, Joe, wife Jenna, son Brody and bud brother Arnold were wheels up en route to Australia for another passion of Joe's-helping other ropers reach for their potential. They plane-hopped from Houston to Los Angeles, Honolulu to Sydney.

The first-ever Down Under Joe B Roping School was held just outside of Sydney. They then ventured up to Rockhampton, before heading over to Emerald.

"Some of the really tough ropers from Australia came to that one," said Joe, clearly impressed. "A lot of them work in the coal mines-seven days on, seven days off. They couldn't get off work to come to the other schools, so we set one up for them. We rang in the new year in Emerald, Queensland, Australia. They had a rodeo and a big New Year's Eve party. That town reminded me a lot of Oakdale (Calif.). There's a really nice little rodeo grounds there."

They took in the world-famous Sydney Harbour, buzzed Brisbane, cruised a crocodile farm near Rockhampton, and had a big time playing tourist all along the way. Then it was on to New Zealand, after that leg's organizer, Clayton Potts, assured his American mate Joe that "it's only three hours across the pond" from Australia. Joe and Company flew into Auckland, New Zealand, rented a car and drove to a rodeo there.

"We got to meet all the champs down there, including Merv Church, who's like the Jim Shoulders of New Zealand," said Joe, who also noted that the cost of living is a lot higher in that part of the world; "It cost $45 for four of us to eat at McDonald's." "He rode broncs, roped calves, bulldogged. He did it all. Now his kids are rodeoing. The Churches are like the first family of rodeo over there. They pack those places when they have a rodeo. There are hillsides of people. They go sit in the grass on the hill and watch the rodeo. They love it.

"We got to see so many cool things. They set us up with a plane ride to tour the volcanoes. And the natives do a dance down there that's impossible to describe. The cowboys joined in and did it just for us before the rodeo. We went to the rodeo for two days on the north island, then had a school. We had one student who looked like 'The Man from Snowy River.' Those guys were so hungry for help that it was really fun to help them."

Three weeks of fun and adventure later-on January 11-Joe B and Company returned to the States with stories galore.

"The people were great," he said. "We made a lot of new friends. What a great time. It's so revitalizing to see what we take for granted, and how our rodeos have evolved over here. How great to get to see how other people rope, and live-to be in Rome and see how the Romans do it.

"I love doing the schools, because I can make a difference. I don't care how good you rope, I can make you better."

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He's taught roping schools literally coast to coast-California, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, you name it. He had a school in the Dominican Republic, too. And he's helped people at every level of the game, from complete novices to gold buckle guys. Ryan Jarrett was the World Champion All-Around Cowboy in 2005, but way back when was just "a kid who really stuck out at a school in Alabama when he was about 15."

Joe has a picture of three-time NFR tie-down roper Scott Kormos sitting on Joe's great horse Pat at his Thanksgiving roping school when Kormos was 10. Tiny at the time (Kormos is still just 5' 7"), Joe had heck convincing the scrappy kid that he needed to use his upper body for leverage in order to compensate for his size. "I got on my knees to show him how to use his upper body to pick calves up," Joe smiles. "That kid had so much try. He's been one of my favorites ever since."

Joe, who's roping calves and heading for back-to-back NFR team roping titlist (1998-99) Brad Culpepper, had only been to one 2008 rodeo, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, when I hit send on this story the end of January. He placed on his first calf back. He also tied his horse up and took time out-per usual-to make someone else's day.

Joe went way out of his way to spend a day with a Make-A-Wish child, wheelchair-bound Shane Wood, and his twin brother, Seth. Joe gathered both boys up in his arms, and off they went. He put them on a pony, and toured them through a living quarters trailer because they were curious about how real cowboys live on the road. "Days like that are always more rewarding for me than they are for the kids," Joe said.

Joe's lived through enough hurt and heartache of his own to appreciate the good times. And the older he gets, the more obvious it becomes to him that the opportunity to be on top may not knock too many more times. The goal now is to get back to the Finals in both events.

"Now I've got a major challenge," he said. "Can he come back again after a year off? I wonder if he's still got it at his age? This time is more about satisfying me than anything; to prove to myself that I can come back from anything. This is personal, because honestly, after this hip surgery I even started to wonder if this injury might have me this time.

"I appreciate the competitive time I have left more than ever. I appreciate being a threat more than ever. There's going to come a time when we're all going to get beat. So I savor the time I have left to be a threat and know when I ride in there that I can back in there and beat 'em up. When my time is up and I do step down, maybe someone I've helped will take my spot. That'd be satisfying knowing I helped a guy get there."

There's always a bright side with Joe B.

"It's all about a challenge-everything," he said. "The challenge of that trip to Australia and New Zealand was to see if I'd drop everything and get on a plane for 20 hours to see if I could help those people over there rope better. It's a challenge to see if I can prove everybody wrong who doesn't think I can come back this time. It's all about winning and losing to me, but the bottom line is how you play the game. If you don't play the game good enough, you aren't going to win. I don't care who you are.

"I'm pumped. I feel sharp. I'm excited about this year. I have some schools in California, Oregon, Montana and Mississippi this spring. Then I'm going to hit it hard this summer. I'd like to have the Finals made in both events by Labor Day. That's what I'm shootin' at."

Walt Woodard winning it all again half a lifetime later-at 52-has all the greats inspired and ready for an encore.

"Hats off to him," Joe said. "Anybody who can come back 26 years later and win the world again is a true champion. His character and mind strength are unbelievable, much less his talent."

A few of the noticeably absents-the likes of Joe with his hip, Jarrett after a knee operation and Fred Whitfield, who was sidelined by neck and rotator cuff surgeries-changed the face of the 2007 calf roping race.

"There are some guys who don't play for fun-they play for keeps-that are entering again this year," he said. "It's going to be fun."