Saturday, June 13, 2009

JJ Hampton: Rodeo Champion

Deborah Voorhees

World champion calf roper JJ Hampton will risk losing rather than come in second. Winning is just her way.

She'll throw her rope far and wild to catch quick. She doesn't care that the extra distance or odd angle might cause her to miss her calf and give her no score.

"A lot of people run up on a calf real close, " says Ms. Hampton, 29. That wastes precious seconds. "You can't win that way."

"I can throw my rope a country mile, " she says without a smidgen of humbleness. "There aren't many men who can throw as far as me."

This 5-foot-5 woman thrives on competition. The tougher the odds, the more she excels.
"You're not safe if I'm behind you. I feed off of that."

Sixteen world titles give Ms. Hampton bragging rights. Eleven are for calf roping and five for all-around cowgirl. That's more roping titles than any other woman active in the Professional Women's Rodeo Association. Historically, the legendary Wanda Bush won 17 roping titles in two decades (1950s and '60s), but Ms. Hampton has only been at this for six years.

"JJ has more heart and try than anyone I've ever met, " says Julie Munnerlyn, a fellow calf roper and friend. "But if anyone needs anything she's the first one to help."

In break-away, the champ has roped 35 calves in under 2 seconds with a personal record of 1.4 seconds. (Break-away refers to how the rope is rigged so it releases the calf as soon as the rope wraps around it.)

"Break-away is my favorite, " says Ms. Hampton. "There's something about trying to rope as fast as I can that I like . . . One day that will be the only way people rope. It's humane."

Last year was Ms. Hampton's most painful and most amazing year of competition. Many of her competitors thought she was finished after Fancy, her beloved world-champion roping mare, was killed. Winning came so easy for Ms. Hampton and her sorrel beauty with the flaxen mane. They moved as one athlete, neither ever a second ahead or behind.

The date was Aug. 15, 1998. Ms. Hampton was still excited from winning a $1,200 roping jackpot in Lusk, Wyoming, when she arrived at the arena in Glenrock, Wyoming. Fancy, still tied in her trailer, was to bed down in one of the pens for the night. The next day the two were to compete in another calf-roping jackpot.

As Ms. Hampton stumbled out of the truck and pulled on her tennis shoes she heard her sister Angie Yates scream, "Noooooooo . . . "

Ms. Yates, who had been driving, saw their fellow traveling companion open the trailer door without untying Fancy. The horse was high strung and easy to spook.

"I had this sick feeling in my gut when I heard her scream, " says Ms. Hampton. "I don't want to use this woman's name. I haven't forgiven her nor will I."

When the trailer door swung open Fancy tried to barrel out as she was prone to do. Fear welled up in her when she couldn't get loose. So she pulled back, physically moving the goose-neck trailer until she ripped off the metal piece she was tied to.

The piece flapped in her face and spooked her even more. Fancy spun around and ran.
"It was pitch dark, " says Ms. Hampton. "I didn't know how I was going to find her." She couldn't see anything but the dust Fancy had stirred up. Without a breeze it just hung in the air.
"I swear a light came out of the sky and lit the spot where Fancy was lying on the ground. I ran to her bawling and screaming."

Blood was coming from Fancy's chest and head. She had slammed into a rusted pipe fence. A piece of her ripped mane was stuck to the piping.

The woman asked Ms. Yates what she could do to help. "I remember hearing Angie say, "You've done enough. Leave us alone.' "

Fancy kept fighting to get up, thrashing her head and bashing it on the ground. To keep her from hurting herself anymore, Ms. Hampton took all the pillows and bedding from the trailer and stuffed them under her head. Ms. Hampton got down on the ground with her and begged her to stop fighting. Fancy had broken her neck and back. The vet said she'd have to be put down. Ms. Hampton wouldn't let her go until a second vet told her the same thing.

Just before she was given the injection, Ms. Hampton said goodbye. " "I love you. You're the best horse I ever had."

"Other than my grandfather dying that was the worse thing I've been through."

The sisters put winter blankets on her and waited for a man to come pick her up.

"That woman never even apologized, " says Ms. Hampton. "At the end of the trip she had the nerve to come up to me to say she wished she hadn't come cause she didn't win any money."

"You think I wouldn't give all my winnings back if I could have Fancy?" Ms. Hampton recalls yelling. "I wish you hadn't come, too. My horse would still be alive."

Ms. Hampton wanted to go home, which was a first for her. She had always been ready to go to the next town to the next competition. "I've been with her where she's driven all night long then she'll compete and drive and compete again, " says Ms. Munnerlyn. "When it was all done she'd say, "Gosh, I wish there was another rodeo to get to.' She loves it."

This time her heart just wasn't in it, but her mom wouldn't let her come home. She told her daughter, "Fancy wouldn't want you to quit."

The next morning Lisa Gasperson, one of Ms. Hampton's biggest competitors, tearfully offered Ms. Hampton her horse Bubba to ride. Ms. Hampton accepted. She had an illegal roping maneuver and didn't score.

For her next few competitions she borrowed horses until her mother bought her a $10,000 chestnut horse named Beethoven.

Ms. Hampton tried to turn him into her Fancy. Her friend with the white blaze running down her face had been replaced by Beethoven, a squat horse with muscles like a prizefighter. They'd place in competitions but only win here and there. Ms. Hampton's winning streak seemed over.
That perfect rhythm she had with Fancy was gone. Beethoven and she were opposites. He was quiet and business-like. She was hyper like Fancy. She missed how Fancy cockily pranced in the box before competition. Ms. Hampton didn't trust Beethoven and fought against him.

"I didn't believe in us, " she says. "We'd catch but not until too far out of the box.
"It's still hard on me. When I go to a rodeo one half of my team is gone."

As Ms. Hampton struggled with her demons she also had to hold down her job as an admissions marketing director at a nursing home in Fort Worth to pay for her roping habit.

"This is what makes me really mad, " says her father Johnny Wayne Hampton. "If she were a man and won all these titles she'd be set up for life." In 1999, Ms. Hampton earned $7,500 and the top male roper, Fred Whitfield, made $191,728. In addition, rodeo cowboys get far more corporate dollars.

Her drive to win has come at a price. She hasn't been able to afford to move out of her parents' home. She has little time to cut up with friends or find a mate. And to the chagrin of her grandmother, Helen Hampton, she gave up law school at the University of Texas at Austin. (Her undergraduate degree is in criminal justice from Tarlton State University in Stephenville, Texas.)

Still, she makes time to teach roping to her 5-year-old nephew Marty Yates Jr. Besides loving him, it's a debt she feels she owes to her coach and brother-in-law, who died in a car accident before the child's birth.

"When Marty Jr. asked me to teach him to rope he told me, "I want to be No. 1 like you.' " These days, he competes in junior rodeos just as Ms. Hampton did as a girl. "If I'm out practicing so is he."

The members of this rodeo family live within a half-mile of each other on an S-curve that runs through their 500-acre ranch. Ms. Hampton and her parents are in one house; her grandmother in another; her sister Ms. Yates and Marty Jr. in another; and her brother Row in yet another.
Just about 100 yards from Ms. Hampton's front door is the arena where she practices. Her parents Barbara and Johnny Wayne or little Marty work the chutes for Ms. Hampton as well as her sister and brother, both of whom rope.

Her father, a former roper, coaches and her mother keeps them mentally strong. "She gets me out of slumps, " says Ms. Hampton.

And it's her mom who gave Ms. Hampton her basic style. "Mother always said, "Nod, kick, swing and throw.' I don't know how she came up with it. She doesn't know the mechanics of roping but instinctively she knows what you're doing wrong."

Mentally, "I have my mother's drive. But I'm built like Dad. "I'm short and chunky, not athletically built. But I make up for it in try. I'm living proof that dreams come true."

At times, people have responded in disbelief when told she roped calves. A guy in bar looked her up and down and then asked her, "What can you do?' Then he told her he knew who could beat her. "JJ Hampton, " he announced. She said, "I am JJ Hampton."

Moments like this make her feel like an underdog. Even after 16 PWRA world championships and countless other titles, that awkward 6-year-old girl, who had trouble learning to rope, still peers through.

"The first three or four months I tried to rope I didn't catch a calf, " she recalls. "I was on too much of a horse for me. Once mom got me Shorty I started catching and never looked back."
At the junior rodeos when she'd do poor in an event she'd get mad.

"At 7 she told a girl, "One day I'm going to beat you. Maybe not today or tomorrow but I will, ' " recalls her mother.

"She wasn't a good loser, " adds her father. But the kid had spunk.

"At 4 years old if they wouldn't saddle a horse for me I'd get a bucket and stand on it and saddle myself." She admits to being a pest. "I refused to be left behind when it came time to pen cattle. They'd try to get up early and leave without me but I'd get up earlier."

Her sister's job was to go after little JJ because the horse she rode, Rerun, was always dumping her. "JJ and the horse would go over a stream or up a hill and the horse would make it and JJ wouldn't, " recalls Ms. Yates.

During her struggle with Beethoven she'd turn to her grandfather, Johnnie Hampton.
"I would go to the cemetery and talk to him, " she says. "I'd pray, "Papa, I'm having a hard time with this. I'm almost out of try. Just let me know I can do this.' "

Growing up, if you found JJ, you found her grandfather. They'd go to junior rodeos together, feed cows together, eat at the coffeehouse together and laugh and cuss together.
"He was always behind me in whatever I did, " she says.

Before he died of cancer July 6, 1992, it was her turn to be behind him. Each Friday for six months she sat with him.

"He had always been a healthy man but he'd drawn up to nothing, " she recalls. The memory still makes her cry. "He'd throw up his teeth. And I'd clean up after him and tell him it was OK and smooth back his bald head."

Without her grandfather and her Fancy she felt lost. She'd call home from the road and would hear doubt in the voices on the other end of the phone line. "I never heard that from my Papa."
Then in August 1999 something clicked. Beethoven and she came together. She was back in Wyoming where all her troubles started. "I guess that's where I had to go to put an end to them."

Her first break-away time was 2.8 seconds even though she drew a bad calf. It went left (which many ropers consider the most difficult catch). The next day, she roped two calves in a row at 2.6 seconds.

"That's when I knew, " she says. "Something released in me. I could relax." She knew the winner in her was back.

Just three months before the November PWRA finals at Fort Worth's Cowtown Coliseum, she and Beethoven started taking home one victory after another. She hoped it would be enough to win finals.

In perfect JJ Hampton form, she didn't want to win one event. She wanted a clean sweep. She intended to win all her events - break-away, team roping, tie-down - and crown the victory with the all-around cowgirl world championship title.

Two weeks before finals this improbable goal looked even more preposterous. Beethoven got sick with a flu that killed her brother's horse. It settled in Beethoven's lungs. Beethoven didn't get it as severe, but it kept him from practice.

Ms. Hampton could only wait and hope as she worked her roping arm and tended to Beethoven. Each day he improved. The day of the rodeo he was ready - or so she hoped. She packed her trailer, loaded Beethoven and headed for Fort Worth. Among her belongings were three pairs of new socks - one for each day of the competition.

"I have to have never-been-worn new socks to compete. It's not so much about luck. It's just one of my pet peeves."

Going into that first day of finals she was leading in break-away calf roping. Still her nerves kept her antsy. All she could do was busy herself with small tasks and watch the clock.
Night one, she missed her first calf in break-away. "That was my event, " she says. "I wasn't happy."

All wasn't hopeless, though. Finals are judged on the best of three runs. Plus, she had two more events to compete in that night. "I won tie-down and took fourth in team roping."
Night two, she won break-away, placed fourth in tie-down and didn't place in team roping. Her horse jumped out from under her.

"I fell off in front of a packed audience, " says Ms. Hampton, still laughing at herself. "Beethoven dumped me on my hip." Her bones ached as she pulled herself up and tipped her hat to the crowd. "A trainer worked on my hips and said I'd be sore." And she was. To walk she had to push her leg forward with her hand, and it was troublesome getting in and out of the car.

But that didn't stop her from going to get the morning's paper to see if it had a picture of her on the ground. To her relief it didn't. She loaded up on aspirin and got ready for the Sunday afternoon competition. Even with her rough start she still had a shot at all her events.
Ms. Hampton was the last roper in break-away. Lisa Gasperson (the woman who let Ms. Hampton borrow her horse) scored 1.9 seconds.

"Lisa threw her hand in her air, " says Ms. Hampton. "She knew she did well."
To win Ms. Hampton needed a 2.1 second time.
"I thought, nonbelievers step back."

Her calf went hard to left. "I had to win, " she says. "I couldn't even see that calf's head. No one would have thrown that rope. They would have run closer and taken a lesser place."
She threw it. The announcer called out 2.1 seconds.

"I stuck my hand up in the air. No. 1. My family was doing the same in the stands."
"I felt unstoppable that day. After that I told Angie I'm going to get all four championships."
And Jackie Johnette Hampton did just that. She took home the World Champion titles in break-away, tie-down, team roping and all-around cowgirl.

It was one of those days when everything went right. "You know when you can draw a bad calf and throw your rope backward and still catch!"

"I don't usually show too much emotion but I couldn't stop smiling for two weeks. I was walking 10 feet off the ground. They tried to beat me but they didn't get it done."

"Don't ever count her out, " says her father. "She's head strong."

After all, for Ms. Hampton winning is the only acceptable outcome.

No comments: