LAS VEGAS– It’s been six years since Jhett Johnson first qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Many things have changed since then, but Johnson remains one of the greatest heelers in the game of team roping. That’s why he returns to the City of Lights for the fifth time in his career. The NFR is where world champions will be crowned, but just as importantly, it’s where the biggest prize pool is available to the best the sport has to offer.
Johnson, 40, of Casper,Wyo., is the father of three who rodeos for a living. That means a lot of time on the road and away from his wife of 15 years, Jenny, and their sons, Kellan, Carson and Kress. Making the NFR is a way to make up for lost time, and the $17,885 available to go-round winners each of the 10 nights of the championship is a big reason why.
Roping with Turtle Powell, a six-time NFR qualifying header from Stephenville, Texas, Johnson has had a solid 2011, finishing the regular season 12th in the world standings with $71,487. The team roping tandem had their biggest win at the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo, but they also added key victories in Walla Walla,Wash., and Garden City, Kan.
But that’s the tip of the iceberg for the team – one heeler can’t earn that much money at just a handful of rodeos, no matter their payouts. The reality is that Powell and Johnson were consistent most of the season. Even though they didn’t have many victories, they were in the money more times than not; that’s a good way to make a hard living.
You see, rodeo is much different than most professional sports. Not only do cowboys cover their own expenses – instead of flying first class and staying in five-star digs paid for by their employers, they drive hundreds of thousands of miles a year and live in the same trailer that hauled their horses – but they must pay an entry fee in order to compete. Johnson may have made a significant living, but his expenses and his earnings were almost equal.
Johnson, who attended Northwestern Oklahoma State University and graduated from Oklahoma Panhandle State University, needs a solid 10 days in Las Vegas to consider his season a profit. Not only that, but championship points are based on money. The top contestant in each event with the most money won at the conclusion of the NFR will be crowned world champion, earning the most coveted prize in the sport, a Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
That’s a prize that has eluded Johnson and Powell, so they’d like to see that streak end this season. Johnson trails heeling standings leader Cesar de la Cruz by $47,267, but that deficit can be surpassed in just three go-rounds inLas Vegas.
Besides, Johnson has overcome much more in his lifetime. Fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgeries to rid his body of the disease. Since then, he has fathered three children; doctors declared him cancer-free five years ago.
“It was a huge shock,” Johnson told The Oklahoman in March while preparing to compete at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo. “At that time in my life, I was consumed by rodeo. In the blink of an eye, it made me realize there is more to life than rodeo. It made me realize how quickly you could lose everything.”
Johnson, who is proud of being a native Wyoming cowboy who promotes Wyoming Tourism through his sponsorship with the state, has competed on ProRodeo’s grandest stage four times prior to 2011, and each time he ropes in Las Vegas, it’s with a different header. That’s the name of the game in team roping; partners are swapped often in order to find that perfect match. The Johnson-Powell team seems to be doing quite well.
“Turtle and I have roped off and on throughout my pro career,” Johnson said in May. “We get along really well, and we both have really good horses. That’s what you need at this level. There’s not one guy out there that can out-rope everybody, so you have to have that advantage somehow. I think our horses give us that advantage. The better the horse is, the better you are.”
In addition to his partnership with Wyoming, Johnson is sponsored by Heelomatic, Tony Lama and Classic, which helps him take care of business on the rodeo trail.
That business involves working well with Powell for 10 straight nights in Las Vegas in an arena roughly the size of a basketball court. That size of pen offers many challenges, even for the best in the game. But challenges are nothing new to a man who beat cancer.
“I survived it, and my life is exactly going the direction I want it,” Johnson said in Oklahoma City this past spring. “I know it doesn’t work out that way for everybody, but just because you are diagnosed doesn’t mean you’re dead.
“It changed me. It made me realize life can end and does end, and I appreciate it every day.”