When Jake Cooper isn’t roping around his Stephenville, Texas, place, he can be found on the ProRodeo trail as one of the elite team ropers in the game.
But that’s not necessarily his home.
“Monument (N.M.) will always be my home and my hometown,” said Cooper, one of three children born to Jimmie and Shryl Cooper. “We live in Stephenville because it’s more central for rodeos, and I’d say half the top 15 guys live around there.
“If you want to be the best, you have to be around the best.”
Both are certainly the case. This season, Cooper is among the top five headers in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings, competing primarily with heeler Tyler McKnight of Wells, Texas. It’s a return to the top of the game for Cooper, who last qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2007 while competing with his twin brother, Jim Ross.
“It feels great to be in a position like this,” said Jake Cooper, one of seven cowboys that are part of the Tate Branch Auto Group “Riding for the Brand” team. “I haven’t roped good the last few years, and I had some struggles with some horses. It’s really early in the season to get too excited, but I feel great about the start and feel great about the year.”
He should. His hope is to stay among the top 15 through the rest of the regular season and earn a spot in the NFR field. After eight years away from ProRodeo’s grand finale, he would welcome the change.
Of course, it helps to have sponsorship arrangements like he has with Tate Branch Auto Group, which has southeastern New Mexico dealerships in Carlsbad, Artesia and Hobbs.
“It makes it so much easier on us out here on the road with help like that,” said Cooper, who joins Jim Ross; tie-down roping brothers Clif and Clint Cooper and their legendary father, Roy Cooper; steer roper Marty Jones; and two-time world champion saddle bronc rider Taos Muncy. “I got to know Tate a little bit because Jim’s had the relationship for a couple of years. It’s a great opportunity for us to be involved with a guy like Tate, who supports rodeo and what we do.
“Not only does it make the financial burden less, but having a guy that’s easy to talk to and is a spiritual guy like my dad is great, too. This really has the feeling of family.”
Branch takes a familial approach to the arrangements with the cowboys, all of whom have New Mexico ties. Jake Cooper, Jim Ross Cooper, Clint Cooper, Roy Cooper and Jones have specific ties to Lea County in the state’s most southeastern corner, while Muncy is from Corona; Clif Cooper is the lone Texas-raised cowboy in the bunch, but he has other ties to Lea County through Roy’s family.
“Having grown up around rodeo, I know what kind of sacrifices these guys make to compete at the top level,” said Joby Houghtaling, the Tate Branch Auto Group’s director of operations. “We’re very excited to support these guys, the sport of rodeo and the lifestyle they live. We want them to know they’re part of our family.”
That seems to be a common theme for many of the “Riding for the Brand” cowboys, but it’s especially true for Jake Cooper. Less than a decade ago, he and Jim Ross became the first set of twins to compete together in team roping at the NFR. Of course, they’re just carrying on a heritage passed down from their father, 1980 all-around world champion Jimmie Cooper, a ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee.
“This is a lifestyle for me,” Jake Cooper said. “Guys ask me all the time how long I’m going to do this. This is all I’ve ever done. Since I was 12 years old, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s a way of life for me, not really a job.
“I’m 30 now. I’ve grown up. Dad told me it was a hard life out here. You’ve got to love it, and I do. He used to tell me when I was a kid that he loved to rope with me.”
In early May, Jake Cooper returned to Monument and spent a week with his family. He and his dad roped together much of that time.
“There’s nothing that makes me happier than roping with him and spending time with him,” Jake Cooper said. “It’s great that he can still compete and do stuff along with us.”
As he prepares for the busy summer run, Jake Cooper knows the struggles that come with competing in rodeo full time. Only the top teams at each rodeo will earn a check, so it’s vital that he and McKnight battle through any adversity and excel at the right times if he plans to return to the NFR in 2015.
If he qualifies for Las Vegas in December, he will rope for the largest purse in the history of the sport’s championship event, with go-round winners earning more than $26,000 each night for 10 star-filled days in the Nevada desert. Just making it to Sin City would put him in position to claim that elusive, yet coveted world championship.
“It’s a little early to be talking about a gold buckle,” he said. “That’s been my goal since I was a kid. That’s every guy’s goal, especially growing up with my dad having one. It’s almost like that World Series ring; it’s that instant respect you get from every rodeo cowboy.
“It’s going to take a lot more hard work. Hopefully if all the right things fall in place, we’ll get to do it.”