So many things have changed since Jake Cooper first qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
That was in 2007, when he was just 23 years old. Though he’d been around the sport his entire life, he was still relatively new to the ups and downs that come with competing in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“I had been rodeoing for about three years, and I felt like I was going to go back to the NFR every year,” said Cooper, whose father, Jimmie, was the 1981 world champion all-around cowboy and a 2005 inductee into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “I kind of took it for granted.
“After not going back for a long time and struggling a little, it’s way sweeter this time, and I’m sure going to enjoy it. Even though I’m going to continue rodeoing, you never know when you’re going to make it.”
When Jake Cooper arrives in Las Vegas for the 10-night finale, he’ll be the No. 6 header in the world standings. Only the top 15 contestants in each discipline from the regular season advance to the NFR, so earning a trip to the Nevada desert in December is quite an accomplishment.
Raised in the southeastern New Mexico community of Monument, Cooper has had a rope in his hand since a young age. He still claims Monument as his home, and he’s happy to be one of just two New Mexico cowboys battling for gold buckles – he is joined by fellow Tate Branch Auto Group cowboy Taos Muncy of Corona, N.M.
“Besides lessening the financial burden that comes with rodeo, just having a guy that looks you in the eye and you know believes in me, it’s a cool feeling,” Cooper said of his relationship with Tate Branch, who owns the dealerships in the southeastern New Mexico communities of Carlsbad, Artesia and Hobbs. “I text him throughout the year to keep him updated.
“He’s always offering some encouragement. It’s nice to have someone that has your back.”
That’s part of rodeo, in general, but it’s especially viable in team roping, the only tandem discipline in the sport. As a header, Cooper entrusted most of the cleanup duty to his heeler, Tyler McKnight of Wells, Texas.
“The only thing that kept him from making the NFR was when he got hurt for a month in February,” Cooper said, noting that McKnight finished 17th in the heeling standings, just two spots out of qualifying for the finale. “I roped with other people and got more money won than him.
“I was very upset about it. I thought he had got it done in California that final week of the season.”
Cooper earned nearly $81,000 in 2015, about $15,000 more than McKnight. During the 10-night championship in December in Las Vegas, Cooper will rope with Russell Cardoza, a four-time NFR qualifier from Terrebonne, Ore.; he roped a good portion of the season with Dustin Bird, who also finished outside the top 15.
“I probably haven’t roped with Russell since I was 17 or 18 and some of the junior deals,” Cooper said. “Anytime you can go with a guy that’s been there and has that experience, it’s going to help. He’s such a cool dude that it doesn’t look like anything ever bothers him. I’m really excited to have a chance to rope with him out there.”
Roping with great cowboys is nothing new to the New Mexico-born cowboy. Not only did he grow up competing with his father, long considered one of the top timed-event hands in the game, but he also roped with his twin brother, Jim Ross, a five-time NFR qualifier. In fact, the brothers roped together during that magical run eight seasons ago.
“I would hope I’m a lot smarter than I was the first time I made it,” Jake Cooper said. “The bottom line is I’m much more appreciative of the chance to get to rope out there. I see now how many guys work hard at this and don’t make it, so I feel like I need to appreciate it as much as I can. It feels like all my hard work has paid off the last few years.”
It’s been an excellent 2015 season for Cooper. He hopes to parlay a solid run into the sport’s richest 10 days ever. That means focusing on the little things to make big things happen.
“My main goal is to just rope like I know how,” he said. “We’ve been practicing hard. I’m not going to rope to the time. I feel like I’m fast enough when I do my job, so I want to do my job every night.
“I don’t want to try to be too fast. My goal is to be mistake-free. If I do my job every night, then I’ll let the chips fall and see what happens from there.”
That’s what Vegas is all about, especially in December.