As the head rodeo coach at Weatherford College, Johnny Emmons teaches riding and roping, but with a caveat – it’s difficult to make the elite money, and too easy to go broke or come up lame.
“Like my dad used to say, it’s a rich man’s hobby and a poor man’s dream,” he said. “If you’re poor and you decide to do it, you have to win.”
Emmons took the gamble, launching himself on a distinguished, nearly 25-year career as a calf-roper that earned him a place in the Texas Rodeo Cowboy of Fame this month.
Then before the dust could settle on his April 12 induction ceremony, he got word Friday afternoon of another career milestone, for his second career. He has been named National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Coach of the Year for the 15-school Southwest Region.
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He attributes that, in part, to a recent accomplishment of his rodeo program. After sending individual student competitors to the College National Finals Rodeo the past nine years, this year a complete team has qualified for the first time in school history.
“It’s been a crazy month. It’s awesome to be recognized like that,” he said, adding that he’s been something of a celebrity among his peers at the college. “I was thinking, Hall of Fame, coach of the year – that should be worth a raise.”
He said he’s most proud of the duration of his career, founded on the rodeo education he received from his father, Johnny Emmons, who opened a rope-making business in Mansfield in 1976 and served on the Mansfield City Council from 1994-1996.
The younger Emmons took advantage of the practice arena at the family business to hone his roping skills. When he was 10, he placed third in his first competition at the Kowbell Indoor Rodeo just a quarter-mile from his home. When he wasn’t competing, he was studying the techniques of his rodeo heroes who rode the regional circuit into Mansfield.
“I rode there every weekend from the time I was 10 years old well into my 20s, so I had good experience. That got me off to a good start,”” said Emmons, 46. “By the time I was 15 or 16, I was already winning money in the rodeo.”
While Emmons studied and perfected his craft, he was beginning to make a name for himself among local riders like Lea Ann Blay-Clay of Alvarado. He was no braggart, she said.
“He was a shy boy, but he knew how to rope, and he was dad-gum good at it. He seldom ever missed a calf,” said Blay-Clay, who competed in barrel racing and pole bending in high school, but never considered pursuing a rodeo career. “This award he received was very well-deserved.”
At 16, he won the Youth National Finals Rodeo in Fort Worth. After graduating from Mansfield High School in 1985, Emmons went to Vernon College, northwest of Wichita Falls, on a baseball and rodeo scholarship. In his first year, he won the American Junior Rodeo Association world championship in the all-around and calf-roping events.
“Actually, I was the first student from Vernon College to qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo,” Emmons said. In his second year at Vernon, the college fielded its first baseball team. “We made the regional playoffs that first year,” he said.
In 1988, Emmons started a 20-year streak of qualifying for the Texas Circuit Finals of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA). He won the calf-roping competition at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in 1989 when he was 21 years old, pocketing $12,000. He also won eight championships at the Mesquite ProRodeo, among many other victories, according to the Hall of Fame bio on Emmons.
“I was working a regular job and still making $30,000 to $50,000 a year roping,” he said. “Those were probably my best years financially.”
But he doesn’t believe his professional career started until 1998, when he took out on the road full-time. His dad had closed the rope factory, so there was less reason to be around. Then he found inspiration from his friend, Bud Ford, who won at the Fort Worth Stock Show and went on to qualify for his first PRCA’s National Finals Rodeo – becoming only the third African-American to do so.
Emmons went to the national finals in Las Vegas to cheer for Ford.
“I remember sitting in the stands thinking, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Why aren’t I out there?’” he recalled.
Emmons started his road career with a bang, winning at the first rodeo of the 1998 season in Kansas City, then going on a 10-day tear in which he won events in San Antonio, Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., and collected $18,000 in prize money.
“I was ranked No. 1 in the world,” he said. “I hung to that spot all the way to the Fourth of July.”
The next year, he matched Ford’s accomplishment by qualifying for the Nation Finals Rodeo. It was the first of five such appearances he would make over the next 15 years.
His success streak cooled in 2004. “That was a bad year,” he said. “My dad passed away that year, and my marriage started falling apart. In 2005, the teaching job came around.”
Weatherford College offered him the position of assistant rodeo coach, and he decided to take it.
“Not that I was too old, but I was 36 or 37, and I was thinking about what I was going to do in rodeo,” he said. “Not many guys are going to make it very far in their 40s.”
But he continued competing, until the Mesquite Rodeo in July 2012, when he aggravated a knee injury that had required two surgeries over the previous seven years. He took some time off, during which his college offered him the head rodeo coaching job after longtime coach Mike Brown retired.
“I started making money and realized I didn’t have to rope anymore,” he said.
Ford, whose early success inspired Emmons to go pro full-time, saluted Emmons’ long-haul success and his recent milestones.
“It takes a special guy to do it that long,” said Ford, whose late father Bill Ford was the Kowbell foreman for nearly 40 years. The Mansfield school district purchased the arena and property in 2004 and razed the building to make room for its fourth high school – named Legacy in homage to the Kowbell. “Johnny’s one of the truest guys in the world. He’s probably one of the best friends I ever had, and he is the best guy in the world I ever traveled with.”
Emmons rang up career winnings of $800,000, but even with several sponsors, human and animal travel costs were taking big bites out his paychecks.
“The best year I had I won $130,000, but I spent $80,000 to win that. I was ranked seventh in the world,” he said. “That’s a pretty tough way to make a living.”
Which is what he tells his students at Weatherford College, although he doesn’t discourage them from training at the sport. Both of his daughters grew up learning rodeo, and 18-year-old Krista plans to take her dad’s course at Weatherford on a rodeo scholarship in the fall after she graduates from Grandview High School.
Kayla, 25, has already finished two years as her father’s student and completed her four-year degree program at Tarleton State University, earning a bachelor’s in kinesiology.
Though she didn’t want to pursue a rodeo career, she doesn’t regret the time she spent learning rodeo. Rodeo teaches character and responsibility at an early age, she said.
“Rodeo is very humbling,” she said, in that it teaches to cope with the inevitable losses. “And you have to learn how to take care of your animals and all of your equipment and make sure you’re on time. But with rodeo, you get to travel all over the place and do a lot of things that a lot of kids don’t get to do.”
From now on, Johnny Emmons said, his bum knee likely will confine his competitiveness to the sidelines or the stands.
“If I was going to rodeo now, I would want to rope at the same level,” he said. “But I’m one of those guys that if I can’t be competitive, I don’t want to do it.”