ON THE WEEKEND BEFORE Thanksgiving at San Antonio’s Rose Palace, Jerry Long waits for the green “go” light at Booger Barter’s World Championship Team Roping Finals, but he is at a bit of a disadvantage compared with the thousand other cowboys competing for a whopping $40,000 first prize: Long is blind, so he doesn’t even know where the go light is, much less if it’s green.
Team roping is a high-speed two-man event that requires intense hand-eye coordination—one man must lasso the head of the steer while the other snags the hind heels—and it would seem to be impossible for someone with minimal light perception in only one of his eyes. But Long’s been here before, and he has a routine. To get a sense of the space, he walks the perimeter of the arena and rides around on his heading and heeling horses. Then his partner attaches bells to the steer’s head or tail so Long will be able to hear when the animal is near. Finally, when it’s time, his partner gives him a verbal cue and off he goes, guided by the jingling—a kind of blind man’s radar.
Long, who is 53, was blinded by diabetes in 1988, but he’s always been an accomplished cowboy. He rodeoed throughout his boyhood in New Mexico and, later, represented South Plains College of Levelland and New Mexico State University at the Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Finals (each time he finished in the top three). After five years in pro rodeo, he took a teaching job in El Paso and switched to team roping; since 1970 he’s won 21 championship saddles and 150 buckles—the sport’s highest awards. Understandably, he dropped out once his illness hit, but after joking with a friend who lost a competition that he could do better “bein’ old, fat, blind, and using bells,” he challenged himself to find a way back in. Now he spends his weekdays teaching at the Texas School for the Blind in Austin and his weekend nights slinging his lariat from some kind of muscle memory. He’s not as good as he used to be, but he’s won three buckles in the last two years. “It’s a hope and a prayer,” he says modestly. “Sometimes it works.”
It worked twelve consecutive times on Saturday at the Rose Palace, as Long’s team topped 1,700 team entries to advance with nearly 150 others to the next day’s finals. Long’s own roping was perfect; the two times the team didn’t succeed came when his sighted partners missed their throws. Dennis Merrell, one of the embarrassed cowboys, said that after he dismounted he felt around for the corral railing to convince onlookers that he was the blind one.
On Sunday, however, Long caught two and missed two; kind of a disappointment. He didn’t win any prize money or buckles—but then, he’s in it for the long haul. This cowboy with the break-down white cane is clearly enjoying his roping redemption, “doing this thing I lost and found out I can do again.” As Merrell says, “He may be blind, but he’s sure focused.”