When Texas Tech and New Mexico square off Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M., the most decorated competitors in University Stadium might be in the stands instead of on the field.
Somewhere in the crowd will be Stran Smith, pro rodeo’s world champion tie-down roper for 2008. Also likely to be there are Tuf, Clif and Clint Cooper, the first set of three brothers to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in tie-down roping in the same year. That was last December, when they finished second, 10th and 12th in the world.
They’re coming to watch Sawyer Vest, their nephew and cousin, play football for Tech. Sawyer, a Red Raiders senior cornerback, strayed from the family business.
“Everybody’s pro rodeo,” Vest said recently. “That’s what they do for a living. I did it my whole life. Growing up, I wasn’t the best at it, but I was a little bit better than they were in (team) sports, so I went that route and hopefully I can excel at that this year. I know all the cowboys will be in the stands watching me play a few football games.”
Smith is Vest’s uncle — his mother’s younger brother. The Cooper brothers are his first cousins. Trevor Brazile, who won a PRCA record eighth all-around title last year, is also related to the family by marriage. Tuf and Clif Cooper and Vest’s brother, Stetson, another pro rodeo roper who ranked 30th in tie-down last year, competed this week at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up and plan to be in Albuquerque this weekend for another PRCA tour stop — and the Tech game.
“I think there were 12 of us at Lubbock (for the season opener),” Smith said, “and there’ll probably be more than that (this weekend), because the rodeo guys ... we’re all huge sports fanatics. So everybody goes — all my buddies — and everydody that has anything to do with us knows about Sawyer.”
Smith, 41, has qualified for the NFR 11 times and earned close to $2 million in his career, but watching his nephew play football still gets his blood pumping. It’s potentially more rewarding this season because, after a long struggle as a walk-on, Vest earned a scholarship and a spot in the two-deep.
“I probably haven’t missed very many games he’s played,” Smith said. “I’ve made many all-night and all-day drives to get back to watch him play junior high and high school football. There’s a little bit of selfishness in that, because every time you get to watch him on the field, you were entertained. He’s always produced.”
In Tech’s season opener, Vest nailed a Texas State punt-return man after a 1-yard runback — one of two solo tackles he made that night. Smith was in the crowd at Jones AT&T Stadium. He said his nephew made him go “wow” with the special-teams play — just like he always does. As a high-school junior at Childress, Vest quarterbacked the Bobcats to a 13-2 season and the state semifinals. As a senior, they went 9-2.
“It doesn’t matter what sport they’re doing, you look for what he has — that ‘it’ factor,” Smith said. “He’s got that. He never ceases to impress me.”
Vest’s path to playing time at Tech was full of detours and potholes. He rodeoed his first semester on campus, then was in and out of the football program as a walk-on for the next couple of years. Just when Vest worked his way into a possible fringe role last year, he came up two credit hours short after the summer and was academically ineligible.
“It kind of brought me down a little bit,” Vest said, “but I knew that if I kept fighting and did what I needed to do that I’d have a chance coming the next year. I’m here now and thankful for that.”
Vest’s breakthrough came this spring when a slew of the Red Raiders’ cornerbacks were injured or recovering from surgeries. He got snaps with the first or second team every day in spring practice, then held on to his spot when the injured players returned.
Midway through August workouts, Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said Vest “might be playing better than all of them.”
So his uncle’s advice might have been on target after all.
“I’ve always told him, don’t waste himself on rodeo,” Smith said. “Not only for as natural an athlete as he is, but he sees the game and has always been able to see the game.”
That might be a startling admission considering how much rodeo success the family has experienced. In the current PRCA tie-down standings, the Cooper brothers are ranked first, fourth and 15th — the top 15 make the National Finals in December — and Stetson Vest is ranked 48th. Smith, sixth in the world last year, is sidelined this year after shoulder surgery and a cracked pelvis.
Sawyer Vest rodeoed just like the rest of his family throughout childhood. His favorite personal experience came at age 13 when he won his first title in Capitan, N.M.
“Up to that point, I wasn’t very good and I really couldn’t rope,” he said. “I couldn’t swing my rope. My brother and my cousins always were good at it. It was just something that was really hard for me to pick up. When I finally picked it up and won my first buckle and saddle, that was a huge accomplishment for me.”
Ultimately, Vest focused on team sports. In high school, he remembers missing rodeos because of conflicts with football or basketball.
Nowadays, he can still talk rodeo with Tech linebacker Tanner Foster. The two competed against each other in rodeos when they were kids.
And Vest can use some of his rodeo toughness on the football field. When he’s trying to tackle a receiver, having flanked a calf for tie-down provides some transferable skills.
“Those things are real quick and wispy, so you’ve got to know what you’re doing and get down there in the mix,” Vest said. “It definitely has carried over and helped me in sports — all sports, and definitely football. It’d be fun to take a few of these guys out there and let them work some cattle with me or something. It’d be some good entertainment.”
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