Sunday night at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo always means Memorial Night, a time when those from the Wrangler NFR family who have passed away during the previous year are recognized for their contributions to the event and the sport as a whole. This year, Broc Cresta, Rex Dunn, Nathan Haley, Charles E. “Choc” Hamilton, Duain Madsen, Jackie Wright, Tommy Sheffield and Thay Lewis were paid tribute as Bonnie Bishop sang her touching song “Free” as part of the opening ceremony.
Memorial Night can be a sad occasion for those who knew the honorees best, and that was certainly the case for team roper Spencer Mitchell. Mitchell was best friends with and the roping partner of Cresta, and the two qualified for last year’s Wrangler NFR together.
Cresta passed away on July 28, and Mitchell has been dealing with the loss ever since. He has been roping with a heavy heart in Las Vegas this year, and the results of his first four rounds haven’t done much to cheer him up.
Mitchell and good friend Dakota Kirchenschlager have a trio of no-times and a 9.3-second run, but Mitchell was gracious enough to spend some time with me in the press room following the team’s no-time in Round 4. He was honest and candid about his emotions of roping in the Thomas & Mack Center without his longtime partner, and my heart went out to him.
“It’s been really tough,” said Mitchell, who teamed with Cresta to win a share of the 10th round last year. “It’s been a rough year, and we’ve had some rough go’s so far (in Vegas), and that doesn’t help. But whether we do good or bad, (Dakota and I are) still friends, and that’s what everything comes down to.”
Mitchell feels a bit like a fish out of water roping without his late friend.
“You always know that somebody’s there looking over you, but at the same time, it’s a different feeling,” he said. “Every finals I’ve ever gone to – from the high school finals, to the amateur finals to the NFR – I’ve always had him there with me, and so it’s a whole different feeling. I’m trying to do well, but inside, it’s hard.”
Mitchell has relied on the support of friends and fellow contestants – most of whom are wearing “BC” patches in honor of Cresta at this year’s Wrangler NFR – to get him through the tough times.
“I’m blessed to be able to have the friends I have and to be able to say that I’m not just roping with my partners, but I’m roping with my friends,” Mitchell said. “That’s a huge thing. Almost every cowboy here, on their helmet, vest, shirt or hat, they’re wearing ‘BC’ stickers, and on Memorial Night, (it’s clear) there’s no one who’s forgotten him.”
Mitchell said he has been able to focus on the roping once he backs into the box despite the monumental loss, but that it’s been a difficult experience.
“On the roping, it makes it tough, because I want to do well for him, and I want to be able to represent him,” he said. “It is different not being able to look to my side and see him there.”
I can’t imagine the range of emotions Mitchell has been dealing with this year and here in Las Vegas, but he said he has been able to enjoy himself a bit along the way. The experience of losing his friend has taught Mitchell to enjoy every day to the fullest.
“No matter what you do or who you are, you never know when it can all come to an end,” Mitchell said. “I’ve enjoyed this a lot, because this is where all my friends are. As a rodeo community, everybody’s friends and part of a family, and you’ve got to keep yourself surrounded by people who love you.
“That’s what we have in the rodeo world.”
Dealing with the heartache and plugging on has been difficult for Mitchell, but he knows it is what Cresta would have wanted.
“When I came back rodeoing this year, it wasn’t to make the NFR,” Mitchell said. “It was just to be able to go back out there. Sitting at home isn’t going to do anything for us, and we all have to get out there and keep doing what our job is and keep stepping forward.
“I went and sat at home once when I was roping with (Broc), and he wasn’t happy about it. You’ve got to keep moving, and that’s all you can do.”
I have no doubt that Mitchell and Kirchenschlager will find their rhythm and not only place in a round, but maybe even win one in the final six days of the rodeo, and I know I’m not alone in saying I can’t wait until that happens.
“We’re going to keep going at ‘em,” Mitchell said.
Go get ‘em Spencer.