Blindness can't keep roper out of the saddle

Monday, October 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPITAN, N.M. – A calf with bells hanging off its horns dashes out of a chute and jingles madly across a corral, in hopes of evading capture by the man with a black patch over his left eye pursuing on horseback.

Wearing a pink long-sleeve shirt, Wrangler jeans and cowboy hat, Jerry Long twirls a lasso over his head, flings the rope toward the clinking sound and brings both the calf and the jingle to a halt.

No amazing feat for a lifelong roper, it would seem. Except that Mr. Long is blind.

"I just try to throw at that sound," said Mr. Long, 58, who lost his vision about 20 years ago to diabetes. The patch covers a deteriorating and disfigured left eye. Only shadows are visible to him through the right eye.

Mr. Long, who works both as a header and a heeler, recently practiced his technique at a friend's ranch. The bells he listens for dangle from the steer's horns or tails, depending on the run.

It is the only exception Mr. Long will allow in competition.

"Don't do anything special. Just do what you do," Mr. Long warns his practice partner Ed Cillessen.

"Are we ready?" he says just before the gate to the chute opens. "OK, let's play cowboy."

Mr. Long will be participating in a team roping competition at the 11th Annual Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium, which runs Thursday through Sunday in nearby Ruidoso Downs.

"People say I'm crazy for trying to do this, but it's such a rush. I enjoy mounting up and catching steer. It makes me feel good, and I get really excited when I do it right.

"It gives me a sense of being real," Mr. Long said. "People who play baseball or golf, whatever it might be, when they reach that level of accomplishment, it's just such a rush. It's a bigger challenge for me because my world is a lot darker. But it's the same feeling."

To be a contender for any prize at the team roping event, Mr. Long will have to catch at least four calves in as many rounds. It is a level of competition he takes seriously.

Even during practice, Mr. Long begins each run with a deep breath: "When you go 30 to 40 miles per hour and you can't see the ground, you start to get a little nervous," he said.

After their first successful catch, Mr. Long shouts to his partner over the stomping of horses' hooves: "Well, we stopped the clock. We do that enough times, we'll win some money."

At the end of a two-hour session, though, Mr. Long isn't quite satisfied. A cowboy who strives for perfection doesn't like any calf to escape his lasso.

"If I'd caught every one of them, I'd feel good, but I missed one or two," a disheartened Mr. Long said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to do good."

Mr. Cillessen, the partner and a heeler, tries to lighten the mood by explaining that roping is really harder on the guy in the back.

"How does it look if you miss when you're roping with a blind guy?" Mr. Cillessen teased, prompting Mr. Long to let out a hearty laugh.

"That's a good one, Ed.

"You know what?" Mr. Long added, "I'm not supposed to catch any."

Mr. Long was born into a ranching family and raised in Roswell and Cloudcroft. He earned his first rodeo championship at age 12 and continued to compete through adulthood. He was found to have diabetes while in college, and his health began to falter in the early 1980s.

By then, Mr. Long already had a career in education, which started with an agriculture teaching job at a high school in El Paso. In addition to competing during his spare time, Mr. Long also served as a rodeo announcer. The diabetes worsened, and by the mid-1980s Mr. Long had to receive a kidney transplant. He also lost his vision and was deemed legally blind. He gave up his hobby as a cowboy and enrolled at a rehabilitation center for the blind in Austin to learn how to cope without sight.

Ten years ago, Mr. Long became a counselor at a school for the blind in Austin. He returned to his hobby about six years ago, after visiting a friend at an arena who was having a hard time roping calf. Mr. Long teased his friend, saying a blind man could do better with bells on the steer. The next time he visited, his buddy handed him the bells, the rope and a horse.

Mr. Long climbed back on the saddle and earned himself a new nickname.

"My buddies started to call me Bob – that's short for blind, old and bald," Mr. Long said with a chuckle.

"I once told someone that I was a blind cowboy and she said, 'No, you're a cowboy that's gone blind,'" Mr. Long said. "I like that."

Mr. Long moved from Georgetown, near Austin, to Capitan a year ago, following his retirement. He and his wife, Glenda, now share the century-old village, which is nestled between two mountain ranges, with 1,400 other residents.

Since his comeback, Mr. Long has won two saddles, eight buckles and many cash prizes. His record roping time as a blind man is 5.4 seconds, though he tends to average 8 seconds.

The cowboy symposium in Ruidoso Downs kicks off with a hefty schedule of festivities. In addition to the roping competition, the four-day event also will feature music, poetry, art and a chuckwagon cook-off.

"A lot of people say I'm an inspiration. If that's the case, fine," Mr. Long said. "But the truth is I just love to ride and rope. I've always wanted to be a cowboy.