Texans Manuel Rocha and Stephen Stewart had never before set foot in the fabulous Lazy E Arena. And in 15 years of trying, they had never won a check together. Not a nickel. On April 4, the pair of 4+ ropers and forever friends changed all that in dramatic fashion by roping four steers in 34.53 seconds and winning both the BFI 10.5 Roping and the 9.5 Incentive to the tune of $140,000 and a truckload of prizes.
“They said we had to be 10 on our last steer,” said Rocha, who’ll turn 49 next month. “When I saw Stephen catch, and looked up at the big screen and it said 9.55, the tears rolled. I’m excited now, but I was very emotional at that moment.
“We’ve roped together about 15 years, and this is the first time we’ve ever placed or even made a short round. We’ve texted each other good morning every day for 15 years. Stephen’s like my brother. We’ve got a great camaraderie and friendship, it just never clicked at the ropings.”
Texans Manuel Rocha and Stephen Stewart dominated the BFI 10.5 Roping, hauling off $120,000, Cactus Saddles, Heel-O-Matic Bones and Hox, Gist Buckles, Resistol Hats, YETI Roadies, Justin Boots and Cactus Ropes for the 10.5 win, and another $20,000, Cactus Saddles, Gist Buckles and YETI Carryalls for winning the 9.5 Incentive.
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Manuel’s a welder by trade. He lives about an hour south of San Antonio in Three Rivers, Texas with his wife, Jessica, and daughters, Addie and Elena, and has built the arena and barns on his heeler’s ranch.
The BFI 10.5 was open only to ropers 40 and over. The 10.5 was capped at a 6.5 heeler, and the 9.5 was capped at a 5.5 heeler.
Stewart, 56, lives in George West, Texas with his wife, Debbie. They have two sons, Lawrence and Dalton.
“When we roped our third steer and they said we were high call, I knew we’d won the incentive,” Stephen said. “I told Manuel, and he teared up. We come from a small community, and we’ve roped a bunch together. We’d never placed before today, but we just kept giving her hell, because we knew this day would come and it would be this much more special.”
Reserve BFI 10.5 champs Brian Jeffreys and Jason Jones were 35.43 on four steers to finish just a tenth of a second behind Rocha and Stephens. Texans Jeffreys and Jones won $80,000, Cactus Saddlery Pads and Cactus Ropes.
Rocha headed on his 14-year-old gray horse, Shadow, who joined the family as a 4-year-old. Stewart heeled on a 10-year-old sorrel horse he calls Shorty that he bought from Daniel Braman.
It was a banner day and career best for both ropers.
“This is the biggest win of my life by far,” Rocha beamed. “My biggest win before this and my last win before this was winning a 10.5 roping heeling five years ago, and we split $7,500. I don’t know how I can top this.”
“I won $20-some-thousand in the Incentive Average at the Gold Plus USTRC Roping in Gonzales, Texas, in 2015,” Stewart said. “That was my biggest win ever before today. Winning $70,000 at one roping is just unbelievable.”
BFI Watch Parties are a thing now, thanks to livestreaming on the Wrangler Network.
Rocha and Stewart had never had any success together before their 34.53 on four steers won it all in the BFI 10.5.
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“I have an awesome group of friends who were watching it live, so we were texting and talking about it on the phone during the roping,” Stewart said. “I grew up watching the BFI. It’s so cool that they’ve opened it up so there’s something for everybody and made a week of it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Stewart’s a freight broker by trade.
“I broker freight to 18-wheelers, and keep them loaded every day,” he said. “There’s really not a whole lot of time for roping, but this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. I figure I’m getting a little long in the tooth, so I better give it a whirl. If they’d let me pay my entry fees today for next year, I would.”
They’ve both roped most of their lives.
“I’ve been roping since I was 14 years old,” Manuel said. “I won my first buckle in 1986 in the ribbon roping. I rope most days now, after I get my work done. As long as I can pay the bills, I get to rope. That’s my reward for working hard.”
First thought the Rochas have for their $70,000 is using some of it to remodel their bathroom. Manuel left the Lazy E for the first time with roping memories to last a lifetime.
“I love the Lazy E,” he said. “I’ve only seen this arena on TV when I watch the Timed Event. This is only the second time I’ve ever been to Oklahoma in my entire life. This place is amazing.”
For Stewart to still be horseback is against all odds.
“I started roping when I was 9 years old,” he said. “Then I had a car wreck when I was 26, and broke my neck in three places. There were eight back surgeries after that. But I just couldn’t quit roping.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a roping that made my hands shake, but this one definitely did. With all this money up and the whole world watching, I was nervous. As for the money, I think my wife already ran off with it.”