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Rodeo redemption: Utahn's life filled with changes, but bronc riding still his passion

Published: Sunday, July 27 2008 12:26 a.m. MDT

Cooper Sagers greets his father, Darrell, who balances his rodeoing with family and other responsibilities.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Snake Oil was exactly what Darrell Sagers needed after several weeks of mediocre horses.

A day earlier at his home in Rush Valley he explained that since July 4 he hadn't drawn the kind of horse that can help a cowboy win big money.

"I've just drawn horses that are hard to ride, not great buckers," he said. Sagers was staying on for the required eight seconds, but he wasn't scoring high enough to make much money.

"It's just kind of wearing on me," he said, admitting he was sore and banged up a bit. "It's great when you get the horse you know you can win on — double rank and never been rode."

A day later he drew Snake Oil — a horse that had never been ridden for eight seconds — in the Days of '47 Rodeo.

He couldn't stop smiling as he talked to friends about who the red horse had sent to the dirt before the whistle. He worked the rope in his hands trying to get the length exactly right for the ride. Then he slapped his thighs, stretched his legs and practiced his technique.

The announcer asked the crowd if they'd like to see a Utah man make history, and the crowd responded with a deafening roar. Sagers sat down low on the horse, put his spurs up high on the horse's shoulders and nodded his head to signal his readiness.

About four seconds later, he flew up and over Snake Oil's left shoulder. He hit the dirt hard. He was slow to get up and favored one leg. He moved toward the chutes looking down, his disappointment obvious.

It was a stark contrast to a ride he had on a bucking horse just a few weeks earlier at the rodeo in his hometown of Rush Valley.

"A 72-point ride," declared the announcer. "That's just a day at the office for Darrell Sagers."

The reality of rodeo

The business of rodeo is brutal. One day can be glorious, the next disastrous.

Sagers, like most professional cowboys, does not rely on bucking horses for his livelihood. He owns an excavating business that pays his bills so he can try to earn a little more money at rodeos.

Rodeo can supplement a guy's income, but for most, that big payday means an opportunity to buy into business opportunities that will keep their families fed while they continue to rodeo. For example, after bronc rider Chris Harris won the Calgary Stampede in the late 1990s, he spent $50,000 on a stud so he could start breeding his own bucking horses.

Darrell's uncle, Dennis Sagers, knows all too well how fickle rodeo can be.

In July of 1989, Dennis Sagers broke his femur. Facing a lengthy recovery with three small children to support, Dennis decided he'd better hang up his spurs.

"Very few guys are fortunate enough to stay at it for a long while," said Sagers, who is one of the reasons Darrell yearned to ride bucking horses. "Very few get the opportunity to go rodeo full-time. I'd say it's less than 5 percent."

But those horses also cast a spell over young cowboys that captivates them long after the rides have ended.

"It's quite an adrenaline rush," said Dennis Sagers. "If my body would let me, I'd get on one today. But it's a young man's game."

Anyone who rodeos for any length of time suffers an injury that forces them to face the question they never want to consider. It's an inevitable, and dreaded, conversation with themselves.

Eight or nine years ago Darrell Sagers had his close call when a horse went head over heels on him, breaking four of his ribs and bruising his heart.

"It kind of plays in your mind, and you start questioning is it worth it?" he said. "It's a tough sport. Everybody gets hurt at some point."

While he was recovering he wondered whether he should continue to ride, considering friends and family who still struggle with the aftermath of serious injury.

"I don't know why I wanted to come back," he said with a shrug. "I think it's just the love of it. And if I'm going to quit, then I'm going to quit on my terms. It's kind of like getting bucked off a horse and then just quitting."

Rough rides, rough start

Sagers' affinity for riding bucking horses may have something to do with his rough start in life.

His parents divorced when he was an infant, and his father had custody of him and his older sister, Darsey. He has never had much contact with his mother, although she lives just a few minutes away in Tooele.

His father, Wade Sagers, was a military man who served in Iraq several different times in the 1990s and also in the most recent conflicts.

"I hated moving all the time, starting in new schools," he said. "I loved my dad, but eventually (in fourth or fifth grade), I decided I wanted to live with my grandparents."

What Sagers didn't have in his immediate family, he found in his extended family. His grandparents — Vance and Betty — essentially raised him and offered him consistency and stability. The couple had already raised six boys, and their youngest was in high school when young Darrell, a self-described "wild child," moved into their lives full-time.

"The ranch was a great place to grow up, but we worked," said Darrell. "I was really close with my grandpa."

He was also very close with his uncles, especially Dennis, who rode bucking horses. Darrell said he agreed not to participate in high school rodeo because his grandfather was afraid he'd get hurt. So, instead, he lived vicariously through his uncle Dennis and cousins, Devin and Lance "Stormy" Sagers, who not only rode bucking horses in high school but also rode in college.

"I just remember watching (Dennis) ride and saying, 'That's going to be me'" said Darrell. He helped his grandfather train young colts and considers that the reason he could pick it up later in life.

"It's not like I went into it blind," he said. "I'd been watching them do it for a while, so I couldn't wait."

Once he graduated from high school, he paid his entry fee to the Rush Valley Rodeo, borrowed his uncle Dennis' saddle and began to live his dream of bronc riding. He rode the third horse successfully, and he was hooked for life.

He first tried living in Texas and working at a ranch that bred bucking horses, but he returned home after a year to start his own business and to rodeo on the side. He traveled with his cousins, who quickly became more like brothers.

"Those were some of the funnest times of my life," he said. "We'd laugh until we cried."

Like most cowboys, they lived fast, and he admits, a bit recklessly. But then, in 2005, his life began to change after his father, who had lost two close friends in Iraq, took his own life.

"We couldn't even tell he was depressed," Darrell said.

It was a year later when he ran into Shannon, his future wife, herding cows with her father. Their first date was spent trying to rescue his truck and trailer from mud. The ease with which she dealt with the situation — including no dinner — impressed the young cowboy.

A year later they were married and expecting their first child. Still, Sagers said he had a lot of growing up to do.

"Darrell and his friends were always out to see who could do the wild thing that would make their buddies laugh," said Shannon. "And Darrell was the one who could always make them laugh ... He was the jokester."

He nods in agreement.

"I was just rodeoing with my buddies," Sagers said. "I didn't want to grow up... I didn't have a care in the world."

Saved by a baby

Cooper Wade Sagers.

That's the young fella who helped Sagers get his head on straight, once and for all. The little blue-eyed boy endured a difficult delivery and suffered from pulmonary hypertension. He spent two weeks in the hospital on a respirator and came home with oxygen.

"That was tough," Darrell said. "I would work all day and then go to the hospital and stay as long as we could. Shannon was there all day."

Suddenly life wasn't so carefree.

Cooper thrived under the care of his parents and extended family, who were as charmed by his blue eyes as they were his good nature.

"My dad had blue eyes," said Sagers of the man his son is named for. "Now that I have a child, I can't understand why my mom didn't have more to do with us."

With a wife and child, Sagers' priorities started to shift. His wife, a practicing Mormon, told him she wouldn't have any more children if he couldn't bless them himself. So he went to his bishop, who also happened to be his uncle, Curtis Sagers.

Now he is an elder, and he and his wife are planning to go to the temple and also to have more children. They even have a second name picked: Cash William Sagers.

Yet with all of the new responsibilities, he continues to pursue rodeo glory. But he does it almost as much because of the friendships he has built, something in evidence at the Days of '47 Rodeo, when Darrell helped other cowboys prepare for their rides only minutes after Snake Oil bucked him.

"You go out on the circuit and travel around a bit and the next thing you know, you've got 30 or 40 friends that will call you just to see how you're doing," he said.

He also competes with the support and assistance of his wife, who acts as a "secretary" for Darrell and other riders by arranging for entry fees and checking on the draws before the rodeos. For her part, she enjoys the rodeos and the people.

He's not doing it because of some need to hang onto his youth, as people may assume.

"I'm not going to be one of those old men who wished I'd tried something," he said glancing over at his blue-eyed boy and smiling. "Life's not that long. You have to jump out there and live it. You might get bucked off; things might not go your way. But at least you're out there doing it."

And while it might seem Sagers' life has no room anymore for bucking horses, both husband and wife hope he rides for years to come.

Rodeo is a unique sport for many reasons, but the bond between the competitors is one of the most exceptional.

After Sagers was bucked off Snake Oil during the Days of '47 Rodeo Thursday, he walked back to the bucking chutes and helped two cowboys get ready for their rides. He lent his chaps to one fellow and then helped his traveling buddy prepare the horse that Sagers' had ridden to money in Reno. Both men finished in the top four that night.

It's like no other sport. Imagine Tiger Woods missing that critical putt and then telling the next guy how to beat him. That's rodeo.

And that connection with each other is one of the reasons cowboys continue to ride long after they should.

"It's the friends you meet along the way," said Dennis Sagers. "The more you travel, the wider your web."

Like his uncle, Darrell cherishes his friendships as much as he savors a great ride.

At this point, Sagers knows he couldn't continue to rodeo with a family if it wasn't for the support of his wife. She said she loves his bronc riding maybe even a little more than he does.

"She's our secretary," said Darrell, referring to his traveling buddies. "She calls ahead, finds out which horse we drew, when the entry fee is due and everything."

She travels to those rodeos close to home, but both say they also enjoy their time apart as well.

"I was lucky to find someone like Shannon," he said. "We have so much in common."

Shannon Sagers said it has become as much her hobby/part-time job as his and admits she's just as competitive.

"It's fun to go," said Shannon. "It's fun to be around those people. It gives us something to look forward to."

When Darrell Sagers weighs the pros and the cons of the sport he loves, he's not sure he can articulate what it means to him to be a saddle bronc rider.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe it's just the fact that you make or break yourself."


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com

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