By Storms Reback
Marty Yates has established himself as a tie-down roping star, but the 23-year-old is quick to credit those who have made his success possible: his family, a series of mentors, and three great horses.
Five years into his professional career, Yates currently sits in seventh place in the PRCA standings for tie-down roping and 11th for the all-around. His busy summer extended into the fall, as he recently participated in the Tri-State Fair & Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas in preparation for this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) to be held December 7-16 in Las Vegas.
If it seems like Yates was born to rodeo, it's because he was.
After Yates' dad died in a car accident when the future roper was still in his mother's womb, his grandfather Johnny Wayne Hampton took him under his wing and instilled in him a deep love of the sport.
"He was the backbone of the family," Yates said during a phone conversation last week. "He's the one that got us all started. He loved rodeo with everything he had."
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Growing up in Stephenville, Texas, Yates started dragging a rope around before he was even out of diapers. Soon he was roping anything that struck his fancy, including the ceiling fan in his great-grandmother's dining room.
When he was 3 years old, Yates chose to dress as a certain nine-time world champion for Halloween.
"I was Ty Murray," he said. "I had my chaps on and had a back number that he signed and gave me. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Ty was always around. I'd go to the coffee shop with my grandpa or go eat lunch, and I'd always see him and joke around. It was cool to be able to say, 'Yeah, I know Ty. He's one of my buddies.'"
At the age of 5, Yates started practicing with J.J. Hampton, a 17-time PWRA world champion who also happens to be his aunt.
"She was always out there roping, and I kinda picked up what she was doing," Yates said. "She would help me if she saw something that she thought I could do better, but mostly we were just out there doing it together."
When Yates was in kindergarten, six-time world champion Cody Ohl frequently picked him up from school and took him to rope.
"He actually lived across the pasture from me when I was just starting to rope," Yates recalled. "As I got older, I would rope with him and hang out with him. I picked up a lot of stuff being able to practice with him and watch him rope."
Assisted by his mother Angie, who hauled him all over the country and back, and forgoing such distractions as television and video games, Yates won his first saddle when he was 8 years old; by the time he was 11, he'd won 37 more -- as well as 94 buckles and a trailer.
During his teenage years, Yates began to feel the loss of his father more acutely. Fortunately, another local cowboy, Trent Walls, was there to guide him through the rough patches.
"He's probably been the biggest role model -- you could almost say father figure -- in my life," Yates said. "When I was around 15 years old, I roped pretty good and I'd had some success, but I'd never really had much control. He helped me with that. It was just good to be able to talk to him whenever. He helped me through just about everything."
Given his upbringing in the Cowboy Capital of the World, Yates was hardly overwhelmed by all the big names and famous faces he was surrounded by when he joined the PRCA in 2013. The man then dominating the circuit, Trevor Brazile, was actually an old family friend, having won the 1994 Texas high school team roping championship with Yates's uncle, "Row" Hampton.
"Trevor grew up around here and now I'm around Trevor at all the rodeos," Yates said. "It's pretty cool just to be able to go and talk to him and know that he's close to my family. I feel like I could ask him anything and he'd give me his honest opinion. It's awesome to have guys like that in your corner."
As comfortable as Yates felt during his rookie year in 2013, it didn't translate into instant success. Adding to his distress, his grandfather Johnny Wayne died in September of that year.
Yates' fortunes and outlook changed the following year when he started riding Eatin With Rooster, a sorrel gelding better known as Chicken.
"I didn't have great horses under me and then the next year I have a great horse kicking under me and I took off," he explained. "I was like, 'Man, that was pretty dang hard last year, but this year it seems like it's kinda easy.'"
With the help of Chicken, who was runner-up for the 2014 AQHA/PRCA Tie-Down Roping Horse of the Year, Yates qualified for his first NFR, where he finished sixth in the world.
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In 2015, Yates rode Chicken at the American before borrowing Lights on Hickory, a 2002 bay gelding more commonly referred to as Buster, for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. When Yates won "the Daddy," he was encouraged to switch mounts.
He explained: "The people that owned him were like, 'You know what? You did good with him and need to buy him from us.'"
Riding Buster, Yates qualified for the NFR again in 2015, and the success the horse and rider enjoyed carried over to the following year.
"I rode Buster that whole year and it went pretty good for me," Yates said. "I made the finals again and had an outstanding NFR, but then he got hurt right after Vegas."
While Buster was recovering from his injury, Yates bought a horse from Colby Lowell named Big Time. Despite being young and inexperienced -- the horse had been calf roping for less than a year -- Big Time quickly proved worthy of his name.
Yates hadn't even been riding him a month before he won $130,000. The bulk of that money came from his victory at the American, what he called "a once-in-a-lifetime type of rodeo," in February.
As nice as the big payday was, Yates hardly considers it life-altering money.
"The only thing it changes is that it makes it a whole lot easier for you in your day-to-day life because rodeoing is hard and you don't always win," he explained. "It just makes it easier for you to go down the road and know that you have a cushion behind you and everything will be all right."
When asked what his future goals were, Yates mentioned winning the American again and some gold buckles at the NFR.
"I plan on rodeoing for another 10 years, hopefully," he said. "I have a long list of goals that I want to accomplish before I'm done, but if I don't, I feel like I've had a pretty good run."
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