Most Pro Rodeo cowboys’ careers have a shelf life, but tie-down roper Shane Slack is getting a second chance at glory 17 years down the line.
The 38-year-old from DeQueen, Ark., (he now lives in Idabel, Okla.) is one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Seventeen years ago, he rode into Las Vegas as the 1996 Professionial Rodeo Cowboy Association Resistol overall and tie-down roping rookie of the year — ahead of none other than Trevor Brazile — and finished 12th.
The next nine years were a blur as Slack fell into the clutches of a diabolical substance abuse problem that derailed all his plans and goals in the sport and turned his life upside down. Even now, he finds it difficult to talk about that dark time.
“I went through some stuff and got mixed up in some things I shouldn’t have,” Slack said. “When I was a kid, I had a relationship with God, but I got away from that. What I was mixed up in had my senses hindered.
“It was really bad.”
Fast-forward to five years ago, and Slack realized that he wanted to take control of his life again. He began working to reclaim his grip and used a reinvigorated faith to guide him along the way.
“I’ve felt kind of led to do this deal,” said Slack, a member of the Choctaw nation and former Indian National Finals Rodeo all-around champion. “I just gave it all back to God one day. I know my relationship (with God) is where it should be now, and for me, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“I was wanting to change, but it was a hard and long process.”
It was a long, tough road that was not without its share of setbacks, but Slack persevered. Four years ago, he began roping again, and two years ago, he bought a horse named Nitro from Jackie Moore in Missouri.
“He can run really hard, and that gives me lots of chances on a lot of different calves,” said Slack, who learned to rope from his father, Steve.
“His speed is what I feel like has gotten me where I am.”
Riding 10-year-old Nitro and buoyed by his faith, Slack has stayed away from the temptations that sidelined him and began to win again in the arena. Despite a tendency to stress about the rigors of going up and down the road week in and week out, Slack regained his roping form.
“It’s been really hard to stick it out (all season) because of the mental part of it and the ups and downs,” Slack said. “I wanted to quit. But I knew that if I did the next thing I felt led to do, I wouldn’t feel comfortable starting if I didn’t finish this first one. It’s been a long, hard deal for me.
“Winning a little bit gave me the initiative to keep staying at it.”
Slack won Rodeo Austin, among others, and finished 25th in the world standings last year, a performance that led him to believe he had a chance to return to Las Vegas. With big wins in Woodlake, Calif., Klamath Falls, Ore., and a fistful of checks, Slack qualified for this year’s Wrangler NFR in the 11th spot with $69,664 in earnings.
He placed in the second, third and fifth rounds to add another $18,930 to his bank account and heads into tonight’s seventh round second in the highly important aggregate standings. The experience of being back at the NFR this year has been a thrill for Slack, though competing in the world’s richest rodeo brings with it added pressure.
“The stress level of this deal is really hard, but I’ve got to try and rise above that if I can,” he said. “I’ve had some good times because I’ve had some good things happen here at the rodeo. It’s like a dream come true.”
Mike Johnson, a 23-time Wrangler NFR qualifier, traveled with Slack during the 1996 season and couldn’t be happier to see his friend back in the saddle at the NFR.
“It’s remarkable to go through a 17-year stretch, have some personal issues he’s had to overcome and turn his life around,” Johnson said. “I know that for anybody who even takes a month off it’s hard to come back, and a year almost becomes a miracle to get back into it. To get back out on the road and make it to the National Finals after 17 years, that’s beyond a miracle to me.
“He’s roped great, his dad has been a really big part of his life, and I’m glad to see it.”
Slack is a different man than the 21-year-old who sauntered into the Thomas &Mack Center nearly two decades ago, and he is grateful for his second chance.
“It makes you realize lots of things that are important and that a lot of things aren’t as big of a deal to you,” Slack said of overcoming his ordeal.
“It changes you, for sure, a whole lot in a lot of good ways. I’m really thankful for the big picture of being here and thank God for it.”
A freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., Neal Reid spent six years as editor of the ProRodeo Sports News. His writing has appeared in USA Today, Newsday, Western Horseman, American Cowboy and the Denver Post, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @NealReid21.