Missi Henderson watched as the rodeo cowboys her older son had aspired to become one day competed Monday night at the National Finals Rodeo.
It was a night of smiles and tears for the 43-year-old Winfield, Kansas, mother, as she held her younger son, Murphy, 4, and nestled under the arm of her husband, Shane, 46, a former pro-rodeo steer wrestler.
Three months earlier, 7-year-old Max died Sept. 15, following a roping practice when his pony, Lickety Split, reared and fell on top of him.
Henderson said she doesn’t want her son’s life reduced to a sad story. She wants it to be one of encouragement and inspiration. She doesn’t want people to focus on how her “rodeo kid” died, but instead on how he lived.
She wants people to #LiveLikeMax.
On Monday, friends and NFR competitors approached Henderson at Thomas & Mack Center to offer hugs, filling her eyes with tears. But that smile never left her face. She smiled at seeing loved ones and competitors wearing cowboy hats adorned with white feathers bearing the words “LIVE LIKE Max.”
Max loved hard, prayed hard and played hard. That’s how people should remember him, Henderson said this week.
“Right when we found out he was gone, we just knew we didn’t want his death to be for nothing,” she said.
The Hendersons, who own and operate a tree service, hope to create a foundation to fund a camp for young aspiring rodeo competitors.
Rodeo family support
Henderson’s 16-year-old niece, Libby Berger, made feathers in Max’s honor for every competitor in the Central Plains Rodeo Association finals two weeks after his death. At the NFR, dozens of competitors also wore the feathers on their hats.
“That whole thing has touched the rodeo family immensely,” Susan Kanode, a friend from Paradise, Texas, said Tuesday.
Reigning world champion team roper Clay Smith dedicated his win in the third round of the NFR to Max and the Henderson family.
Steer wrestler Riley Duvall of Checotah, Oklahoma, said that anyone who rodeos knows the Henderson family. “Everyone wearing the feather wants them to know we’ve got their back, and we’re praying for them,” he said Tuesday night.
Kanode said the family strives to be happy and find laughter. “They are keeping joy at the forefront. That’s what that little boy would have wanted,” she said, noting the family’s church is building a playground dedicated to Max.
‘He never had a bad day’
Max packed a lot of living into his seven years.
He competed in junior rodeo events including barrel racing, tying goats, roping dummy calves and riding sheep since he was 3.
Henderson said her son was an excellent winner and an even better loser. As soon as he lost, she said, he would cheer on his friends. “He never had a bad day,” she said.
The family’s Facebook page is filled with photos and videos of Max. Amid videos of him competing in rodeo events is one of Max extracting his own baby tooth by tying it to an arrow and shooting it out with a bow. In another, he is spraying his mom with car wash wand water.
Max was a joyful kid, full of fun and quick to laugh. “It was like raising a college freshman,” Henderson said. “At any moment he might rip his shirt off and start dancing.”
For her birthday just weeks before his death, Max arranged for his dad to watch his little brother so his mother could have him all to herself for seven hours. It was a gift Henderson said she’ll always cherish.
In a Facebook post earlier this year, she wrote: “You saved countless souls: made better people, parents, cowboys, competitors and kids spanning thousands of miles.
“While I will miss you until God calls me home — and I have many tears left to shed — I also have work left to be done.”
“Your Daddy, brother and I will honor you by Living Like Max until the second God calls us to join you,” her Facebook post reads. “Listen for our laughter. In it we call to you, sweet Max. Love Mom”