The one thing Justin Maass can do better than anything else – and better than almost anyone on the planet – is rope a calf.
The cowboy from Giddings, Texas, has been a tie-down roper in the professional ranks since 1996, and this year, he qualified for the National Finals Rodeo for the seventh time in his career. In fact, he not only qualified, but did so after the best year of his life. He finished the regular season with $144,001, giving him a $20,000 lead in the world standings heading into the NFR.
But that wasn’t the original plan for 2012. Nope. This was the year when the 37-year-old Maass was going to cut back on his rodeoing days and try to get into something more stable for his family. The plan was to open a restaurant in Giddings, which lies about halfway between Houston and Austin – a perfect spot to catch travelers.
Maass hadn’t qualified for the NFR the past two years, and being a rodeo cowboy – particularly one with a wife and a 5-year-old daughter – becomes much less practical if you can’t consistently qualify for the NFR and then make some money once you get to Vegas.
"I was a little discouraged and kind of fed up with it," Maass said. "I’ve got a 5-year-old going into kindergarten, and I thought it might be time to do something a little more stable.
"We found some land, and we were gonna build a restaurant. We had a couple ideas, but it never got done."
So Maass had to go back to what he does best. And he did so with no regret.
"It wasn’t disappointing, and the way it worked out, it was definitely not disappointing," he said. "I still kept roping, and I started winning, and it all worked out, I guess."
Making the NFR as the No. 1 qualifier surely helped make up for many lean years – 10 of Maass’ 17 seasons have finished without a spot in the "Super Bowl of Rodeo." Unlike the top pro athletes in many other sports, rodeo competitors have no contracts, no guaranteed money whatsoever. They have to place high at every rodeo they go to if they want to have a check to cash at day’s end.
"You gotta win, there’s no doubt," he said. "So this year has been better for me. Most times before, you really rely on the money you won out there in Vegas to put away. In the years you don’t make it to Vegas, it’s tough. You’re as broke as you can possibly be."
When the restaurant fell through, Maass held firm that it just wasn’t meant to be.
"I’m a true believer in the fact that God has a plan for us. I think everything happens for a reason," he said. "In this case, it’s pretty obvious. It’s been such a good year. It’s been fun."
And that fun started right away. The first major event of the year is the Great Western Stock Show in Denver, and Maass made it pay with a first-place finish worth $12,000.
"When I won Denver, I thought this is a good start to things," he said. "It was dang sure a good bit of money right off the bat, but it really didn’t change our plans. We were still going to try to get (the restaurant) going."
He won a few thousand dollars over a couple of rodeos during the next month. Then came the game-changer.
"About a month later, I won San Antonio for $17,000. So I was already at about $35,000 for the year," Maass said. "I remember, my wife and I were pulling out of our driveway after that, and we both said, ‘I guess we’re rodeoing this year.’ "
The good fortune was just beginning, too.
"We went to 75 rodeos, and all throughout the summer, it kept going my way," he said. "In 17 years, I’ve had some hot streaks and been good, but I’ve never been rolling like that."
It’s enough to make him forget all those tough times accrued over nearly two decades as a pro, and his years in the sport long before that. But he’s not quite sure what to make of having such a great shot at his first world title in tie-down roping.
"I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head round," he said. "It’s been a grind my whole career. We’ve gotten close, but we never thought we’d have that chance.
"I feel like I owe this to so many people who have helped me. To be able to win this for my parents, my grandparents, my wife now and my in-laws, it would really feel good. To win it now would be really cool not only for myself, but for the people who have been with me my whole career."Playing Favorites With Justin Maass
HOME: Giddings, Texas
NFR Qualifications: Seven
Favorite Rodeo Moment: “I’d probably have to say the first time I rode in the Grand Entry at the NFR in 1999. Just knowing that I’d made it to the NFR for the first time, and that it was actually happening, it hit home.”
Favorite Rodeo Superstition: “I try not to be very superstitious, but one thing I don’t do, just because I’ve never won anything when I did, is I don’t wear yellow shirts. I burned one the last time I did that. I went straight out to the parking lot and burned it.”
Favorite NFR Moment: “The first round I won, in 2005. It was the first time I ever won a round at the NFR. I placed in quite a few, I’d just never won one. Getting to go to the Gold Coast to get that buckle was nice.”