Editor’s Note: For the past decade, I’ve regularly enjoyed spending most of a week in early June covering the Utah High School Rodeo Association finals in Heber City.
Although I personally have no rodeo background, I’ve come to appreciate and admire the student-athletes who are so passionate about the sport. I’ve met so many amazing people and seen some fantastic performances.
As is the case in so many ways, however, 2020 is different.
Due to restrictions because of COVID-19, the high school rodeo finals are taking place in Hurricane this week and so I won’t be able to personally be in attendance.
I’m definitely going to miss being there, although that might be safer for me.
A few years ago, I was getting photos of one of the saddle-bronc riders coming out of the shoot when I slipped off between platforms and bruised myself up pretty good.
The fall also knocked my cellphone from my hand and into the chute, and I was sure I had seen the last of it. Fortunately for me, the bucking horse avoided stepping on it as it exploded out into the arena and I was able to retrieve it undamaged.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to tell some of the amazing experiences of rodeo athletes over the years but the story from 2017 of Eagle Mountain’s Garth Heap is a tough one to top.
Here’s a look back at the tale of a “Miracle Cowboy”:
Every high school cowboy and cowgirl wants to be at their best at the rodeo state finals in Heber City this week and Eagle Mountain’s Garth Heap is no different as he competes in the team-roping competition.
For the junior from Westlake and his family, however, the biggest success is just having him be there at all.
Heap’s story starts in the same way as many of his rodeo peers. As a freshman, he got into rodeo and began competing in saddle-bronc riding.
Then came the scheduled rodeo in Price and Heap said heading into that event his mom, Annie Heap, had a bad feeling about it.
“She said she couldn’t tell me no because I was having fun with it,” Garth said Thursday after his first performance. “So we went but now I don’t even remember getting on the horse or anything.”
Garth’s saddle-bronc ride turned into a nightmare as his foot got hung up in the stirrup of the saddle. When the horse was running around, the freshman got kicked in the side of the head.
“It broke my skull and I was actually dead in the arena,” Garth said.
Paramedics were able to get Garth breathing again and he was taken to the hospital in Price, then flown by helicopter to Primary Children’s Medical Center where he went into emergency brain surgery.
Even two years later, Annie can’t keep the emotion from her voice when she talks about that terrible day.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through,” Annie said.
Garth was in a coma for 10 days, had half of his skull out for 19 days and spent two months in the hospital.
“Every time I got out of bed, I had to put a helmet on,” Garth said. “The swelling went down and they actually put my skull back in way earlier than they thought they would.”
Meanwhile, the Heap family benefited from the tremendous support of the close-knit rodeo community.
“I can’t even tell you how we would’ve survived the whole ordeal without the rodeo family,” Annie said. “They raised money to help with medical bills, they sent flowers, they came to visit. Garth was in the ICU and that weekend he had about 300 people show up to see him each day. The rodeo truly supports each other and cheers each other on.”
The severity of the injury meant long months of recuperation as Garth worked his way back to functionality.
“His neurosurgeon said that in all his years of doing this, he has never seen a kid recover and heal the way Garth has,” Annie said. “These cowboys are tough. It was a rough road. He had to relearn to do everything: Walk, talk, eat, everything.”
A big asset in the cowboy’s recovery was the connection he has with animals. He had to be patient before he was able to return to riding
“At first, my doctor said I couldn’t ride horses,” Garth said. “I had to do therapy. I went to this lady who lives kind of by me. She had some special kind of horse that was a therapy horse. I started doing that a lot and getting my balance back.”
The Heap family ended up getting a new horse for Garth, Cash, and only a few months later he was back doing rodeo.
“When I got home from the hospital, I would go rope my dummy a lot,” Garth said. “I got really good, so then I started roping. It’s been so fun. My mom always asks me what I’m going to do and I say, I’m having fun. I don’t say that, she’ll probably rip me down off my horse.”
Annie said that it’s amazing to think that in just over a year, Garth went from not having any roping experience to qualifying for the state finals.
Garth has teamed up with Maddie Roche of the Spikers rodeo club for the team roping competition and for his recent 18th birthday, Roche presented him with a special gift.
“I had a normal helmet that I had to wear,” Garth said. “Maddie is really cool. She bought me this hat-helmet. It’s like a helmet but with the cowboy hat built into it. It’s pretty sweet.”
All of the support and generosity has helped Garth, Annie and the rest of the Heap family move forward from the trauma of the incident, but Annie said it was still very hard to go back to Price for another rodeo.
“Last year he didn’t want to rope at the Price arena,” Annie said. “He said it was bad mojo. We made him go watch. This year he overcame his fear and roped in the arena he died in and was brought back to life in. I was in the big main grandstands and said I would never sit in those again because of the memory I had. I overcame my fear of sitting in those grandstands, so it was a neat experience for us to overcome the fears together as a family.”
Garth said he has seen the video of the accident a couple of times.
“It makes me kind of sick inside,” Garth said.
But that is now the past while the junior is focused on the future. He keeps improving and still has another year of high school rodeo ahead of him.
Garth still deals with headaches but compared to what he has been through, his recovery has been nothing short of amazing.
“What they said was going to happen, he’s beat all odds,” Annie said. “He’s my walking, talking miracle-child.”