BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Guy Collins lunged out to grab a metal pole to keep his ladder from tipping over Thursday morning.
The rodeo cowboy/general contractor grimaced in pain, grabbing the right shoulder that he had injured a few days earlier while lifting materials. Collins planned to get checked out by a doctor soon because he could hardly raise his right arm enough to hurl a rope.
What would it take for him not to compete in team roping at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo in three weeks?
The 56-year-old paused and got a funny look on his face as if he were surprised at the question.
"I never even thought about it," he said, pensively. "I guess it would take my wife (Theresa) to tell me not to."
But, he added with a smile, as long as he's physically able, "I'll rope through the pain."
Collins competed in his first rodeo when he was 47, but now he lives for them. It will be nearly impossible to keep him out of the Boardwalk Rodeo, which returns for a second year at Boardwalk Hall from March 30-April 1.
When Collins was growing up in Garfield, Burlington County, several of his cousins were rodeo calf ropers, but he never got a chance to try the sport. Instead, he raced cars in the streets as a teenager, drove in demolition derbies and even raced boats occasionally.
But he always knew he wanted to compete in rodeos.
"I always loved animals and being around them," he said. "I should've been born back when they used to do cattle drives in the West."
First he had to choose an event, and he decided on the one that was easiest on his body.
"I've got to be at work every day," Collins said as he drilled stakes into the ground for the framework of a greenhouse Thursday. "Team roping is the only thing in the rodeo where you don't get off the horse."
Like hitting the lottery
When he was 40, Collins, who at the time lived on 3 acres in Egg Harbor Township, started looking for a bigger property where he could have a farm.
Two years later, he found a spot on Route 54 in Buena Vista Township, a little less than a mile from Harding Highway. He built a house, then a barn and finally bought two horses.
At 47, Collins competed in his first rodeo at the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove Township.
Collins' job as a header is to rope the steer first by the horns so the heeler can finish it off by the legs. His partner in that first rodeo, whom he declined to name, was an experienced roper but "was sweatin' bullets" as they got ready.
"Don't worry," he told his heeler with a smile. "I'm probably going to miss."
Collins didn't miss. He roped the steer and tied it off quickly. Then he looked over his shoulder. The heeler had gotten a late start and then missed the steer.
Losing didn't matter to Collins, though. He had roped the steer.
"When I left the arena, I felt like I just hit the lottery," he said.
Since then, Collins has competed in the weekly Cowtown Rodeo every summer.
In 2010, he teamed up with Bailey Martin of Mechanicsville, Va., and they finished in the money in their first seven rodeos that season. Atlantic City will mark the third season together for Martin, 60, and Collins.
"He's a great teammate," Martin, also a contractor, said in a phone interview Thursday. "He always tries his best to do his part, and you can always count on that. Some guys want to get frustrated with (their teammates). He never gets frustrated with me and I never get frustrated with him.
"Sometimes we win, sometimes we don't. We just rope. We don't mess with the small stuff."
A love of competition
One of the things they don't concern themselves with is money. The occasional prize money they win is more than offset by entry fees and the costs of owning and transporting horses. They compete for love of the sport.
Collins practices whenever possible with live steer. He used to practice in an arena he built on his farm, but with the down economy he hasn't been able to keep steer recently. On Sunday night, he plans to join Martin and some other ropers for a practice session at the Bridgeton home of Butch Dase, another rodeo competitor.
This will be the first time Collins and Martin have practiced together. Martin has been roping since he was 10, so he said he can work with anyone, but he said the practice will help.
Practices sometimes include pizza and beverages - though Collins doesn't drink alcohol - but they're mostly business. The men take turns making runs on their horses, and they critique each other as they go.
"You learn every single time you go out," Collins said.
Martin said he anticipates a strong season because Collins gets better every year.
"He practices really hard, but it's like playing any other game - baseball, football - practice is not the game," Martin said. "So as he gets more experience, he gets better."
Collins doesn't plan to quit any time soon, either - just as long as his shoulder holds up.
"One of the guys that roped last year (in Atlantic City) was 70-something," he said. "You can do team roping a long time.
"I'll go as long as my body lets me."
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