Gillette College team roper Kellan Johnson and his horse trotted through the gate after Saturday’s short go-round of the 2018 College National Finals Rodeo and waited behind the roughstock chutes. The freshman and Casper native knew exactly where his father, Jhett, was stationed with his arms in the air. Not only did Jhett have a vested interest in his son roping, but Kellan’s teammate was Jhett’s Casper College pupil, Trey Yates.
Jhett watched nervously as the two had a 5.2-second run to take the lead in the aggregate with only two teams remaining. Kellan and Yates reconvened to watch the final two teams. Both had roped near flawlessly for the week’s entirety, but both threw no-times in the short. Kellan and Trey were officially national champions.
The team ropers made their victory lap around the dirt arena of the Casper Events Center and back through the gate. Kellan once again knew exactly where his father was.
“It was like watching a dream happen,” Jhett said.
Kellan later recounted those moments with pristine clarity.
“I knew where everybody was at just because it’s like a dream come true,” he said. “You don’t forget things like that.”
For years the Johnson family has been synonymous with rodeo. Jhett grew up on his family ranch outside of Casper and began team roping at 14 years old. That led to his well-established career in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as a five-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier and 2011 Team Roping World Champion heeling alongside Turtle Powell.
Kellan grew up in the shadows of that. Some young men could get caught up in their father’s legend. This one had the maturity to handle it differently.
“There’s a lot of pressure having a world champion as your dad, but it’s the way you handle it,” Kellan said. “My brother, my cousins, can handle it so well. But the pressure in the arena is unreal, being the son of a world champion.”
Kellan and younger brother Carson went along to rodeos before being old enough to compete themselves. Eventually it got to where Kellan and Carson would team rope together, and sometimes Kellan would head for Jhett. Their relationship never frayed.
But in March of 2017 long-time Casper College rodeo coach Tom Parker died of cancer. Jhett had been helping as an assistant and was eventually named head coach. Kellan graduated high school that following June and decided to go to school with his girlfriend at Gillette College. Kellan admitted that taking some space from home did factor into his decision.
Jhett was reassured of this decision after seeing Kellan rodeo early in the spring. The freshman hadn’t been experimenting with different roping styles or veering his focus, and instead worked almost exclusively on fundamentals.
Kellan and Yates won rodeos and produced results, moving up the college rankings. They won the Central Rocky Mountain Region, which put them in contention for a national championship entering the CNFR.
Perhaps no one watched Kellan rope more than his father did over the years. And yet, even he developed nerves early in the week.
“You know, they say it’s nerve-wracking and it is because I have no control over what can happen,” Jhett said. “When I’m doing it I have some hand in it. But it amazes me how mature he is as he’s roping as a freshman. He’s mature in just doing his job. I dang sure get nervous, but I really trust him.”
Kellan reiterated that having his father as a role model helped him develop as a person. Growing up roping with his father afforded him a constant learning opportunity.
“Me and my dad are best friends outside of the arena,” Kellan said. “We’ve built a relationship where we’re not father and son, we’re best friends. We talk about everything under the moon.”
Jhett watched his oldest son and Yates make consistent runs throughout the week to earn a spot in the short go-round. He watched nervously from behind the chutes as they took the lead in the average. Less than 5 minutes later he embraced Kellan, a national champion son.
Before he was a world champion, Jhett was the 1993 CNFR reserve national championship in team roping. He cracked a grin at the thought of his son already surpassing him in his first year of collegiate rodeo.
“To see him do that and actually go a step higher to be the champ,” Jhett said. “It just ... in my mind, I hope it’s just a taste of things to come.”
The Casper College rodeo coach knew luck played a part in how his son became national champion. In the end, though, it came down to execution. Kellan and Yates executed their plan and it worked to perfection.
It’s also not a surprise to Jhett that Kellan developed into a national champion as a freshman.
“More than they can see it, I can see it,” he said. “It’s like a snowstorm, you can see it.”
After the ceremonies, photo sessions and pleasantries associated with being a national champion, Kellan joined his father and brother Carson at the family ranch outside Casper. That gave Jhett and Carson opportunities to get their roping horses into the trailer. They loaded what they needed into the truck and made the 15-hour drive throughout the night for the Reno (Nevada) Roundup.
Jhett and Kellan joked about the drive before making it. They had the momentum of a national championship, the first for the family, on their side.
“This will make the drive easier,” Kellan smiled into a laugh. “It will feel like three hours.”