From the time he was a young boy, Dennis Watkins had one desire: to be a cowboy.
He didn't live on a ranch, there were no cowboys in the family and he has no idea why he wanted to be a cowboy. He just did.
"I played cowboys and Indians, I used to take limbs off trees and ride stick horses," he said.
Now a week shy of celebrating his 63rd birthday, Watkins is being inducted into the Bob Elias Hall of Fame for being a darn good cowboy, specifically one of the best professional team ropers in the country.
Among Watkins' accolades: Two-time National Finals Rodeo team roping champion (1981,1984); nineteen consecutive NFR appearances (1974-1992); four-time Reno Rodeo winner; two-time Salinas Rodeo winner, two-time Prescott, Ariz., Rodeo winner, Denver Rodeo winner and San Antonio Rodeo winner.
He earned a host of other wins and honors, including competing at the prestigious Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping event 41 consecutive times, including last year.
Oh yeah. And he met his future wife, Cathy, at a high school rodeo. They recently celebrated their 41st anniversary.
"I've been very blessed," said Watkins, who still ropes competitively but spends the bulk of his time giving lessons and doing clinics.
Watkins was born in Taft, Calif., but his family moved to Valley Acres, Calif., (a small community off Highway 119 between Bakersfield and Taft) when he was 7. It was there that he soon traded in his stick pony for a real horse.
Watkins' dad, Eddie, was introduced to team roping by the late Bob Freeney and that was a life-changer for the young Watkins.
"I was 8 years old when I got a rope in my hand and it never left," he said. "I was like Linus with the blanket. I didn't start roping off a horse until I was 10. My dad traded a ski boat for a buckskin horse. It made all of the family mad but me."
Team roping consists of a header — the rider who ropes the steer's head — and the heeler who must rope both of the steer's rear legs. Watkins discovered early on he had a knack for heeling.
The young Watkins started heeling for his dad then the two switched. When he was 15, Watkins realized his future was in heeling.
"Back then, the guys who headed were really, really good, but only a handful of people could catch two feet," he said. "I realized that because I had a knack for heeling I could get (paired) with all the good headers.
"It was a hard thing to tell my dad that, but I told him I'd always head for him."
Watkins set a goal to compete in the National Final Rodeo by the time he was 20. He was there at age 18.
"My dad told me when I was about 16, 'I'm happy for you whether you make it or not. To see you with your passion, you know where you want to go. Most men in their 20s don't know where they want to go.'"
In most rodeo competitions, it's a one-on-one match. Bull rider vs. the bull; bareback rider vs. the bronc; steer wrestler vs. the steer.
Watkins said team roping is unique.
"Five personalities and five attitudes (two horses, two riders and the calf)," he said. "It's hard to get two attitudes on the right page. It's very complicated.
"When you catch team roping done correctly it looks so simple, like a golf swing. But I guarantee, it's one of the hardest things to do."
While roping is certainly important, Watkins said he thinks teaching someone to rope well is easier than trying to teach someone to be a good rider.
"I can take someone who rides well and doesn't handle the rope very well and get them to progress quicker and faster than one who handle the rope well if they don't ride," he said. "I say it's like hockey. I can take a hockey stick and hit a tennis ball around in my house all day with no problem. But put me on skates and it's another game."
But a cowboy is only as good as his horse.
"The better the horse, the better the rider, the easier it is to rope," he said.