It is with deep emotion that we share with our rodeo community the blessed release of one our legends, Greg Hatfield. In the early morning hours of March 10th, 2014 in the State of Arkansas, our beloved friend was called to the rodeo arena in greener pastures, after a long battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was 56.
There are many that love the Sport, but with Greg it was more; he felt that rodeo was his calling. And for those that had the privilege of being under his scrutinous eye under competition or sharing his friendship around the rodeo arena, they saw Greg as not only the "law", but as what fairness in rodeo competition represented... A Cowboy that wanted everyone to win, under Rodeo's Rules.
Born in Gallup, New Mexico, almost immediately Greg knew that he wanted to be a Cowboy. His time on the trail eventually took him to Jordan, Montana; living the dream, riding fences, camping out on the range, a ranch hand for one of the biggest Rodeo Pioneers there ever was... Benny Binion.
But like any cowboy chasing his dreams and moving to the next outfit where cowboy'n needs to be done, after a few more stops he found himself in Stratford, Ontario... a Cowboy in search of a Bronc to break, a herd to guide, or a plain to ride. And eventually in 1988 he found a group of cowboys and cowgirls to ride with... the Ontario Rodeo Association.
Having dabbled with breaking colts and a little rodeo competition prior in the West, he gave it his all in Ontario; and competed in Bareback Bronc Riding and Saddle Bronc Riding before settling on the latter. He was a proud competitor at the Ontario Finals Rodeo in Kingston in the Bronc Riding early into the 90's. However, after suffering 8 broken bones in his back while competing in New York, he thought he'd rather try his hand at steer wrestling. It too was a short-lived event, and soon he became intrigued with officiating... and that's how most would remember Greg's time in our arenas.
Judging rodeo is a thankless job, most know. Like most sports, officials take beratings and work long hours; and the human element of decision making, or judging for short, is in reality an opinion... and like any opinion, is not always agreed with. But whatever the "call" was, the competitors knew where they stood with Greg.
He studied his craft. Reviewing videos and travelling to other events, he was a student of the game. Unrelentlessly he would continue to study the Rulebook he was hired to enforce, and read others for comparison. It was in this continued search for more understanding that he read in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's Judge's Handbook, "...As an official it is much more important to be respected than to be liked, and it is almost impossible to think you can be both..." and that quickly became his approach.
Greg lived by his word, in and out of the arena. He accepted that not everyone would like every call, but every call was made with confidence, regardless. He wouldn't be intimidated by a competitor pleading their case, and if, in the rare instance he made a mistake, he would own it. He would set out every performance to do right by everyone.
If you were about to debate with Greg however, you had better have known what you were debating. He would explain his call without hesitation and then quote the rule verbatim from the Rulebook. And, if you were bold enough to further question him, he would provide from memory the page number in question, or flip to it in an instant.
"If you're going to do something, do it right." Greg was a Professional Official. Meticulous in every essence of his image, ethic, appearance and attitude. Sure, Cowboy, with his unique handlebar moustache, nostalgic round sunglasses and buckaroo shaped felt hat; but professional with his attention to every detail... from pressed shirts, to new electric tape on the barriers almost every performance; from an itemized toolbox to a fully planned daily itinerary.
As a man, he lived for "his girls", though he loved his Rodeo Family... and he treated all of Rodeo's Youth as "his own boys (and girls)". Whether he could lend a pointer, or simply give encouragement, he would. If he had an opportunity to share some knowledge or just talk about the sport, he would as well, and cherished every moment spent on the rodeo grounds.
Greg was there for a lot of firsts... and lasts... in our rodeo arenas. For many even competing today, Greg was there for their first run, ride, wreck or win. A staple in the arena, he became a mentor to some judges, and a great partner for others. He was part of the duo "Batman and Robin (Welch)" at the very first A bar K Rodeo in Brigden, Ontario in 1994; and also judged the "All Girls Rodeo" rooted deep in Ontario Rodeo lore, to name a few.
His passion for officiating was uplifting. He inspired some of those youth to learn more about what makes the Sport tick... from understanding the regulations to how to better enforce it. Decades later, his name would still be uttered in Board Meetings and around the backpens. There may always be a demand for Rodeo Judges, but there will also always be a bar set by Greg Hatfield.
After spending almost 10 years in Ontario Rodeo, the Cowboy hit the trail again; off to the next rodeo. This time, North-East Texas and South-East Oklahoma would provide him a backdrop to continue living his dream. He judged ropings and rodeos from High School to International Pro Rodeo Association sanctioned events, all the while still staying in contact with his Rodeo Family back in Canada.
About 9 years later, around 2006, he became ill, and in 2008 he was diagnosed with ALS. His blazing of the trail would start to slow down, and he met a new family in the form of the ALS Society and a local ALS Support Group. Similarly to how many looked up to Greg in Rodeo, these organizations also quickly saw how inspiring Greg was. They flew him all over America where he could share his story and instil courage and strength to others fighting the same battle he was.
That same year, Greg’s two worlds met. Hearing of Greg's diagnosis, 1,600 kilometres away, Ontario organized a fundraiser in the form of a roping and auction, and over $6,700 was raised in one day. Yet the best surprise of this juncture was that on the Monday prior to the event, the ALS Society surprised Greg with a ticket to fly North to attend. Almost 10 years since leaving Ontario, he returned to visit those that had attended to lend their contributions and support to this great man that no one could forget.
Eventually, his treatments increased while his condition worsened, and his motivational speaking tour engagements ended, though this would not slow Greg down from helping others. From his bedside, he would write and even appear in video messages lending encouragement, faith and guidance to others.
From the Arena to the Stage to Online... encouraging, rooting for everyone, and inspiring.
Recently he wrote to one of those "Rodeo Youth" from Ontario:
"Sometimes life doesn't go like we plan or would like. For some, it's a long journey; for others, it's cut shorter than expected. To you, it has been both a privilege and fun to have been a part of your life. Not only am I proud of my daughters, I am very proud of the children of a lot of my friends in Canada. Watching and keeping track of your endeavours has made me proud of the determination that you have shown, as well as others that were kids when my kids were there. ...Continue to keep your standards high and always give 110%!"
As we remember him: glasses on, clipboard in one hand, stopwatch in the other, taking the credence he had read to heart as "They can respect you, or they can be your friend..." but in Greg's case, it was both.
Our thoughts and prayers are extended to the thousands of people that Greg inspired, no matter at which point on the cowboy's trail they encountered him, and especially to "his girls" Rebekah and Maddie. A wonderful man, that will be sadly missed, but forever be part of our rodeo family here in Ontario.
"When they lay me down to rest
Put my spurs and rope upon my chest.
Get my friends to carry me
and then go turn my horses free."
*** Updated March 11 ***
In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made to the Arkansas Chapter ALS Association. Send to Shannon Holley, President of the Board, 1200 W. Walnut St. #2309, Rogers, Arkansas 72756.
A memorial will be held at the Stillwell, OK cemetery on Saturday, March 15th at 11:00am.