GUYMON, Okla. – The rugged terrain of the Oklahoma Panhandle is home to row crops, sagebrush and livestock, and the weather can be as unyielding as any other place on Earth.
Some will say it takes a special person to make things work around here, but the region once known as No Man’s Land is filled with special people. They work hard, and they hold tight to the pride they have in themselves and their community.
Much of that pride comes from the Western way of life and the great rodeo tradition that beats down on the Oklahoma Panhandle like the hot July sun. It’s why the Pioneer Days Rodeo is in its 80th year in existence, celebrating with a week of competition that culminates in the four action-packed performances set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 4; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5; and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 6, at Henry C. Hitch Pioneer Arena.
It’s also home to some of the greatest cowboys in rodeo history, men like Craig Latham, a nine-time saddle bronc riding qualifier to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Originally from Wyoming, Latham transplanted to the area more than two decades ago to attend Oklahoma Panhandle State University. Now he’s the rodeo coach at his alma mater, helping one of the greatest programs uphold a strong tradition.
“Obviously the things Craig has done for this area started when he was on that rodeo team and his contributions as a team member when Doc Gardner was a coach,” said Ken Stonecipher, the production director for the Pioneer Days Rodeo committee. “Then when he began his pro career, he really helped put us on the map.
“He was also instrumental, with the Etbauers, in growing that Guymon rodeo and getting guys to come here in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
When Latham first began competing at the Guymon rodeo, it was one of the smaller ones in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Even though he was making a living in the sport, he volunteered his time and popularity to help the annual event grow. It has continued to grow, and over the years has been dubbed “Oklahoma’s Richest Rodeo.” Even now, Latham helps round up other volunteers and members of the Panhandle State rodeo team to help.
“We couldn’t do this thing without the things Craig has provided for us over the years,” said Earl Helm, chairman of the Pioneer Days Rodeo committee, which produces the annual event. “He bails us out all the time. Craig brings in his crew to take care of the stripping chute and take care of the sorting; that gives the rest of us a breather.
“Whatever we need done, Craig makes it work. He’s a top hand. He’s right there asking what he can do to help us out.”
Latham and his family – wife, Lori, and daughters, Chaney and Sadie – live on their ranch southwest of Goodwell. When Latham was hot on the rodeo trail, he traveled with brothers Robert, Billy and Dan Etbauer, and the quartet were among the very best in the business at riding rank bucking horses. Robert owns two world championships, Billy owns five gold buckles and all four were the epitome of greatness at rodeos all across this land.
“Craig is just good all the way around,” said Billy Etbauer, who lives near Edmond. “It doesn’t matter if you need something, he was always there – just like him entering me forever, even after he quit rodeoing, he was still entering me.
“I guess he’s always trying to take care of others and always helping others.”
Latham continues that trend as the coach in Goodwell, a community of 1,300 just 10 miles southwest of Guymon.
“I think one of the things that people maybe don’t know about Craig is how committed he is to this rodeo program and the countless hours he spends, not just in the arena, but the number of hours he spends on the phone, raising support and doing other things for the program,” said Laura Nelson, the campus communications director at Panhandle State.
“It’s nearly his whole life, but I think it’s a big part of what makes him so successful. Bearing that in mind, he is genuinely grateful for the people who help him out. He knows he doesn’t do this by himself, and he’s constantly acknowledging people who help him out.”
Robert Etbauer has been a close friend of Latham’s most of their lives. Besides being longtime traveling partners, they live near one another, as does Robert’s youngest brother, Dan.
“We don’t live together, but we see each other every day and kind of know what each other’s going to do,” Robert Etbauer said. “He’s done a great job with the coaching deal. He’s brought in a bunch of great kids, then he introduces them to the community, blends them in here, gets jobs for them. He gets them an education. They get to rodeo while they’re getting their education, so it’s a really good opportunity for them.”
The students, whether in their first year on the championship rodeo team or celebrated alumni, see up close and personal the type of attention it takes to be successful, whether in the arena or out. They feel a special bond with Latham and see how his giving nature has been a major player in their own successes.
“He’s willing to help anyone,” said Jordan Muncy-Taton, the 2010 breakaway roping and all-around national champion while at Panhandle State who now coaches at New Mexico Highlands University. “He was always there for me. While I was going to school, if I asked for anything, he and Lori were there for me.
“His family is just so nice and down to earth. I just look at him as one of my friends, but I think that’s one of the good things around this sport. If you’re around it all the time, you see that people like Craig, one of the best bronc riders ever, and they’re just everyday people.”
The athletes Latham recruits and brings to the region seem to have a lot in common, and people in the community see that as a positive thing.
“Craig recruits great kids that are always an asset to Guymon and Goodwell,” Stonecipher said. “They are great athletes, but also they’re great students and citizens. It’s uncanny that he recruits kids that are winners in the arena and outside, too.
“He’s a winner. He teaches kids how to win, and he has teams that win.”
That attitude is what Latham is carrying with him as he tangles with the rankest beast he’s ever tried to ride, plasmacytoma, a type of cancer for which Latham has been undergoing treatment since last June. He has spent much of the past two months in Baltimore undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but he’s maintained high spirits despite the invasive procedures.
“It’s the toughest road he’s had to go down, but he’ll go down that road trying and fighting because that’s what he’s like,” Robert Etbauer said.
Latham compares his fight against cancer to his bronc riding career. When he was on the rodeo trail, he rode the best bucking horses and traveled with the best bronc riders, the Etbauers. Now he’s battling the disease in Baltimore with the best doctors he could find.
“It would be the biggest fight of your life, and he’s going at it like that’s what it is,” Billy Etbauer said. “That’s what you need to do.
“We’re going to do what we can for him. If he needs anything, we’re going to try to get it done. We’ll just pray, and hopefully everything will stay on the up and up.”
Though his popularity was established because of what he could do on the backs of bucking broncs, Latham has continued to reach out to others. That’s why several entities have produced fund-raisers to help the family through the Craig Latham Medical Fund at the Bank of the Panhandle.
“When he told me he had to go back to Baltimore, he said, ‘You know what? I’ve been in tough fights before,’ ” Stonecipher said. “He fully expects to win because he’s a winner. That’s what he brings to the rodeo program. That’s the difference between good coaches and great coaches.
“Craig Latham is a great coach.”
He’s also a great man who is not letting plasmacytoma define who he is. He has great faith, and he shares that in his own way to countless others.
“I never went to college, and I never had the experiences, but I don’t know how you could ask for anything more than what Craig gives those kids,” Billy Etbauer said. “He’s putting every effort toward helping those kids and that school, and he’s doing a good job for the kids and the school. His whole life rotates around it.
“He does anything and everything he can to make it better for the kids, but he’s still good enough of a guy that he’s getting the kids to do stuff, too. They’re learning an awful lot there.”
And so are many others.
“Craig’s just one of those guys that he doesn’t let anything get to him,” said Muncy-Taton, whose brother, Taos, is a two-time world champion saddle bronc rider who won the 2007 college title in that event while a student at Panhandle State. “Just like his cancer deal; you call to check on him, and he asks how you are and really cares about who you are. That says a lot about him, I think.”
Yes, it does.