Lance Allen was warming up his hands after just bringing in a new set of steers from the frozen pens outside for a World Series of Team Roping qualifier at The Ranch in Loveland, Colo.
He was walking through the Ranchway Feeds Arena toward the announcer stand when he heard the announcer call for Justin Cunningham a third time on that Sunday morning in February.
Odd, Allen thought. There are ropers that would miss an arena call first thing on a bitter cold Sunday after a wild Saturday night out, but Cunningham, a 27-year-old pharmacist, wasn’t one of them.
Allen, who’s rodeoed most of his life and produced team ropings for the past eight years, had a bad feeling about this, right from the start. But he went to his office to make sure his secretary didn’t make a mistake with her records because he knew Justin wasn’t one to err in checking his draw.
“Usually when somebody gets turned out that early in the roping, that flags me to pay attention and make sure we hadn’t done anything wrong,” said Allen, owner of Mountain States Cattle Co. “I made sure he’d paid for all of his runs. Then come to find out, his usual partners ... hadn’t entered with him because they couldn’t get hold of him. And then they said he didn’t check his dog in with the babysitter for the day. That’s when I figured something wasn’t right.”
Cunningham hadn’t rented out an RV parking plug in, Allen also discovered when he checked in at the office. While still in the office, he figured out which stalls Cunningham had reserved for his two horses — Hank, a blaze-faced sorrel, and Cooper, a palomino — and went to check on the bronc-rider-turned-pharmacist.
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Justin Cunningham was born April 6, 1990, in Yankton, the oldest son of Gail and Suzanne Cunningham. He grew up in Bloomfield. He could read by age 3 and started picking apart words even then.
In sixth grade, he read and analyzed Margaret Mitchell’s post-Civil War novel “Gone With the Wind,” and he was eaten up by helping his dad ride colts. He loved to go out to eat, and strawberry rhubarb pie and fried chicken were his favorites. By seventh grade, he had read Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and had asked the head of the high school English department to discuss its meanings.
“He always had a need to know,” said his mother, who works for Bloomfield Community Schools’ technology department. “When he didn’t know, he found out. Even before we had internet, he found a way to find out. He’d ask, or he’d look it up.”
And when Cunningham wasn’t studying, he was either working for a local pharmacist in town as a hired man, or in the arena with his dad and younger brother, Dalton.
“He’d rather hang out with his family and rope than go out with his friends,” said Gail Cunningham, who works for Vestas, troubleshooting wind turbines. “When we started roping, myself and my boys all learned together. We were breaking outside horses, and starting to train our own horses to rope. I suppose Justin was around 10 or 12 years old when he started roping. He had to learn to rope and learn to teach his horse to rate, all at the same time.”
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THE TWO Cunningham brothers got into 4-H and youth rodeo, with Justin riding saddle broncs and team roping, and Dalton riding bulls. Justin couldn’t stand to miss one of his brother’s rides.
“Justin was his biggest fan,” Suzanne said. “Dalton was quite honored and had an accomplished bull riding career through high school. And Justin was so proud of him. Justin ... knew Dalton had a special talent.”
“We had our fair share of fights,” Dalton said. “He always tried coaching me and we’d always butt heads. I’d tell him he never rode bulls so he couldn’t tell me what to do.”
In high school rodeo, Justin, who went to the National High School Finals Rodeo in 2007 to ride bucking horses, met Shaylee Jobman. The daughter of Steve and Sherry Jobman, a rodeo family who own an arena in Bayard, lived across the state from the Cunninghams’ Bloomfield home. But the families bonded quickly, and the parents became best friends right along with their kids.
Spencer Jobman, Shaylee’s brother, was a few years younger than Justin, but the pair quickly became inseparable. “Justin and Spencer looked a lot alike,” Sherry Jobman said. “Justin was an athlete and played sports in high school, and Spencer is a phenomenal athlete. They just had a lot in common.”
Justin soon headed off to college to be a pharmacist — a degree that takes six years and requires a doctorate — at South Dakota State University in Brookings.
“Justin said in fifth grade he would be a pharmacist because he thought he’d be able to do it and he’d be able to rope on the weekends,” his mother said. “Little did we know he’d stick with it.”
On a pharmacy rotation, an internship-like experience required to graduate from pharmacy school, he found himself working in western Nebraska and bunking at the Jobmans’ home.
“He brought five horses when he came for five weeks,” Sherry Jobman said. “He’d get all of his work done, get all of his horses caught, and saddled, and he’d ride his colts. We’d rope for three or four hours every night. Justin was one of those kids who wanted to be the best at everything he could be. My husband has taught lots of people to rope, and Justin absorbed everything he could tell him.”
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SPENCER JOBMAN was in Torrington, Wyo., heading to a barrel race to watch his wife, Justine, when Lance Allen and fellow Nebraska roper Tucker White called him from the roping that cold morning in February. The Jobmans had left Loveland already the night before.
Jobman told them what truck Justin was driving — his black Chevy with Nebraska plates, pulling a four-horse trailer with a weekender package up front, the same one he’d had since high school. It was parked in front of the arena, right there in the first row.
Nearly every roper had walked by it that day to get into the stall barn, but nobody took notice of the generator running in the horse compartment, with the drop-down windows and vents open, extension cord neatly coiled and plugged into the living quarters.
“We stayed on the phone with Spencer the whole time,” Allen said. “The more panicked we got, the more panicked he got. I told Spencer the generator was still running.”
“I told them, ‘Open the damn door,’ ” Spencer said.
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Coming tomorrow: More about Justin Cunningham’s life and what happened on that cold February day.