It’s a pretty vivid memory for me. My neighbor came over to my house and jokingly took exception with something I said.

“I’m gonna come over and plant a big sign in your front yard that says, ‘Billy Etbauer for President.’”

Who was the neighbor? TJ Johnson. What was he talking about? Well, 15 years ago I said in my NFR rodeo column that I didn’t think saddle bronc extraordinaire Billy Etbauer would win the world title in 2004. I probably said Cody DeMoss — a great bronc rider himself — would get the Gold Buckle.

TJ’s “presidential sign” comment was a mix of threat and comedy, and not an ounce of spite. It was just one neighbor ribbing a fellow friend. While TJ didn’t put the sign in my yard, I would have gladly joined the campaign trail with him.

TJ and I solved a lot of world problems over the years, whether it was discussing rodeo travel strategies or farming. It could have been about basketball or his family. Regardless of the topic, I enjoyed chatting him up (and family always came up, which shows you the kind of guy he was). Our venues were his driveway, my front yard or the parking lot at Exit 115. It could’ve been at the school gymnasium. No matter the location, we always had time to catch up, even if it was for just a moment or two. But ask our wives, oftentimes they would catch us chatting for longer than a moment. Because if you got us talking about rodeo or community there wasn’t enough time to get it all in.

We talked about when he would give cowboys a ride to a rodeo or pick them up from the airport on their way here. I’ve done that before, too. When I’d see him at the Ellensburg Rodeo with family, he and Gail sat in the same shaded seats and I’d always find myself saying hi or waving on my way to catch a cowboy for an interview. Oftentimes, I’d see TJ passing out his homemade jerky to cowboys and even though I’m “all hat and no cattle,” I’d still get a cut of what he was passing out as well, so maybe I was cowboy enough.

I can remember the time he introduced me to five-time world champion Billy Etbauer. I was still trying to learn the ropes of rodeo reporting — this is 15-plus years ago now — and TJ and Gail introduced us, chatted us up a bit and then left to let me do my thing. The years have clouded my memory on what Billy and I talked about and I don’t even remember how the story turned out, but it was about Billy and I hope TJ approved. TJ loved rodeo, but he really liked saddle bronc and the Etbauers and many of our rodeo conversations had that link to Billy.

TJ loved his family and his community fiercely. Despite the fact that I could watch or listen to the NFR at home, there were a few times when I would walk the few blocks over to watch it on TV at his home. If my girls came with me, Gail had the hot chocolate going and TJ would crack jokes with them.

I don’t want to say we lost TJ the other day, but God certainly gained a heckuva friend that he can watch rodeo and Kittitas basketball with from the greatest view of them all.

By the way, for anyone that remembers … TJ was right. Billy won the saddle bronc world title in 2004. And while I can’t prove it, I know for a fact he’s telling God about it right now.

Jon Guddat covers rodeo — from the kids to the kids at heart — with a weekly rodeo column in the Daily Record. Contact Jon with story ideas at jonguddat@yahoo.com.

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