Jerry Long was 8 years old when he first went to the rodeo in his hometown, Roswell, New Mexico. Almost 50 years later, he’s still at it, having won 18 titles, a couple saddles and more belt buckles than anyone could ever use.
Jerry Long is also blind.
Long is the “heeler” in team roping. This is the person who snags the steer’s feet after the “header” has roped the head. His only guide is a bell tied to the steer’s tail.
Long was diagnosed with diabetes when he was a 23-year-old college student. The diagnosis didn’t surprise him because Long’s father had died of diabetes-related complications three years earlier.
“It wasn’t until my father had died that I realized he had diabetes,” says Long. “We were very close, but he hid the fact [that he had diabetes] from me his entire life. He was a strong man, a rancher, and I guess he felt that if people knew he had diabetes they would think he was weak.”
After being diagnosed with diabetes, Long had to adjust to his new routine.
“I already knew how to give shots to livestock, so that wasn’t too difficult. The hardest adjustment was learning how to pinch up the skin and give myself a shot in just about any place I could reach. In those days, the needles were about as big as pencils.”
Complications Set In
For the next 20 years, Long suffered no complications from diabetes. His only hospitalizations were for broken bones. When he was in his late 30s, however, he experienced problems with his vision and wore glasses for the first time in his life. Surgeries to repair detached retinas (six in the left eye and three in the right) only helped temporarily.
Long then developed kidney problems. He began hemodialysis and later switched to peritoneal dialysis, a do-it-yourself treatment that worked well with his schedule as a high school principal in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Recurring kidney infections, however, forced him back to hemodialysis at a treatment center 80 miles from home.
“I had treatments three times a week for almost three years,” says Long. “I was still working Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and was going for my treatments on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.”
Eventually, Long went blind.
“I’m totally blind in one eye, and can just distinguish between light and dark with the other,” says Long.
Long eventually received a kidney transplant, and his life slowly returned to normal, but he figured that his riding and roping days were over.
A “Fat, Bald-Headed, Blind Guy”
It was a joke and a challenge, however, that got Long back in the saddle, when he attended a rodeo one day, where he witnessed a roping friend miss a steer.
“My friend came back making all kinds of excuses,” says Long. “We’re always teasing and harassing each other, and I told him that a fat, old, bald-headed blind guy like me could have roped that steer if it had a bell on its tail.”
That started his friend thinking.
“A few days later, he invited my wife and me over, and after dinner they saddled up some horses to do some roping. He came up to me, handed me some bells and said ‘There’s the horse, and there’s the cattle and here are your bells.’ It was still a joke, but I knew I was either going to have to listen to him harass me about this forever, or I was going to have to mount up.”
Long then got on the horse.
“It had been at least 15 years since I had been on a horse,” Long recalled. “My heart was pounding and I was scared to death. I couldn’t see the horse and I couldn’t see the ground. I was hanging on to the saddle horn, and my friend sent the steers out while I listened for the bells. That day, I managed to rope two out of the seven. After that, I was just hooked.”
Long didn’t even own a horse or saddle, and competing was the furthest thing from his mind. In June 1993, however, he entered a Texas Senior Pro Rodeo Association event, and by October, he had qualified for the finals.
Long now owns nine horses and a herd of 15 practice steers. He plans to retire in a few years from his position as transition coordinator at the Texas School for the Visually Impaired, and then he’ll have more time for roping.
“I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can,” say Long. “I’m having fun doing something I love, something that I thought I’d lost forever.”
Long gives motivational talks to many diabetes support groups, and many newly diagnosed individuals with diabetes seek him out at rodeos.