LAWRENCE — The summer before Ben Goodman left for Kansas, he made a pact with his father. For four years, he would dedicate himself to football, to the simple joy of sacking the quarterback and blowing up opposing running backs.
But first, before he had to report to campus, he wanted one more run on the rodeo circuit. Life only gives you so many chances to wrestle a steer or rope a calf, you know?
“I know I’m not gonna be able to do it for four years,” Ben Goodman told his father, Ben Sr.
So off they went, making stops in Biloxi, Miss., and Caldwell and Livingston, Texas. This was the rodeo life, the life Goodman had grown up in. And one last time, Goodman went head first into the seemingly insane sport of wrestling a live steer. He also competed in calf-roping competitions — his specialty event.
“He wanted to get it out of his system,” Ben Sr. says.
More than two years later, Goodman, a sophomore linebacker at KU, will take the field for Kansas against TCU in Fort Worth at 11 a.m. on Saturday. In his first year starting, Goodman has sparked a rejuvenated pass-rush that has produced nine sacks.
Earlier this week, KU coach Charlie Weis has promised that this matchup with TCU could be the Jayhawks’ most physical test of the season. But what’s so scary about meeting a running back in the hole when you grew up watching your father steer wrestle in events in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. His father would jump off a horse at 35 mph (“You gotta have a good horse,” Ben Sr. says) and grab the beast by the horns, flipping him to the ground.
“The rodeo life just makes you physical,” says Goodman, who grew up in Beaumont, Texas, near the Texas-Louisiana border. “It makes you so physical and tough-natured already. And just being around that, I just grew up physical and faster than the average kid.”
For Goodman, the rodeo life is a family tradition that goes back generations. His grandfather, a man known as Little Henry, was a bull rider, competing in rodeos all over Texas. Ben Sr. would try bull riding, too, but after cracking a few ribs, he thought better of it. Football was his first love, anyway, and he went off to play safety at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla.
“I always said that rodeo would be there when I got back,” Ben Sr. says.
By the time his children, Ben Jr. and Jasmine, were growing up, he was competing in maybe 50 rodeos a year. It could have been more, too. But Ben Sr. didn’t want to miss any of his kid’s football games or events back home.
“He was good enough to make it,” Goodman says. “But he always had a family to come back to.”
The family, including his mother, Reecie, spent their days at a local rodeo arena owned by Little Henry, tending to horses and working on the family hobby.
When he was growing up, Goodman always wanted to go play football during the fall. But he was too big to make the weight limit in the local youth league. So he took up calf-roping, becoming one of the best local calf-ropers in the Anahuac Saltgrass Cowboy’s Association. His specialty event was the junior breakaway, and in one contest at the Mesquite Rodeo in Dallas, Goodman competed neck-and-neck with a future professional.
“He roped both of his calves that day,” Ben Sr. says.
And in some ways, his father believes those days prepared him for playing rush-linebacker in the Big 12. The speed, and the coordination, and the angles. The skills all translate to the field.
“If you gotta calf in the arena, you gotta take an angle,” Ben Sr. says. “The calf is just so fast, it’s just like a running back. Except he’s got four legs, and you’ve only got two.”
Someday, after his football career is over, Goodman may go back to the rodeo life. But that’s in the future. He still has this season and three more to help the KU football program get back on solid footing. And he enters this Saturday with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss in four games, one of KU’s most important players in an aggressive scheme.
Ben Sr. says his son could probably be a successful steer wrestler or calf-roper someday. He has the tools and the athleticism. But if you listen to Goodman, there’s one event you won’t see him doing anytime soon: Bull Riding.
“No,” Goodman says. “That’s for the crazy people.”