Tuf Cooper. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle
Maggie Gordon, Houston Chronicle
Fans can't get enough of this Texas cowboy
They call him The Justin Bieber of Rodeo.
He must hate that.
But if he does, Tuf Cooper has the good sense and media training not to mention it. Instead he smiles wide and laughs quietly.
"This is something I'm very blessed to have," he says. "People want to meet me and have their picture taken with me. It's a very unreal thing."
Cooper speaks with the kind of practiced humility you'd expect from a Backstreet Boy or an up-and-coming country singer. All "aw shucks," and "yes ma'am," he has the mannerisms of a quintessential heartthrob. And it doesn't hurt that he's handsome: Tall and muscular with a strong jaw and kind eyes.
"I'm the biggest Tuf fan ever," says Karlie Marek, 13, a moment after meeting Cooper for the first time at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Fan Zone, where competitors sign autographs after their go in the ring.
Marek and a friend waited in line behind dozens of other teenage – and some twentysomething – girls and women, plus about a handful of men, to get a photo with Cooper.
When it came her turn, Marek pushed her friend on the back of the shoulder blades, scooting her out of the frame.
"I want it to be just me and Tuf," she told her friend.
That happens a lot.
"I first heard of Tuf last year," says Marek. "And at first I thought, 'Oh, he's so cute.' But then I looked at his stats, and he's actually really good. So that's a nice bonus."
At the age of 27, Cooper has already qualified for the world finals in Las Vegas five times, and has thrice been named world champ. It runs in his family. His older brothers, Clint and Clif, are also tie-down ropers, and his father, Roy Cooper, is an eight-time world champion.
But in Houston, the fans are less interested in seeing Cooper's resume than his wide smile and tan face.
"Yeah, he's really good at what he does," Becca Howard, 20, says as she stands in line waiting for an autograph on Wednesday night.
"But he is," she pauses, slaps her heart on her chest. "Beautiful."
She knows. She's seen him up close, maybe 20 times.
"I meet him everywhere, and he's signed a lot of things for me," she says. Phone cases, a couple pairs of boots, her jacket, and more autograph books than she can remember. But she keeps coming back for another peek.
Cooper's fan line is unlike anything else at the rodeo. Cowboys often report to the Fan Zone in NRG Stadium after they finish their competition for the evening, signing autographs for an average of about 20 minutes.
Not Tuf Cooper. The first night he competed in Houston this year, he stayed for an hour and a half, as the line to meet him grew so long it had to curve and bend three times, alienating other rodeogoers trying to find the nacho line.
While all the other cowboys in the Fan Zone sit down on folding chairs behind a pair of long tables, designed for fans to wind through, Cooper holds court in the center. And many fans – most even – ignore the other cowboys, beelining for Cooper for a chance at a selfie.
"We only get crowds like this when this guy shows up," says Babu Khan, the manager in charge of the Fan Zone for the past five years. Wednesday, he estimated about 250 people waited for a chance to meet Cooper.
"Since I've been doing this, it's only Tuf Cooper that's this big," says Khan. "And he gets bigger every year."
That's not to say this is the first time there's been a cowboy with this kind of draw. Before Justin Bieber, there was Justin Timberlake, right?
Before Tuf Cooper hit the cowboy world with his billboard good looks, there was Stran Smith. Square-jawed, with piercing blue eyes, the 2008 world champion used to be the one commanding long, serpentine lines of wide-eyed fans, holding autograph books wide for his signature. But 25 years into his career, Smith's married and doesn't command the attention from young women he once did.
It's fitting that the torch was passed from Smith to Cooper, since their textbook good looks are so similar: Smith is Cooper's maternal uncle, after all.
Even now, Smith is still gorgeous. But it's in a second-husband kind of way, whereas Cooper still has that starter husband appeal.
"He's my boyfriend," says Jessica Robinson, 20, as she waits to meet him.
She cruises right by Smith, who's seated in the line of cowboys off to the side, with Cooper in the center. Robinson takes a selfie with him, and though she'd planned to ask him to sign her boot, she gets flustered in Cooper's presence and decides to just leave with a photo.
Cooper calmly waits for Robinson to get her pose just right and together they smile. He learned this patience from Smith, and his father, he says.
"They told me, you might be on your 10th day there signing autographs, and you might get tired. But to that fan that just walks up and asks for an autograph, that's probably their first time to ever ask," he says. "So you need to treat that last one like you treated the first one. Maybe my feet get tired, or I get beat up by the horse, but there are 500 fans up there that want to take a picture and want to meet you. And that's not the kind of thing that lasts forever."
About a half an hour after he arrives at the table, Smith quietly gets up from his chair and turns to leave – back to the bowels of the arena with the other competitors. But Cooper tucks one hand in his pocket, turns on his "aw shucks" smile and keeps going, one smartphone snapshot after another, until he's done.
How to meet the Justin Bieber of Rodeo
Tuf Cooper's coming back for the semifinals
Maggie Gordon|March 10, 2017
Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston ChronicleIMAGE 1 OF 15Tie-down roper Tuf Cooper is surrounded by a group of fans and was asked for selfies while leaving the fan zone after his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Super Series 1 Round 2 competition at NRG Stadium
Tuf Cooper, known as "The Justin Bieber of Rodeo," commanded long lines at Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's autograph stations earlier this week, as hordes of young women waited hours to catch a glimpse of him.
But if you didn't get to meet him and see that smile in person during his first super series here in Houston, don't worry. You'll have a second chance.
After winning his event on opening night Tuesday, and coming in fourth Wednesday, Cooper earned enough money to land in the semifinals. With $3,750 in winnings, RodeoHouston announced Friday that Cooper will be returning for a chance to become Houston's champion tie-down roper. You can catch him at the semifinals Wednesday, March 22.
In the meantime, read more about Cooper-- hero to teenage girls (and apparently, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who visited him on the dirt Wednesday night) here.