The oral surgeon who would be (rodeo) king
This cowboy and 1978 alumnus ropes, rides and cuts.
One of Dr. Jerry Merrell’s first steer-roping ventures wasn’t exactly what you would call successful.
It happened during this 1978 alumnus’ high school days in Quitaque, Texas, a farming town of just 400 nestled in the state’s panhandle. Merrell and his brother discovered one of their steers in the pasture, its foot riddled with wire.
They knew they would need to rope him, and that’s when the two hatched their seemingly brilliant plan: “Instead of going to fetch the horse, my brother said he would drive the truck if I would rope the steer from the bed of the pickup,” says Merrell.
It wasn’t long before the truck lurched over a hard bump, and Merrell was thrown from the vehicle. The rope went over his head, and he was dragged nearly 60 yards before his brother realized what had happened.
“That was not a good roping experience,” Merrell says. But it was one that led him to make an important decision: Next time he roped, it would be on a horse.
A few years later, that impulsive teenager attended college at West Texas State University — now West Texas A&M — in Canyon, Texas. Then he went on to pursue his dental degree from then-Baylor College of Dentistry and eventually earned his certificate and diplomate status in oral and maxillofacial surgery, enjoying a long career in the specialty.
Nowadays, it’s just how he spends half his time.
An oral surgeon’s unlikely hobby
Merrell, whose livelihood depends on steady hands, readily admits that his frequent pastime is far from risk free.
“My son cut his middle finger off roping. Several ropers do lose digits as a hazard of the sport,” Merrell says. Luckily, in the team sport requiring two members, he works as the “header,” roping the head of the steer instead of the heels.
“Heading is less likely to cause you to get a finger caught in your rope as with heeling,” Merrell explains. “With heeling you’re more apt to lose a finger.”
But that’s not to say Merrell hasn’t had some close calls, losing some “hide” on one finger when dallying the rope around the saddle horn — a move that has caused digits of others to pop clean off.
By the time Merrell’s kids were in high school, his Midland, Texas, oral surgery practice was well established. It was the perfect time to take up a hobby. While he had never roped competitively before, Merrell — who was raised around horses and rode bareback bronc competitively in college — gravitated toward team roping.
That was 22 years ago.
Since then, he’s made the rounds on the Pro-Am roping circuit throughout the Southwest, competing against men half his age and riding with the likes of ropers such as Dugan Kelly, one of the winners of the 2013 George Strait Team Roping Classic. Just this April during a charity event in Lebec, California, Merrell and Kelly roped one steer in just 5.91 seconds.
And for the 2012 Santa Barbara Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo, Merrell teamed up with fellow Baylor College of Dentistry alum Dr. Michael Van Dyck ’75, where they won the senior division and received matching belt buckles as trophies.
Perhaps his biggest competition is the annual Reno Rodeo, where the purse includes new saddles, belt buckles and a cool $100,000 each for the header and heeler.
TAMBCD connections in California
In 2007, Merrell sold his Midland practice, picked up and bought a horse ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. The relocation was made because of a serious relationship, and even though that didn’t pan out, the roping sure did. Merrell fit right in there in the rural community dotted with horses and open pastures. His new office was promptly outfitted with a western theme, complete with cowhide furniture, bronze cowboy statues and western oil paintings.
Coincidentally, Dr. Amerian Sones and Dean Lawrence Wolinsky lived in Santa Ynez at the time and didn’t waste any time in meeting the new face in town, where Sones practiced prosthodontics.
“Over the years, we had an opportunity to work together with several patients, and he is a fabulous oral surgeon,” says Sones, now director of continuing education at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry.
Just this March, while back in California for a long weekend, the couple had an interesting encounter with their former peer.
“It was pure coincidence,” Wolinsky recalls. “We happened to be there on a weekend, and we went out for breakfast and walked into this restaurant. I just walked to the back, and I heard this guy yell, ‘Don’t you say “hi” anymore?’
“I didn’t recognize it was Dr. Merrell because he had on his hat and belt buckle.”
His jacket bore the patch of one of the equestrian organizations with which Merrell is actively involved — the Rancheros Visitadores. He also saddles up with the Santa Barbara Trail Riders.
These days, while it’s just as likely to find Merrell suited up in full rider regalia as it is donning his surgeon’s mask and scrubs, he’s still quite active in the profession, placing implants, performing bone graft construction and more. He recently purchased a second, existing practice in Lompoc, Calif., and has taken on an associate.
Merrell’s next splurge includes acquiring his Arizona dental license, so he can also practice oral surgery in the state’s southeastern corridor.
The reason: He just bought a rope horse training and boarding facility, where he and his son will maintain operations. The location is none other than Buckeye, the wintertime mecca of team roping, where Merrell can rope and ride all year long.
The acquisition of the second California practice will take Merrell away from his hobby one day a week, but he remains enthusiastic about the sport.
“It’s a rewarding hobby from the standpoint of you get to be with your horses and you get to compete with them,” says Merrell. “I would say I’ve always loved rodeo.”
Any equestrian-minded TAMBCD folks are welcome to call Merrell at 805-245-4181 to set up a visit at his new Buckeye, Ariz., facility.