A Tribute to a Legend

Oct 22, 2021

A Tribute to a Legend

By Susan Kanode

Craig Latham didn’t set out to be a legend or create a legacy. He was just a kid from Wyoming that wanted to be a cowboy and ride some bucking horses.

Sometimes when you set out to do one thing, another happens and that other thing creates a legacy that will never be forgotten. Craig lost his battle with multiple myeloma/plasmacytoma on October 8. He was 54, had been fighting for 10 years and what a fighter he was. Victims of the incurable cancer generally have a three-to-five-year lifespan.

Craig Latham’s last trip to the Lynn Gardner Arena at Goodwell, Oklahoma was made in the back of a wagon with the Oklahoma Panhandle State University Rodeo Team completing the procession.

Craig grew up in Chris Ledoux land, near Kaycee, Wyoming. His family had been there for generations and his mother, Joyce Reculusa, and uncles still ranch in the area. He and older brother Deke spent most of their childhood following their grandfather, Norris Graves, around and learning the skills that started rodeo careers.

After high school, Craig moved across the state to Torrington to attend Eastern Wyoming College. That’s where he met Lori Hart, a South Dakota girl that quickly became more than just a friend. With the encouragement of Lynn “Doc” Gardner, the rodeo coach at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, they moved to Goodwell, where Deke was going to college. While at Panhandle, Craig met Robert Etbauer and it wasn’t long until he was traveling with the bronc-riding Etbauer brothers.

The Etbauer-Latham bonds grew even stronger when Deke, who competed at the 1986 NFR, was killed in an auto accident. In June, before competing in Las Vegas, Deke won the men’s all-around and bull riding titles at the College National Finals Rodeo representing Panhandle State. Two years later, Craig won the saddle bronc riding at the CNFR.

Robert and Dan Etbauer competed at their first NFR in 1988. The next year Craig and Billy joined them at rodeo’s championships. Along the way, Craig and Lori got married. The three Etbauers along with Robert’s oldest son Trell were in the wedding. They were also among the pallbearers at Craig’s memorial service.

Craig went on to qualify for the NFR nine times. In 1992, Billy won his first world title, Robert finished in second, Craig was third and Dan was ninth. The next year, Craig was the reserve world champion behind Dan Mortensen.

“They didn’t have rodeo limits then, and we went everywhere,” Robert said. “And there was never a time when one of us went somewhere and someone turned out. If one of us went, we all went. It didn’t matter what we drew, we did it together.”

Doc Gardner was not a rodeo cowboy. After high school he came here to get and education, then became and educator. He was head of the math and science department when he was asked to be the advisor for the rodeo team in 1965. He held that position until his death in 1996 and because of his legendary success and dedication, the university’s annual rodeo and practice facilities are named after him.

There were other coaches including Doc’s assistant, NFR saddle bronc rider Bret Franks until 2002. Then the legacy of producing great athletes, being dedicated and loyal continued with Craig. In the 12 years that Craig was coaching, Panhandle State won the men’s national championship twice and he had numerous men’s and women’s individual event champions. Many of those athletes travelled hundreds of miles to attend their coach’s memorial service.

Craig watching the rodeo at the 2008 CNFR.

In 2011, Robert joined Craig’s coaching team as the assistant. Robert became the head coach in 2015 when Craig’s health wouldn’t allow him to do the job the way he wanted to. Regardless of that, he went to practices and college rodeos every chance that he got. He was also assistant coach behind Kaylee Gregg at Frank Phillips College in nearby Borger, Texas. Kaylee is one of his former athletes.

Also coaching is NFR bull rider Seth Glause who is at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Seth qualified for the CNFR in saddle bronc riding and bull riding for Panhandle.

“Craig taught me to always work at being a good person,” Seth said. “Not just be competitive in the arena, but to be a good person outside of the arena. He was one of the most helpful people I’ve known.”

Robert has had help as the rodeo coach at Panhandle from his wife Sue and Shelbie Rose who they hired as the women’s coach. Shelbie was one of Craig’s athletes.

“Craig really changed my life,” she said. “He told me I had a gift, and that it was to be a leader. He encouraged me to run for student director, (of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association) and to do things out of my comfort zone. He wanted us all to reach our full potential in and out of the arena. I strive every day to be more like Craig.”

Joe Frost was looking for a college and had many options as the National High School Rodeo Association Bull Riding champion. He and his dad made the trip from Randlett, Utah, to Goodwell, took a tour, met Craig and Joe told his dad, “We don’t need to go anywhere else, this is where I want to be.”

Coach Craig Latham and Joe Frost at the 2014 NFR.

Joe competed in all the men’s events except the saddle bronc riding in college. He was always an all-around contender and made the CNFR all four years that he was at Panhandle. He won the bull riding there in 2014 and qualified for his first NFR. Craig was getting treatment for the cancer but looked forward to a daily phone call from Joe.  

Joe won the first round of the bull riding and when he was on stage at the South Point, he gave that buckle to his father. A few days later, Craig made a surprise appearance in Las Vegas to watch Joe ride. That night, Joe made another trip to the buckle presentations and gave that buckle to Craig. Joe was also one of the pallbearers at the service.

After winning the bull riding in the fifth round of the 2014 NFR, Joe Frost gave his buckle to his college rodeo coach, Craig Latham.

“Craig was the least selfish person I’ve ever known,” Joe said. “His influence will live on through the lives he touched. He didn’t talk much, but when he said something, it stuck.”

In 2020, the Latham family was honored by the Panhandle State Association of Alumni and Friends. That included Deke who started it all, Craig and his wife Lori, their daughters Chaney and Sadie. Chaney is married to NFR saddle bronc rider Tyrel Larsen who is the assistant coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. Chaney and Tyrel have two sons that were the apple of their grandpa’s eyes.

Craig’s service was held on the Panhandle State Campus in the gym. Friends, family, former and current college rodeo athletes gathered in the gym to pay tribute to the man that fiercely fought a bigger battle than many will ever face. After the service, Craig made one more trip to the Lynn Gardner Arena in the back of a horse drawn carriage. He was followed by his pallbearers in another wagon and about 60 members of the Panhandle State Rodeo team horseback, all in their red and blue rodeo attire.

A couple of weeks before his passing, Craig’s family asked for people to share photos, stories, and memories on Facebook. The posts are overwhelming, but well worth taking the time to read. Craig wasn’t just an important part of the Panhandle State rodeo program, but also the Guymon and Goodwell communities. He is going to be missed, but we can miss him with a smile and memories for the man he was instead of tears for the cancer that took him from us. And we can all strive to be good people and be more like Craig.