How a rare, terminal cancer diagnosis couldn't keep Cody NesSmith from the 2019 Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale
Cody Nessmith really never should have backed into the box at the 2019 Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale, if you’d have asked his doctors.
The quiet, unassuming 23-year-old, from Hineston, Louisiana, has roped all of his life. In 2014, he won the #10 Preliminary at the USTRC’s Cinch National Finals of Team Roping, and he’s a regular at jackpots across the Southeast. But now Cody is battling Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer mainly found in children. The disease is brutal—one that caused tumor on his spine, nearly taking away his ability to walk just a year ago. But with the expertise of a team of doctors at St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital, the friendship of six-time NFR header Colby Lovell and a supportive family, Cody is not only back to walking—he got to live his team roping dreams in Las Vegas.
Cody was hit by a pressure valve at work, an accident that unknowingly flipped his world upside down.
“It almost killed me,” Cody said. “There was a metal piece that had about 50,000 pounds of pressure on it. It popped off, and the whole thing hit me in the shoulder. If I wouldn’t have stepped over, it would have hit me in the face.”
While Cody was recovering from that accident, nursing his arm and shoulder, he lost feeling in his feet and toes, making it nearly impossible for him to walk. He went to the doctor to get checked out for the complications he was experiencing—complications he assumed were from the accident.
“I went to some hospitals and stuff and then they brought me to a place in Baton Rouge (Louisiana)—a big hospital. They did an MRI and they found a tumor the size of a softball on my spine.”
That tumor was causing the numbness, doctors explained. Before his accident, Cody’s body had been battling the tumor because he’d been healthy his whole life. But after the shoulder injury, his body couldn’t keep up with the demands on his system, the doctors said. They needed to operate, removing the tumor from his spine immediately.
“The day that he had surgery Mom and Dad had stepped out to make some phone calls, and it was just me and him in the emergency room,” Kaitlyn, Cody’s sister, said. “The nurse had came in to ask him some questions and the first thing that he said was, ‘Ma’am, when can I ride a horse again?’ She said, ‘Well, I’m really not sure. There’s a lot of bad things that can happen during the surgery, but we’re going to get you through this to see if you can ride again.’”
Doctors in Baton Rouge, though, were still perplexed by Cody’s tumor and what could be causing it.
“I come home, and they sent my tumor off, and then about three weeks later the cancer had ate me up from head to toe. They still had no answers, so I couldn’t go and do anything—treatment or nothing—because they didn’t know what it was. They can’t treat you for something if they don’t know what it is.”
Doctors finally discovered it was Ewing's Sarcoma, a diagnosis highly unlikely in a man his age.
“It’s like a one in a billion chance that I would get it after the age of 21, and I was two months from turning 22.”
The cancer had spread throughout Cody’s bones. He needed serious help—the kind that hospitals like St. Jude’s Children’s Research Center in Memphis, Tennessee, are designed to provide.
“When I got there, they told me I was in such bad shape because your body can only take so much pain before it just shuts down. What it was, was the cancer was on my bones and it was eating through my bones. I was just laying there in the hospital bed in my house just getting eaten alive. I stayed in the hospital for eight weeks. I had to reteach myself how to walk. I was kind of hardheaded and didn’t do no therapy. I just figured that I would do it on my own. I lost a lot of weight doing chemo and was bad sick, but about December or so I started coming back up.”
The treatments had Cody bedridden. But he slowly got stronger and fought out of the funk that cancer was causing.
“He was in a wheelchair,” Cody’s dad Tony said. “He couldn’t walk. We didn’t think he would ride a horse again. Then in March he said, ‘I think I’m going to run some tonight.’ He ran five in a row and heeled them down.”
As he got stronger, Cody set more goals for himself. He hadn’t roped since July of 2018, but by July 2019—with his scans showing that, despite chemo, his cancer was back—Cody won second heading in the #11.5 at the Kinder, Louisiana, World Series of Team Roping qualifier. He was Vegas-bound.
“In the very beginning they (the doctors) told us no, he wasn’t supposed to do anything,” Cody’s mom Kay said. “He was supposed to wear a mask. They said, ‘We want you doing what you can do’, so that’s when they switched our chemo to being one day every three weeks, and he takes the chemo at home. They’re all on board. They were so excited that he was getting to come out here. They’ve worked with us to get us to this point. There’s no cure for what Cody has. With his chemo and his doctors, they’re just kind of formulating some chemo’s that can keep him doing what he’s doing and able to come out here.”
Cody was at home, preparing as best he could to rope in Las Vegas, when his dad Tony had a chance encounter at a Louisiana rodeo that changed the course of Cody’s roping career.
“I hardly ever go to rodeos in Louisiana,” Colby Lovell, a six-time NFR header from Madisonville, Texas, explained. “But for some reason I did. When I was there, I saw Cody’s dad looking at me, and he came up and visited. And then he opened up a little more.”
Colby had met Cody and his family years ago, when Cody was just 14 or 15, at the US Finals. They’d taken a picture together back then, and Lovell remembered.
“I told him Cody needed to come to my house,” Colby said. “He didn’t need no truck, no trailer, no horses, nothing.”
Cody packed up and headed to Texas, where he jumped right into normal day-to-day life with the Lovells.
“When we’re at the house he keeps up with me and what we do,” Colby said. “He works cows with me. He’s probably working too much. You literally wouldn’t know anything. He’ll rope all day, ride different horses—I’ve got a bunch of horses around there.”
One of the horses he rode is Colby’s best, Bartender.
“That’s the best horse I’ve ever owned,” Colby said. “He rode him before we came out here, and we went to a couple of ropings and he worked at it.”
So when it came time to taking a horse to Las Vegas, it only made sense that Cody ride Bartender.
Cody stuck it on every steer in the AGCO #14.5 Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale XIV, but came up short of making the short round. Win or lose, he had Colby right there with him when he backed into the heading box.
“He did his job and he did a great job, too,” Colby said. “He’s come a long way. He’s roping good. This beats making the NFR, to be able to watch him rope and do so well.”
Cody credits his ability to rope with not letting cancer get him down.
“The reason a lot of people let it beat them is because they give up and sole up,” Cody said. “They just pout about it like ‘Oh my God I got cancer, I’m going to die.’ You may not die for 10 years. You’re going to miss out on a lot of life if you just sit there and pout.”
“It’s really, truly a miracle,” Kay added. “He’s sitting in that chair because at one point he was in a hospital bed in our living room. He couldn’t walk—he had to have assistance before we went to St. Jude. They’ve done full range of motion on him and the doctors can’t believe it because he shouldn’t have that function in that left side like he does. For him to sit in that chair and for him to walk and get on a horse is truly a miracle.”
This article originally appeared on Team Roping Journal