By Kendra Santos
Rodeo Carolina ain’t Junior Fornazin’s first rodeo. But the Brazilian-born team roper who now makes his home in Indiana is making his World Champions Rodeo Alliance debut at this $400,000 richest rodeo east of the Mississippi, which runs through Sunday. And the worldly flavor he’s adding to the star-studded field is certainly a welcomed and appropriate plot twist here at the Tryon International Equestrian Center & Resort in Mill Spring, North Carolina.
Don’t be confused by the announcer calling him Sergio when it’s his turn to rope with Tennessee’s Patrick Houchins tonight. Yes, that’s the name on this handy header’s birth certificate. But since his dad answers to Sergio, Sergio Fornazin Jr just goes by Junior. You know, like his countryman and reigning World Champion Heeler Junior Nogueira.
Junior Fornazin grew up with big cowboy dreams in Santa Barbara do Oeste, Sao Paulo, Brazil. He started roping at 7, and won his first motorcycle at 11. Sergio Sr was a heeler, but his son took to the heading side and had help building a strong foundation of fundamentals from family friend Devanildo Santo.
“I had a dream to come to America since I was 14,” Junior said. “My parents didn’t have the money to send me, but in 2016 I started to give some team roping clinics in Brazil, made good money and saved up. Back in Brazil, I was always at somebody’s arena practicing. I’ve moved around a lot since I was 15.”
Junior won 44 motorcyles, two cars and a truck roping in Brazil. But like Nogueira, Fornazin knew very young that the best in the rodeo business are here in America.
Fornazin, who’s 29 now, studied five years at UniPinhal University in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo to graduate as an agronomy engineer. His education was his first ticket to The States, back in March of 2017 six years ago.
“I wanted to come to America, because I wanted to rope here,” he said. “When I graduated from the university, I was offered an internship managing a farm in Ohio. It was my chance to come see the United States and what it’s like here. I went to work doing the things I’d studied at the university. I didn’t know anyone when I got here, or how to speak English.”
He had to pay his own way to get here, but had saved up that money earned helping other ropers back home in Brazil. As for the language deficit, it was actually a man of the cloth who helped this young cowboy most with that.
“I’m Catholic, and I like to go to church,” Junior said. “When I got here to America, I found a church and started to go every Sunday. After the service the first day, I was the last person the priest greeted on our way out of the church. Believe it or not, that priest knew a little bit of Portuguese and a little bit of Spanish.
“I asked that priest to help me learn to speak English. He invited me to come to the church twice a week. He said, ‘I’m going to teach you two hours of English, and you’re going to teach me two hours of Portuguese.’ We did that for a whole year, every Tuesday and Thursday.”
Fornazin is here on a sports visa now, with high hopes of one day becoming a US citizen.
“I applied for my green card, but it takes forever and I’m still waiting,” he said. “I really like this country. I like the culture here. People in America are tough, and they make things happen.”
Junior had never met his Rodeo Carolina team roping partner before they got here. They literally met yesterday, when Houchins walked up and introduced himself, but hadn’t ever run a steer together before teaming up in the qualifying rounds. Their fourth-place finish on two steers advanced Fornazin and Houchins to the performances, which start tonight. Regardless of what happens next, this team’s header is already a winner.
“The IPRA (International Professional Rodeo Association) is mostly where I rope,” said Fornazin, who achieved a big goal in qualifying for the 2022 International Finals Rodeo last year. “It’s most realistic for me and where I live (Junior now lives in New Haven, Indiana). For me to get to rope against these PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) guys is a big deal. I feel like I already won here, just getting to rope in the same arena with them.
“I don’t need to win any money here to feel happy. We moved on in the last spot. My wife (Julia) cried when I told her we did good enough to advance. To make the progressive rounds here is unreal for me.”
Junior’s path to this point in his career and Rodeo Carolina itself has been paved with special people and Heaven-sent blessings. Like Nogueira found a second dad here in ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jake Barnes, Fornazin has been blessed by Timothy Tippmann.
“That’s how God works in my life,” Junior said. “When I was finishing up my internship in Ohio, we were talking about roping and rodeo in a restaurant one evening. The son of one of my sponsors today heard us, and came over to our table and asked if I’d like to come rope with him.
“I only had four months left on my internship in Ohio, and I started getting to rope and practice in Indiana. It’s been amazing how this has all worked out for me, and I’m telling you, it’s God. There’s no other explanation.”
Junior’s still dreaming big, and what’s going on here at the Tryon International Equestrian Center is another brick in that wall.
“I want to make it in professional rodeo, and what happened here yesterday makes me feel like more is possible,” he said. “My biggest goal was to win the IPRA first, then maybe someday make the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) at least one time.
“We grew up watching roping DVDs in Brazil. I had pictures of guys like Jake and Clay (Cooper) from magazines in my room when I was a kid, and watched them rope on those DVDs all the time. Jake and Speed (Williams) are my heroes, and I got to meet Speed one time. I like the way Luke Brown ropes and rides, and the way he goes about life. I hope to get to meet Jake and Luke one day, too.”
Luke just qualified for his 14th NFR, and Junior just punched his ticket to the progressive-round performances here at Rodeo Carolina. Dreams do come true.