By Dana Sleger //
Anyone who knows Ernie and Angie Theriot will tell you they are two of the kindest and most genuine people they have ever met. For 17 years they have lived in Perkinston slightly south of Wiggins. Every time they venture out to shop or dine in their community, they are constantly greeted with hellos by friends and acquaintances who know their story and remain in awe of their strength.
This family has endured more heartache than one should in a lifetime, and their marriage vows — “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health” — have been painfully tested. Yet, their unyielding commitment to each other and unwavering faith in God has created a gratitude anchored in fortitude that leaves little room for the “why me” questions.
Some might call this mentality a “cowboy up” mindset, which is very fitting for Ernie, who is well known and well respected within the regional rodeo circuit. Not only is the 60-year-old a champion calf roper, his honest-to-goodness demeanor has earned him a longstanding reputation as a true friend and a valuable mentor to his fellow cowboys.
A horse arena is all Ernie has every known. Since he was a teenager, he practiced for upcoming rodeos and owned a successful business where he broke and trained wild horses for a number of clients.
On Nov. 25, 2013, all that came to a stop when a horse he was training bucked him off in the arena next to his house. When Angie came out of the barn to check on her husband, she found him face down in the dirt, talking but unable to move.
Ernie sustained life-changing injuries that caused him to be paralyzed from the waist down with limited mobility in both arms. Going from actively riding horses to slowly navigating a power wheelchair is a drastic change that could easily break someone’s spirit, but with Ernie, his faith directs him to look to the heavens and not his circumstances.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘It shouldn’t have been Ernie,’” says Herbert Theriot, Ernie’s youngest brother and 1994 World Champion calf roper. “He has always been positive — he’s special. No matter what you take away from him, he still has his faith and is still believing. I know I couldn’t have gone through what he went through; ain’t no way.”
Herbert is referring to another heartache that hit the family in 2005.
Sadly, Ernie’s accident was all to reminiscent of when their 5-year-old son, Evan, was fatally injured in the same arena in September 2005 after a horse got spooked and crashed into the gate where Evan was sitting on top of the cattle chute watching his dad practice.
There are a lot of tears when recalling memories of their beloved son.
“I’m not saying I’m over it because you never get over it, but you either dwell on it or you go on,” Angie says. “You go through a bunch of different emotions. You don’t want to forget, and you don’t want people to forget what he sounded like or what he looked like.”
For the longest time, Ernie couldn’t talk about that day with anyone, because it was too painful, especially after having to return to the arena to continue training horses for his business. In the midst of grieving from the sudden loss of his son, Ernie also was grieving the loss of his father, Earnest, who passed away two weeks before Evan died.
His father, nicknamed “Rev” for his reputation of integrity, taught Ernie everything he knows about rodeo: how to be a champion calf roper and stay humble, and most importantly, how to be a man of character.
“Daddy taught me you better not lie, and you better not cheat, and you better respect people older than you,” Ernie says. “He always said if you give a man your word, you better do what you say.”
The phrase “God works in mysterious ways” is certainly applicable to how one processes grief, and how a heart heals and finds strength to keep moving forward. While Ernie found comfort in prayer and scriptures from the Bible, Angie had a special moment — a gift — that can only be described as a tangible divine encounter.
“It was like Evan came to me in a dream and said, ‘I’m okay, Mommy. Don’t you worry about me; I’m okay,’” Angie says. “This was not long after he died. It was the one and only time it happened. It’s hard to put into words, but I know it was more than a dream.”
Kristine Allemand and her husband, Clint, have been dear friends with the Theriots for years and were guests at their wedding. As a mother herself, Kristine gets emotional when talking about how much she admires Angie’s strength after losing young Evan and now being Ernie’s primary caregiver.
“No mother should have to go through something like that,” Kristine says. “Angie is a very strong woman, and with what she’s been through, she can still smile. I see her as a hero — a woman of strength, courage, and big faith. I just think she’s awesome.”
Prior to Angie coming into Ernie’s life, Kristine was good friends with Ernie’s first wife, Melinda, a graceful spirit with a beautiful singing voice. Tragedy first struck the Theriot family in 1997 when his wife of nearly 21 years died from cancer, making Ernie a single parent to their 17-year-old daughter, Staci.
Staci, raised in the horse arena, has won many rodeos in breakaway roping and barrel racing events thanks to her father’s guidance. Losing her mother left an indelible mark on her heart, but Staci says she found great comfort in their rodeo family. When her little brother, Evan, died and her dad, Ernie, was injured, their rodeo family was there again to help take away some of the pain.
“You want to beat them in the arena, but everyone is family outside the arena, and we have really witnessed that through all the tragedies Daddy has been through,” Staci says. “When Mama died, people held a rodeo to help pay for her medical bills. When Evan died, there were people who paid for his funeral. When Daddy got hurt, people messaged me all the time wanting to know how he’s doing. Rodeo people don’t just throw you to the curb; they are really good people.”
And as far as what Angie means to Staci, she couldn’t be more thankful that her step-mom became a part of the Theriot family.
“She’s been a Godsend to my Daddy and she’s been a blessing to me,” Staci says. “Angie is like an old soul trapped in a young body. She’s content wherever she’s at and easygoing. She is my Daddy’s 24-hour caregiver, and you’ve got to hand it to her, she’s one tough cookie.”
One member of the rodeo family that has been significantly impacted by Ernie’s faith is Cody Ohl, a professional rodeo cowboy for 22 years who has won five world championships in calf roping and was named “All-Around Cowboy Champion” in 2001. Cody says it feels like he and Ernie have been brothers for a long time, which makes their friendship very special to him.
“Ernie is a testimony to the way you’re supposed to live your life, especially with what he’s been dealt,” Ohl says. “What makes him special is all the stuff he’s been through. It’s overwhelming, but he handles it in a positive way. He’s always been an inspiration in my life. No matter what’s on his plate or what comes his way, he trusts in the Lord.”
Despite the heartaches over the years, wonderful miracles are also a part of the Theriots’ story. On August 3, 2008, Angie gave birth to twin boys, Jaden West and Ryan James — a double-portion blessing for the family.
“I was so excited when I found out I was having two babies,” Angie says. “Jaden’s name means ‘God has heard’ or ‘God has remembered’ and Ryan’s name means ‘Little King.”’
Ernie is now making tremendous progress with his physical therapy sessions three times a week at Drayer Physical Therapy in Petal (right outside of Hattiesburg). His therapist, Jennifer Stewart, has vast experience in treating spinal cord injuries. With strength training, balance training, flexibility exercises and neuromuscular re-education, Jennifer believes Ernie may walk again, even if it’s with assistance.
“Ernie’s progress has been remarkable,” Jennifer says. “His spinal cord injury is what we call incomplete, meaning there is a much better chance for neurological recovery, because the spinal cord was not completely severed. He makes progress each and every second, which of course, is attributed to his unbelievable work ethic. The sky is the limit, and at this point, it’s just a matter of keep on keepin’ on — just working hard and seeing how much strength, endurance, function and independence he can get back.”
The Theriots still greatly enjoy attending local rodeos, but Ernie’s view is much different now. Instead of participating in the calf roping event, his handicap van is parked right next to the chute so he can watch his friends and offer some cowboy-to-cowboy playful critique.
“Am I going to have to come over there and show y’all how to rope it myself,” Ernie teases.
By the grace of God, when that day happens, there won’t be a dry eye in the arena.
“If I had to describe my Daddy in one word, it would be constant. Not long after Daddy was paralyzed, I was sitting next to his bed trying not to cry. He said, ‘Hey, this too shall pass.’ I thought how can he be that positive? I should not have been shocked by that statement, because my Daddy has always had such strong faith. With all of the losses he has been through, he has remained constant — constant in faith, in positivity, and in prayer.” — Staci Theriot Davenport