Sonny Cowden was very proud of his many time NFR qualifer, past BFI champion nephew, Cody Cowden.

Kendra Santos
Media/News Company

You can’t talk about the glory days of team roping in California without mention of generations of the Cowden family. Sonny Cowden was a strong branch of that family tree, and I was sadly surprised and also touched that so many members of our extended rodeo family reached out to share the news of Sonny’s unexpected passing in the early morning hours (of Sunday, June 27).

  Sonny was 76, and expecting to celebrate his 77th birthday next month after recovering from a recent surgery to remove a brain tumor. According to his NFR heeler nephew, Cody Cowden, Sonny had visited with his gifted musician son Ace (of popular California band Kowhoon fame) after his gig on Saturday night, and seemed to have bounced back from the surgery. That he didn’t make morning shocked the Cowden family and countless cowboy friends.
“Uncle Sundance taught me everything I know about roping and horses,” said a sad and choked-up Cody Cowden. “He took care of me like a son. If it wouldn’t have been for Sonny, I wouldn’t have anything. He was like a father to me.”
Sonny and his five siblings were born in New Mexico, but their family moved to Merced, California when the kids were young. Three of the four Cowden boys of Sonny’s generation—Olin (Cody’s dad), Dub and Sonny—team roped at the NFR.
“I remember playing with Sonny at the rodeos when we were just little old kids,” remembers NFR header and forever friend Jim Wheatley. “Sonny, Ken and Phil Luman, Jerold and Leo Camarillo, Ace Berry—we all grew up playing, roping and junior rodeoing together when we were young. One thing about Sonny, he loved to rope his whole life. Sonny Cowden was a really good cowboy and a really good hand with a horse.”
Sonny is survived by his wife, Donna, daughter, Mindy Hale-Souza, and three sons, including NFR header Liddon, Scott and Ace. He’ll sure be missed at rodeos like Reno, Oakdale and Salinas. Ride on high, Sonny.

That’s Sonny in the center in the black hat. How many of the Top 15 team ropers at the 1967 NFR can you name? As per Dub and Joanie Cowden the guys in the picture are Ace Berry, Les Hirdes, Harold Mattos, Ronnie Goodrich, Danny Branco, John Bill Rodriguez, Tom Powell, Sonny Cowden, Jim Watson, John Clem, Joe Glenn, John Miller, Ken Luman, Art Arnold and Jim Rodriguez.