Gordon cowgirl prevails over knee, hip surgeries; is back to rodeo

Ruth Nicolaus
courtesy of the Adams County Ag Society
Morgan Darnell, a member of the Nebraska High School Rodeo Association, has prevailed over knee and hip surgeries, and continues her rodeo competition.
Photo by Stacey Darnell |

LINCOLN, Neb. — Morgan Darnell has seen the inside of more surgery rooms than she’d prefer.

The Gordon, Neb., cowgirl, a member of the Nebraska High School Rodeo Association, has had four surgeries in the last four years.

It all started when she hit her knee on a post while riding her horse. When her parents took her to the doctor, no damage had been done, but the doctor discovered that she had OCD: osteochondritis dissecans, a loss of blood flow to the bone, causing the bone to die. OCD occurs most often in the knees, where Darnell’s case was. She had surgery to repair the damage when she was in eighth grade, spending five months on non-weight-bearing crutches.

The surgery wasn’t successful, so she had two more surgeries in 2015, her sophomore year, one to remove a bone chip and cartilage that hadn’t attached after the first surgery, and the other to repair the OCD damage.

The second OCD surgery was successful, but doctors couldn’t get the cartilage on the back of her knee to stay. The cartilage is not on the weight bearing part of the bone, so it doesn’t affect her a lot.

Then, this past November, the 16-year-old daughter of Buddy and Stacey Darnell, had a fourth surgery, this time for hip dysplasia. Her right hip socket wasn’t big enough for the ball on the end of her femur, so doctors at the University of Nebraska Medical Center cut the pelvis bones, shifted the joint, and pinned it back. Darnell was on complete bed rest for eight weeks to allow it to heal, starting in a wheelchair and working towards part days and eventually full days at school.

All of her surgeries took place during the winter so she didn’t miss any rodeo competition. She played basketball her freshman year but the surgeries kept her from doing that as well.

Darnell, a junior at Gordon-Rushville High School, is a team roper and breakaway roper, and while she was at home recuperating from hip surgery, she could practice her roping. She wasn’t allowed to move her right leg on her own; her parents moved her from the bed to the couch and back. But as soon as she was able to sit up on her own, the roping dummy (a plastic form in the shape of a steer that is portable) was moved into the Darnell living room. “She sat on the couch and roped,” Stacey said.


The knee is not 100 percent, and probably never will be. “Sometimes it will lock up or swell and be painful. I think it’s about as good as it’s going to be,” Morgan said. Doctors told her high impact sports, like getting off your horse at high speed in the goat tying, are out of the question. But if she chose to, she could run and play basketball.

The hip isn’t 100 percent, either, but it will be. Four screws hold it in place, and within a few years, it will be completely healed. She can ride, and plans on competing this spring for her third year of high school rodeo.

She and her header Clayton Simons are ranked second in the Nebraska High School Rodeo standings in team roping and she is ranked fifth in the breakaway. She qualified for state finals her freshman and sophomore years, and last year, qualified for the National High School Finals in the team roping with her older brother Cody. At the 2016 state finals, she set a finals record in the breakaway roping with a time of 2.13 seconds.

The surgeries have given Darnell a focus on her career. She had originally thought about being a teacher, but is now considering physical therapy. “I’ve spent a lot of time (in physical therapy) and it seems like something I would enjoy,” she said. “All of my doctors and physical therapists have strongly encouraged me to go into the medical field.”

She has the grades for it; she is on the All-A Honor Roll at Gordon-Rushville, the National Honor Society and FFA. She has competed at the state FFA competition the last two years; once in ag science and once in livestock judging.

The surgeries have made her mature, too, her mom said. “Lots of times with doctors, she asks her own questions. She’s very positive. She’s been through a lot in three years.”

And this June, she plans on being at the state finals rodeo in Hastings. ❖