Matt Sherwood and Walt Woodard had to be 4 flat and break the arena record to win RodeoHouston. They did it. Matt cried. Walt’s voice cracked like a little girl on Christmas morning. Their emotion was sincere—and contagious. I, too, cried, and was far from alone. At 48 and 62, these guys are grandpas, for the love of God. And they’ve still got it.
Matt has cried three times in his roping career. But before we get to the happy tears, allow me to catch you up on the most miserable, fearful tears of Sherwood’s life. They fell in this last year and were on the opposite end of the human emotions spectrum from winning $56,000 a man at one rodeo. Matt and Walt won Houston on March 17, 2018. But a year before that—on March 20, 2017—Matt answered a call that stopped him in his tracks.
“I’m putting in a dishwasher in my kitchen, and I get a call from a number I don’t know,” Sherwood said. “The lady on the line says, ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but I’m in Springerville (Arizona; the Sherwoods live in Pima), and your son Logan just accidentally shot himself.’ My heart about stopped.
“Logan (who was 19 at the time) was out eight miles from a paved road catching wild cows, and had been riding all day. He went to holster his gun, it hit his hip bone and went off. He’d accidentally shot himself with a .22, and that bullet ricocheted off of his hip bone, went through his internal organs and lodged in his colon.”
Logan was life-flighted to Phoenix, and spent eight days in the hospital after surgery.
“There were so many miracles that had to happen for him to still be here,” said Matt, who with his wife, Kim, has seven kids and two grandkids. “Logan’s doing great now.”
Last July, the second rare scare happened to the Sherwoods’ oldest son, Cody, who’s married and had been living in Hawaii about a year pursuing his dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. Suddenly, Cody was doubled up in pain, and headed to the hospital thinking he was having an appendicitis attack.
“At first, they told him he had pancreatic cancer,” said Matt, whose heart skipped several more beats. “Our family doctor told us not to panic. He thought the symptoms sounded more like testicular cancer, which is more manageable. Cody flew home to Phoenix, and went to the Mayo Clinic. It was testicular cancer. Three surgeries and three months of chemo later, he’s doing great.”
Now let’s head back toward Houston, with Matt’s life perspective from family events such as those in our back pockets. The first of three times Matt has ever teared up over team roping was when he won the world the first time—at his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo—in 2006.
“I basically just bawled when I won the world the first time,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I’d spent the whole day doing the math, so as soon as I looked up and saw the scoreboard, I could not hold back the emotion. The tears flowed. Walt and I were the very last team out, so as soon as we faced I knew I’d won it. I never even thought I’d be at the National Finals roping against the greatest guys in the world. I couldn’t control the tears.”
Sherwood is a family man—family of nine, no less—and he took an extraordinary leap of faith when he put Sherwood Flooring on hold to set out to see if he could make the Finals in the first place.
“Making the NFR was so far out there,” Matt remembers well. “So I get there, and when we back in the box to run our 10 steer, we have to be 4.2—fourth or better—for me to win the world championship. So many things had to go right for that to happen, and so many things can go wrong in that arena. In 4.1 seconds, we went from having to do a lot for me to win the world to being hit by that emotion and looking back on all the history and guys who’ve been world champion team ropers. In that moment, I joined a group I never dreamed I’d be a part of.
“Walt and I really hadn’t had a great Finals. But the money was so split up, and that gave me a chance to win it. The bad part was that he didn’t. I knew when I faced that my partner—the guy who helped me get there—did not win the world with me. And that was bittersweet. It was the first split world championship ever. As great as it felt to get a gold buckle, that felt terrible to me.”
It’s true. To that point on team roping’s historic timeline, he with the most money had always been the world champ. Up until 2006, that meant one of two things—one team roping titlist or partner co-champs. This was unchartered territory, and to be perfectly clear it felt terrible to us all to see a split decision.
The two teams involved were Matt and Walt, and Chad Masters and Allen Bach. Matt and Allen won the world. Chad came up just $848 short of joining his heeler on center stage. Allen won $17,140 more than Walt that year, mind you. But Walt also won $3,595 more than Matt. So you see, it’s even more ironic when the partner who wins more money is the one out back at the barn unsaddling the horses while the guy who won a little less is working the crowd of rodeo reporters in the NFR Press Room.
Please do allow me to make you sentimental sorts feel a bit better by reminding you that the very next year, Chad and Walt were the 2007 world champs. That’s fate for you. There was another split decision involved—and Clay Tryan and Allen Bach were their respective partners at the Finals that year—but that’s a different story for a different day. The headline on the heeling side was that 26 years after winning the 1981 world championship with Doyle Gellerman, Walt was king of the hill again at 52. If you know Sherwood, you know how happy he was for Walt when that happened.
“It was great for those guys, but again bittersweet,” Matt said. “The sweet is that Chad and Walt got those world championships after being denied the year before. The bitter was that they had to stand up there without the guys who got them there. I don’t care who you are, that puts you in an impossibly tough position.”
The second time Sherwood cried in regard to his roping career was in March of 2014.
“Eight years after roping made me cry the first time (and to catch you up, Matt won a second gold buckle with Randon Adams in 2008—which at that time had Matt batting a thousand with two NFR qualifications and two world championships), I’m at the George Strait (Team Roping Classic in Texas), and my wife is with me after deciding to go at the last minute,” Matt remembers. “I had brought my old horse (Nick, the sorrel horse he won both championships on) out of retirement, because I’d just sold my mare (Murphy, whom he just won RodeoHouston on in 2018 after buying her back) to Riley Minor, because I was broke and we needed the money.
“I was fourth high call with Clint Summers, and we went to the lead. I’m riding into the box, and five or six guys are telling me, ‘Hey, do you know this steer? He’s the best steer here.’ I was like, ‘Stop telling me that.’ We had this little white-faced, Hereford dream steer. He started out of there perfect—medium speed—and took a step left. You couldn’t have asked for a better steer. He was as good as those guys said he was. And thankfully, we caught him.”
The next team rode in, and rode out without stopping the clock.
“Now I’m sitting at the bottom of the arena thinking, ‘OK, worst-case scenario is we’re going to win third.’”
The second high team was Nick Sartain and Rich Skelton. They made a good run, but didn’t move ahead of Matt and Clint.
“Now there’s only one team left, and the worst we can win is second,” Matt remembers. “It’s Ty Blasingame and Dakota Kirchenschlager, who are two of the fastest ropers in the world. Ty comes out and hooks his rope under his stirrup. I think we might beat them. Then he picks up his rope, takes one swing and sticks it on him. I think we’re in trouble. Then he loses his rope.
“I’ve taken one swing in my life, and Ty takes one swing and catches the biggest steer of his life. That’s confidence. But that’s how he is. He wasn’t going for third. He was going for first place to the bitter end. What was really hard for me is that Ty is the first person I passed when I came back in the arena. I love that guy to death, and he had just lost his rope to win the roping. I was as happy as I could be to win it, but here’s my friend, who could not have been more devastated. All I could think to say was, ‘I’m so sorry, dude.’”
Sherwood’s crying commenced when he met Kim halfway down the arena.
“I had just sold my horse, I didn’t have a partner, and I wasn’t going to rodeo, because I was broke,” Sherwood said. “I was done. And suddenly, I win $129,000 and a truck and trailer that had to be worth another $60-plus grand. Kim and I hugged and cried, and everyone was congratulating us and so happy for us. It’s the greatest thing in the world when all your friends and competitors are happy for you.
“That day changed my plans. I bought two mediocre head horses, and went out that summer with Dugan Kelly. I didn’t rope good enough, and my horses weren’t good enough. So I went home again after Salt Lake in July.”
For the third round of cowboy-career team roping tears for Sherwood, fast forward another four years to March of 2018. To catch you up again real quick, Sherwood’s by now added 2011, 2015 and 2016 to his five-strong collection of NFR back numbers. But he’s 48 and his partner is 62, for Pete’s sake. Let’s face it—there are just so many times can a guy come back from semiretirement to reclaim talk-of-the-team-roping-town status.
Matt and Walt arrived at RodeoHouston with the win at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo already notched on their 2018 vision-quest belts, as they seek to answer the question on whether or not two guys who are a little long in the tooth by the standards of any professional sport can make their way to Rodeo’s Super Bowl. Remember, they’ve lived 110 years between them. And this is not a friendly gathering of Gold Card guys we’re talking about here, folks. It’s the knife fight that is professional team roping today. And their fiercest rivals are in their 20s and 30s.
To set the stage for this—the first record of their 2018 charge—only the top 40 guys in the world are even allowed to rope at RodeoHouston. Each team ropes three steers in their bracket, or Super Series, and the four teams with the most money won move on. Matt and Walt won the first round in Super Series 1 in 5.1. They were 5.2 plus five on their second steer, and it just happened to be the only night in their Super Series that a leg placed.
Those first two rounds ensured their advancement, so Matt went for it in a tough round and missed their third steer. Onward and upward. They won Super Series 1 with $4,000 apiece. Matt and Walt were supposed to rope in the first of two Semifinals perfs, but had a conflict at Rodeo Austin. Luke Brown and Jake Long traded with them at Houston, so they could make both rodeos.
Each RodeoHouston Semifinals is a one-header, and the top four teams each night advanced to Saturday’s Finals. Matt missed in the semis.
“Naturally, I was disappointed to miss on Thursday night,” he said. “The six teams that don’t advance from each Semifinals went to the Wild Card round on Friday night. Just on the math, you have a 40-percent chance of making the Finals out of your Semifinals. But in the Wild Card, there’s only a two out of 12 chance, which is a little less than 17-percent odds. And with guys like Chad Masters, Derrick Begay, Trevor Brazile, Aaron Tsinigine, Cody Snow, Dustin Equsquiza, Luke Brown, Clayton Hass, Junior Dees, Lane Ivy, and Cory Kidd in the Wild Card, you just look around the room and it’s like, ‘Wow, only two teams advance? What are my chances?’
“I’m pretty sure every one of us cleaned out our stalls over at Cowboy Village (where RodeoHouston hosts the cowboys and their horses) before we went to rope that night. We knew how tough it was going to be. Not one guy left his buckets in his stall. We were all prepared for an easy exit, if things didn’t go as planned. I didn’t want to have to drive back through traffic to get my stuff before the long drive back to Arizona.”
They brought the 12 strongest steers back for the Wild Card round, as it was the most efficient way at that stage in the rodeo to get the most even set of 12. When Matt and Walt roped seventh of 12 teams out that night, Clayton and John Robertson’s 6.6 was winning it. Matt and Walt were 5.1 to take the lead. The last team to rope—Cody Snow and Wesley Thorp—were 4.8, and the only team to move them. Matt and Walt were in, and won another $2,000 to take their pre-Finals total to $6,000. On to Saturday.
The two slowest steers were cut from the Wild Card herd, so the 10 in the Finals were as uniform a set as was possible at that point. All 10 teams roped one steer, then the top four advanced to the final four. World leaders Clay Smith and Paul Eaves had been 5.4 to fill the fourth and final Finals spot behind Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira’s 4.8, Cody and Wesley’s 5 flat, and Dustin Bird and Jake Minor’s 5.2. Matt and Walt roped last, and matched Kaleb and Junior’s 4.8 for a tie at the top. Clay and Paul, along with the other six teams in that top 10, picked up checks for $1,250 for making it that far.
In the Finals—which pays $50,000, $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000 per man—Bird drew the least desirable steer of the four (the one Matt and Walt had in the second round of their Super Series), took an aggressive roll at him, reached and missed. Cody and Wesley were 4.1 to tie the arena record and draw a raucous roar out of the crowd. Then Matt and Walt rode in.
“I’d obviously never been 4.1 in that arena in my life—that was the record,” Matt said. “I rode in there thinking, ‘I better go at this son of a gun.’ I saw what I thought was the minimum start to still get out, got it on him as fast as I could, turned him as fast as I could, and Walt heeled him on the first jump. I knew it was a good run. It felt fast and smooth. But I was surprised when I looked up and saw 4 flat. That was happiness. That’s as good as it gets. Breaking the record to take the lead against the best guys in the world—there’s nothing better in our line of work than that moment right there.”
One more team to sweat. No worries, it was just the gun-slinging, good-guy outlaws Driggers and Nogueira of the notorious No Lead is Safe Gang.
“Yeah, here came the two greatest ropers going right now,” Matt said. “We did all we could do, but there was a good chance Kaleb and Junior were going to beat us.” They darn near did. Kaleb and Junior were a salty 4.1 to tie Cody and Wesley for second. Matt and Walt were the champs.
“What an emotional moment,” Matt said. “$56,000 is obviously huge for me and my family. And at 48, you realize the fun won’t go on forever. Moments like that one don’t happen very often. There’s a good chance that’ll never happen to me again. I was overwhelmed.
“When you win the world, it’s the greatest thing. It takes you all year. But when you win the Strait or RodeoHouston, it happens almost instantly. All those wins are a big deal to me.”
For the record and in case you’re curious, Matt says that second gold buckle in 2008 did not make him cry, because it didn’t come with the same shock value as the first world championship in 2006, the Strait win in 2014, and coming out kings at RodeoHouston in 2018.
“When we won the world in 2008, all Randon had to do was catch our last one,” Matt said. “So I knew those were some great odds, and basically expected it to happen. I don’t care how great you rope or how confident you are, you cannot ride in expecting to set a record at a major rodeo like Houston and beat the guys we had to beat to win this one.
“Our 2018 season is a work in progress. We won Fort Worth and have made some good runs, but we’ve messed up some good chances also. We feel like we’re working hard and roping good enough to get to the Finals and have a chance at the championship. But we can’t keep messing up chances.”
Matt and Walt are both two-time grandpas. Matt and Kim’s first grandchild—his name just happens to be Houston—belongs to their eldest daughter, Megan, and her husband, Chad Knight. Houston turned 2 on March 13 during the run of RodeoHouston this year. His baby brother, Denver, also was born during RodeoHouston—on March 10, 2018. Pop, as Houston calls Matt, loves hanging with those baby boys. But he’s been there/done that when it comes to diaper duty.
“With seven kids, I’ve changed my fair share of diapers, I can promise you that,” he said. “We had at least two kids in diapers for at least 12 years.”
As always, Matt tithed 10 percent of his profit at RodeoHouston to his church. Yes, $5 grand. It’s tough at times with such a big family. But his faith is strong and sincere, and it’s in his heart to do so.
“Blessings come to us as we recognize the hand of the Lord in our lives,” he said. “In the Bible, the Book of Malachi talks very clearly about tithing and offerings. Things aren’t great all the time for anyone. In the hard times is when you really need to lean on the Lord.”
As for the heeling half of this modern-day dream team, I’ve known Walt Woodard all my life—just not all that well until the last decade or two. As a kid, I could not quite figure out how to take him. From a distance, he was so incredibly intense. Every single time I saw him. But was he mean? Just not sure back then.
What kept me from jumping to conclusions as a little girl was being my dad’s daughter. My dad is an intelligent, non-judgmental man of few words who was also focused and fierce in the arena as a young man. But my dad is the ranch-raised, horse-doctor/cowboy counterpart to that dear old doctor in the Kevin Costner film “Field of Dreams.”
Remember when the old doctor gives up his chance at reliving his youth to save that young kid’s life? Sure similar to my dad taking a pass on the rodeo trail to be the best horse doctor he could possibly be and take on such relatively trivial pursuits as, say, coaching my soccer team. But hey, NFR go-rounds only paid a couple hundred bucks back then. He was invited to take 10 days off and go rope with the likes of Les Hirdes in Oklahoma City. But missing that much work for such low stakes did not pencil for a man with a mortgage and three kids to raise in Portola Valley, California.
The point here is that being my dad’s daughter sort of demystified Walt Woodard for me. People of all ages have told me all my life that my dad intimidated them. But he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Maybe Walt was the same way, I figured and hoped. The guy I’ve adopted over the years as a brother that I most closely compare to my dad in personality is Clay O’Brien Cooper. Clay is hard for a lot of people to read, but makes perfect sense to me—because of who raised me. He doesn’t talk much. But Clay, too, is good and honorable to the bone.
As an adult, I’ve grown to admire Walt in multiple ways, including a great appreciation for that intensity. It’s the eighth wonder of the world to me how one of the most intense men ever to draw a breath manages to share a body with someone who can make me laugh so much harder than most. Did you know that Walt Woodard is one of the most hilarious cowboys of all time? You do now. He tells like it is, and these truths as he sees them, are not only spot on, but flat funny.
I’ve been fortunate to visit with Walt a few times this year, including during the early going of RodeoHouston. On that day, he was beaming about the Houston committee’s cowboy hospitality, which was the perfect pairing to a similar conversation I had with my son Taylor, who roped calves at RodeoHouston for the first time this year while his big brother, Lane, was competing at Oklahoma’s Lazy E Arena at the Timed Event Championship.
Day after day, I tuned in to the live stream of RodeoHouston—at first to watch Taylor, but then they had me hooked. I watched last Saturday’s Finals with glorious glee, and cried happy tears with Matt from 1,750 miles away as I watched that big-money ball bounce their way. Another trait of Walt’s that I deeply admire is his ability to come out of the zone it takes to earn such as spectacular W and allow himself to enjoy the aftermath like a thrilled Little Leaguer who just won the All-Star game with a grand slam.
RodeoHouston announcer Boyd Polhamus interviewed Matt and Walt on the arena floor the moment the team roping ended. I’ve watched that emotional clip a minimum of 150 times, and have yet to not be smiling wide with tears streaming down both cheeks when it’s over. When they rolled tape and Walt watched that record run on the big screen during that interview, he was way beyond beside himself—and didn’t feel the need to contain that euphoria. I love that.
“We had to be 4 flat—the fastest steer that’s ever been roped here—and we did it?” Walt said in simulcast to Boyd, the RodeoHouston crowd, and all of us watching at home. “That’s awesome!”
To you rare few who snickered from the peanut gallery (I’m presuming that you’re probably part of the same minority that did not stand when living legends Tee Woolman, 61, and Leo Camarillo, 72, were 5 flat at The American last month), laughed at Walt for letting his hair down like that, and don’t think it’s cool for a 62-year-old grandfather to get so giddy that his voice cracks like a prepubescent boy’s—consider this ultra-cool little fun fact: Walt could care less. I love that about him, too.
The thrill of that victory and Walt’s enthusiasm for what he’s doing right now is the kind of contagious optimism the cowboy sport—and the whole, wide world, for that matter—needs right now. We could all use a strong dose of “The American dream is alive and well” in these trying times of school shootings, serial bombers, and which alleged porn-star affair is or is not fake news. There is a much grander scheme of things in this cowboy community that connects us all. Let’s go with it!
After watching Matt and Walt come tight on the 2018 RodeoHouston team roping title in the living room, I made a mad dash for the kitchen during the brief break before the bronc riding. I looked down at the vibrating cell phone in my hand, which had been silenced during the show, and was shocked to see Walt Woodard’s name on the screen. I had just seen him celebrate a record run live in Texas. I was in California. And he’s calling me?
No. Come to find out, it was my second-ever official butt dial. The first was to winningest cowboy of all time Trevor Brazile a few years back, and Trevor picked up while in the barber’s chair getting a haircut. Walt did the same, only he was just getting to his trailer to unsaddle his beloved, home-grown horse, Blueberry. Are these guys the greatest in more ways than one, or what?
Without pause, Walt and I immediately picked up where recent conversations had left off.
“It happened again!” Walt said. “Last year (when Walt was roping with Charly Crawford), the team right in front of me (2017 RodeoHouston champs Zac Small and Levi Lord) was 4.1, just like today. We had to be 4 flat to win it last year, and didn’t get it done. (Charly’s head loop didn’t connect that day.) Then today, the best team in the world (by now you know that Walt was referring to Kaleb and Junior) had to be 4 flat to tie us and were 4.1.
“What just happened here is crazy. It’s really hard to win a major. I have a great horse. I have a great partner. And I practice going fast every day. I live in Stephenville, Texas, so I can train against the best guys in the world on a full-time basis. These guys today are the greatest ever. They can rope a lot of steers in a row fast. They’re amazing ropers, and they’re quality human beings. They aren’t just great ropers. They’re nice.
“I don’t feel 62 years old, I really don’t. I don’t know what 62 is supposed to feel like. I’ve never been here before. No one lasts forever. Muhammad Ali fought too long. But there’s nothing wrong with me, so for now I don’t feel old.”
Walt doesn’t take his health, his success, or the windfall he won at RodeoHouston for granted.
“I just won $56,000, a saddle, and a buckle—plus $500 for signing autographs,” he continued. “And I got to see Garth Brooks in concert with my wife. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
I talked to Walt again three days later, on Tuesday this week, and asked if he’d started coming down off of Cloud 9.
“Winning to me is like par,” he said. “Winning Houston was a great win. Am I shocked I won Houston? No. Did I think I had a good shot at winning Houston when I got there? Yes. I expect to rope both feet. I expect to win. It’s not shocking to me when I win.”
The only time I’ve ever seen Walt Woodard cry is when his son and clone, Travis Woodard, won the 2003 BFI heeling for Mikey Fletcher when he was 19, and beat his dad to that prestigious punch (Walt and Clay Tryan won it in 2008). Short of a third gold buckle, I don’t believe there’s anything left on Walt’s roping bucket list that can break him down—as in literally reduce him to tears—if he defies all odds and gets it done.
There is but one mere mortal who possibly holds that level of power over Walt Woodard, and it’s not Walt’s wife, Darlene (who is Virgil and Vernon Green’s sister, which makes her NFR ropers Rickey, Daniel and Chris Green’s aunt, and Walt, in turn, their uncle).
Travis and Rachel Woodard have two kids. Dark-headed Wyatt, 5, was born on their third anniversary and fits on the Woodard-men herd. According to Grandpa Walt, Wyatt is “a kind and gentle soul” who tools around on his woolly mammoth of a sorrel pony, Crackers, and could not be sweeter to his little sister. Enter Audrey Woodard, who comes by her blonde hair naturally from her mom and both grandmas (Darlene and Patty Brum on Rachel’s side).
She’s tiny and 2. But this one will not be contained or denied. If we’re betting on “forces of nature most likely to wear Walt Woodard down,” my money’s on Audrey, who was named after Walt’s dearly departed mom.
“Audry is very strong-willed,” Walt says of this formidable foe he so adores, who will not be conforming to meet even his demands. He tried the almost foolproof parenting method of laying down reasonable grounds rules—complete with consequences for not following them—one recent evening when they were finishing up at the arena.
But Audrey refused to yield. She was going to show Walt that she would have it her way, even if it meant walking to the house barefoot on rocks without a mere whimper to tip her hand on one ounce of weakness. She did not have to leave when he said so. It was worth losing her ride to the house to stay a little longer. She was right. He was wrong. End of story.
“They’re both wonderful, but they are completely opposite,” Walt said. “Wyatt has feelings, and they sometimes get hurt. Audrey is fearless.”
Nobody’s perfect, but in Walt’s eyes his partner’s been pretty close to flawless in the first quarter of 2018.
“Matt has roped amazing this year,” Walt said. “We were 4.8 on our first steer at Denver, and I roped a leg on our second steer to be high team back. We should have won Denver. We should have won third at Odessa, and I roped a leg on our second steer. We did win Fort Worth, and we’re about to come back for the semifinals at Austin (March 23).”
Walt Woodard will not be outworked in 2018. Historically, the Grand Portuguese Poobah of Fierce and Ferocious Focus has refused to take no for an answer. So I’m betting on him—in all but the friendly wager regarding who will win the War of Woodard Wills between Walt and his granddaughter. I’m all-in on Audrey on that one.