Jade Corkill has a new attitude. And while his quiet, laid-back confidence spells relief in his own mind, the rest of the heeling pack might want to start passing the Rolaids. That headwind in your face is only 21, so there's a decent chance you'll be dealing with it for decades.
I'm far from alone in my observation that the Fallon, Nev. native is a force worth fearing.
"Jade has great fundamentals when it comes to his riding, horsemanship and the way he rides the corner," said seven-time World Champion Heeler and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clay O'Brien Cooper. "He's kind of the prototype heeler to come along and really have a good, solid game all the way around. He can rope quick, and he's outstanding at jackpots and big ropings. I started watching him a few years ago when he first started traveling. I told him he was going to do really good. Sometimes young guys come in and struggle for a couple years. I told him a couple times to hang in there and he was really going to do good, because he has all the tools it takes. His roping capabilities are awesome. It's all out in front of him. He can go as far as he wants."
The 2006 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Rookie Heeler of the Year (Corkill won that as a high school senior) qualified for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2008. He was as thrilled as any other young gun to get there. But he didn't just make an appearance. It was more along the lines of a Shamu-sized splash. Heeling for fellow NFR freshman Luke Brown, Corkill roped with the calm composure of a Major League veteran. It left me wondering if he didn't name his horse Ice Cube after his own blood type.
Corkill and Brown placed in seven of 10 rounds, finished third in the average and cashed out for a cool $81,535 a man on the week. Both basically doubled their earnings for the year. Brown was third in the world among headers behind Matt Sherwood and Trevor Brazile, and Corkill was second only to 2008 World Champion Heeler Randon Adams.
Brown, who's roping with Martin Lucero in 2009, is high on Corkill inside the arena and out. "I think he's the greatest," said the Rock Hill, S.C. cowboy. "Jade's one of my best friends, and his roping speaks for itself. I can brag on him all day. He's pretty amazing."
Because their NFR nerves had never been tested, they had to be considered a wild-card team heading into NFR '08. "I live with Chad (Masters in Santo, Texas), so I kind of knew every scenario there was before I got there," Brown said. "I never practiced for the Finals with Jade until two days before we ran the steers through at the Thomas & Mack. When we did practice, it was so laid back and easy. We didn't do anything stupid and we had fun. We were going to our first Finals, and it didn't matter what happened after that. The money wasn't it. We made the National Finals after buddying together all year (Luke with Monty Joe Petska and Jade with Chad) until right there at the end, so we'd been through all the ups and downs together already. We were just happy to be there after pulling for each other all year.
"It was cool roping with Jade, because we both knew how hard we tried all year to get there. He works as hard as anybody to win as much as he does. He works at it when he's roping bad and he works at it when he's roping good. He deserves every bit of what he's won."
Let's face it, folks, Corkill was virtually flawless at his first Finals and Brown wasn't far from it. Brown rebuilt in rounds three and five, and Corkill "sawed off a righty" on that fifth steer. That second look is never quite as sweet as the first, and that steer darn sure did him a dirty. Other than that, he roped two feet every trip after taking his first available shot.
Brown and Corkill hooked up for their first Finals, and it was their first rodeo together ever. "There were a lot of possible combinations when we were in Dallas (at the regular-season finale Wrangler Tour Championship)," Corkill explained. "When we knew we were a team, it was good by us, because Luke and I had practiced a lot together at Chad's."
Winning RodeoHouston with Masters in March of 2008 was the big break Corkill had waited for. It pushed pressure quite a ways down his priority list from its previous point up at the top. And like a little kid waiting on Christmas, the two-month pause between the regular rodeo season and the start of "The Show" felt like forever.
"From the end of September when the regular season was over it seemed like it took five years for the Finals to start," Corkill smiled. "When I backed in there the first night I almost thought I was dreaming. I've been more nervous to rope at a two (steers) for $15 (jackpot). It was the clearest I've ever been. I'm pretty good at controlling my emotions. I've learned to make it pretty simple to myself, so it doesn't seem like a big deal."
Again, we've noticed. "When Jade talks about a run, it's different than the run I made," noted 2007 World Champion Header Masters, who's roping with Corkill again now. "It's so much slower in his head than it is in mine. How it's that slow and clear in his head I'll never know, especially as young as he is. I guarantee you nobody's thrown as many loops as Jade has, plus it's just naturally that easy for him. I couldn't ask for a better partner, whether you're talking about his work ethic, the entering or the fact that he's always looking for the next best horse. He tries harder than any of them."
Corkill had a mini "moment" on opening night at his first Finals. When he rode Ice Cube up the alley that leads to the roping box, and got close enough to his turn to look under the overhang and see and hear the capacity crowd, it hit him. "It was like, holy s--, this is really going to happen," he laughs. "But when I rode in there to rope it was like I didn't even realize anybody was there. It's cooler to me now than it was when I was doing it. I was so calm. I had talked myself into not getting caught up in the fact that it was the NFR."
He said he felt as calm riding in to rope that first Finals steer as the November day not long before when he heeled a couple rounds for my 16-year-old son, Lane, out here in the California countryside where we live. "All I was thinking about was riding my horse, getting in position and taking my first shot," Corkill said. "That simple. It was more worth it to me to make a lot of money than to get caught up in the fact that I was at the NFR and worry about throwing fast or doing something I don't usually do because of what rodeo it was.
"From the sixth round to the 10th round (when they placed in five in a row) it felt like we made the same run every night. The day we practiced a couple days before it started we talked about not getting caught up in the moment, just making our run and going for third or fourth every night instead of trying to win first. First place just happens. You can't really say you're going to win first. Luke said if we just placed about every night we could get out of there with $80,000. And that's how it worked out."
In Corkill's eyes, the NFR was all it was cracked up to be and then some. "It was everything I ever hoped it would be," he said. "During the day it seemed as cool as it did to think about being there when I was younger. At night, being in the box, it just felt like a chance to win a lot of money. After I roped, I'd sit in the stands and watch the calf roping and think, 'This is the coolest thing ever and I just ran one down there.' Every day at the trade show was so cool. I'd sit there and think, 'I can't wait to get to run another one tonight,' just like I used to get so excited to get to watch it every night."
Getting over that Finals hurdle changed his outlook on roping, which is basically one and the same with Corkill's outlook on life. "It was a relief," he said. "I didn't want to make the Finals so everybody would say, 'Oh, you made the Finals.' It was personal satisfaction for me, because it's something I've always wanted to do-to be good enough to get to rope there. I wanted to try to be the best roper there's ever been just for personal satisfaction. It was a personal relief to know the day I die that I got to rope there."
I asked him to detail the difference in then and now. "The first two years I rodeoed hoping to make it and thought about the NFR every day the whole year," he said. "Winning Houston was the best thing for me. After that day, I thought I was going to make it. I roped all year not worrying about it, because I thought I already had it made. If you rope good enough and rope like you rope, you'll make it."
His newfound inner peace is a stress-free pleasure. "This year, I haven't thought much about making the Finals," said Corkill, who was comfortably seated in the top 10 in the world at press time the first of June. "If you don't worry about it so much and just do what you do, you'll be fine. Worrying about winning gets you absolutely nowhere. Now I just think about doing my job and roping. I've had a lot more fun roping, and have a lot less stress now."
To quickly review Corkill's relatively new ProRodeo roots, he kicked off his rookie season with Matt Tyler. Corkill asked Jake Barnes for some friendly veteran advice, and Barnes suggested he call Tyler. When Corkill was at the 2005 Junior World Team Roping Championships in Enid, Okla., Allen Bach called Tyler and tipped him off to the kid's talent. (Did I mention that Corkill won first, second and third with Bach's son Joel, Shane Philipp and Bubba Buckaloo?) After dominating the roping, Corkill detoured to Bach's house in Millsap, Texas, where he made about 15 Finals-style runs with Tyler at 7 the next morning; right before Tyler headed West for Vegas. Corkill got the job.
"Jake got that deal going and Allen closed the deal," Corkill says appreciatively. "I'd just turned 18 in August, and that was my tryout."
Corkill roped with Tyler until the first of August in 2006, when he switched gears to go with Blaine Linaweaver (he and Jory Levy set the 3.5-second world team roping standard at San Angelo, Texas in 2001). Corkill finished 2006 and started 2007 with Linaweaver. Corkill started heeling for Chris Lawson at Oakdale in the spring of 2007, and roped with him through the California Rodeo in Salinas that year before heading home for the remainder of the season. That was the plan, anyway.
When Mike Beers got bucked off and broke his pelvis, among other things, that summer, Corkill went back out there to help his old buddy Brandon Beers close out his first Finals campaign. Starting the 2008 season with relative newcomer Corkill was a bold statement for Masters, especially considering he was coming straight off of his first gold buckle season in 2007. Masters thought nothing of it.
"Jade really is the first human roping machine," he said. "I've seen him rope goats, donkeys, horses. You name it, when it comes to roping anything with two feet by two feet, I'll put him up against anybody. I think he ropes two feet better than anybody else in the world. He's that good. I've always believed that. I've thought that since the first time I practiced with him."
The champ's vote of confidence was just the booster shot Corkill needed. "The day Chad told me he wanted to rope I felt like I was going to make the Finals that year," he said. "I felt like I was going to get so many steers turned that there was no way a guy could screw up bad enough not to make it."
Their Houston win couldn't have been better timed, either. Masters had hurt his knee practicing for the Wrangler Timed Event Championship. He was bulldogging, of all things, when it happened. They'd only won $800 in the early going, and Masters was slated to go under the knife, so both their backs were squared up in the corner.
"Houston was our last rodeo before Chad was going to have surgery," Jade remembers. "Houston was going to make it either really easy or really hard. We got done at Houston on Saturday night, and he had his surgery Monday morning in Dallas."
All told, they got to rope at a less than grand total of six rodeo before Reno in June. "Houston's the rodeo that set up the $80,000 I won in Vegas last year," Corkill said. "What it did for my confidence was the main thing. That set up my whole career. I'll never forget sitting back there before that last run. Travis (Tryan) and Michael (Jones) were 5.3, and we were the last team to go. We were supposed to have the strongest steer of the final four. It was so important. It was so much to take in that it almost kicked in reverse psychology, and I got down to thinking that, 'Hey, it's either going to work or it's not. It's no different than roping any other steer. There's no reason to get nervous now.' Waiting to run that last steer was the hardest part. When I backed in there I was so focused that I was pretty calm and clear and just concentrated. I thought of every goat and every Fast Lane (dummy) I'd ever roped and thought, 'This is it.' I had to rope that steer fast to make the Finals is how I saw it." (Did I mention that Masters and Corkill set the 4.3-second arena record and won the rodeo by a full second?)
The Masters and Corkill Show rolled on into August '08. Then Corkill heeled for Jake Stanley at the ProRodeo Tour events in Caldwell and Puyallup, and was back with Brandon Beers everywhere else. Oh, and come to find out Corkill could have made his first Finals without winning Houston.
"From Reno on, I did win enough to make the Finals in 15th place (without the Houston money)," he reflects. "That proved to me not to worry about it-to rope like I rope and never give up."
Roping like he ropes netted Corkill a smooth $152,193 this last March when he delivered a one-two punch at the 2009 George Strait Team Roping Classic. Masters and Corkill made mincemeat of the previous GSTRC average record by more than a second with 14.4 seconds on three steers. Corkill struck again for second with Brandon Beers, and again finished under the 15-second wire at 14.87.
"You go there thinking, 'Man, I'd love to win the George Strait,' " Corkill said. "I'd been there four or five times and not done any good. Every other year I went there trying to win the George Strait. This year, I thought, 'I'd like to win about $20,000 here and make it a good winter. I said I'm going to catch every steer turned for me by two feet.' Then all of a sudden I got every steer turned and caught them all by two feet, and that was the outcome. Instead of trying to win $150,000 I was trying to win $9,000, because that's what the last hole paid and I thought I could do that if I roped every steer. If I'd gone there trying to win $150,000, I'd have won nothing. I didn't want to get ahead of myself."
The victories haven't just pumped Corkill up. In fact, they might come in handiest during days of defeat. He roped a leg to win Redding (Calif.) this spring, for example. Not to worry. "Two years ago, I'd have killed myself if that had happened," he said. "It's amazing to me how much of an impact winning Houston had on me and my career. That's what made everything else change. That changed my outlook and my attitude. I'd never figured out what people meant when they said you have to learn how to win. I know how to do it now. The guys who get that don't worry about it. If they miss one to win the rodeo tonight, then get one spun to win the round tomorrow, they catch him. I've learned how to win instead of trying to win."
Corkill rang in this rodeo new year with Beers. He and Masters rolled out their reunion tour the first week in April. "Roping with Chad gives me confidence because of how much confidence I have in him, his roping and the way he does things that it almost makes me think I could be in the same category as him," Corkill said. "I learn from him. Who you hang out with rubs off on you. Chad has such a great attitude. He's always the same guy. If you're the same person when you lose, you don't let it bother you so much, so it doesn't affect the next run.
"No matter how much I've lost, I truly believe I'm going to win every time I back in the box. You can't say you're OK with losing, because your insides don't lie. And what you feel on the inside is the truth. But you can't dwell on it. Whether you're a winner or loser has to do with outside the arena, not inside. But that's coming from someone who thought it was only about what happened in that arena for a long time. From thinking that way to thinking this way, look how much more I've won this way. Look how much has happened for me now that I truly believe in this way. I don't have to force things anymore, because I know you can only do what you can do. If you do it good enough, it'll happen eventually. It's about letting the winning happen instead of trying to force it."
Corkill had only been to 17 rodeos at press time the first of June, and with $29,000 won at the rodeos figured he was about halfway done punching his second All Access NFR pass. "I've got 53 rodeos left," he said. "I'm going into the summer planning on winning. I know we aren't going to win everywhere, but I feel like we have as good a chance to win as anybody every time we go. That's what makes me want to go. That's what excites me.
"I'm not worrying about making the Finals now. My goal is $200,000 for 2009. Surely it won't be hard to win $60,000 (which is what he figures it'll take to get to the Finals). I've always heard Jake (Barnes) say if your goal is to just make the Finals and you fall short of your goal, you're 16th or 20th and you fall short. If your goal is to win the world and you fall short, you'll be sixth through 10th instead of sitting at home when everyone else is in Vegas."