Lee Graves felt pretty good coming to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
And why not?
He was going to ride his 20-year-old horse Willy, which won him $40,000 during a two and a half week stretch in July. Willy also carried Graves to a Calgary Stampede record time of 3.1 seconds in the steer wrestling.
And just a few weeks prior to the NFR, Graves and Willy thoroughly dominated the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Edmonton. Graves entered hoping to win about $25,000. He left with $38,700 and his fifth Canadian Professional Rodeo Association title.
"I was coming in with so much confidence,'' said the likable Graves of his seventh trip to Las Vegas where had qualified fifth for the 2005 NFR.
But some nagging doubts still bounced around in Graves' psyche. At the age of 34, NFR opportunities would be increasingly difficult with each passing year and there was that dreaded eighth round, which cost Graves a potential world title back in 1997.
"If I didn't win the world, I started thinking there might be other things in life,'' he said. "Other things might enter the picture.''
Graves erased any doubts, along with most of the PRCA and NFR earnings record en route to his first world steer wrestling title.
The large Canadian cowboy-he's from Calgary-placed in the first nine rounds to not only win the gold buckle, but also the average title, considered the second-most coveted buckle in professional rodeo.
"My program every night was it was a new rodeo,'' explained Graves. "If I had a good steer, I would try to go out and win.
"I had a great horse, good starts and I just had to throw them down.''
Graves placed third in the opening round and followed it with back-to-back second-place finishes. After sharing fourth place in round four, he shared first place with Ryan Jarrett, of Summerville, Ga., in the fifth round and won round six outright.
"I was thinking, 'I've got a little snowball rolled up here,'" Graves said. "I've got to get a snowman built… don't back off now.''
He placed fifth in the seventh round and then came the dreaded eighth round. In 1997, Graves took a 10-second penalty and lost his lead in the average and dropped out of title contention. He would finish fifth in the final standings.
"That eighth round, it was playing on me,'' Graves said with a small smile. "It would make or break me. It was a tough round.''
Graves had a three-way tie for third with a time of 3.5 seconds. "After that, I had it made in the shade,'' he said.
His string of consecutive go-round checks ended with a 4.9 in the 10th round. "That was a business run,'' said Graves. "I had the world won.''
And like all the previous rounds, he made a call to his mentor, Blaine Pederson, the 1994 world champion steer wrestler who lives in Amisk, Alberta, Canada.
Graves lived and learned from Pederson during a three-year period in the early 1990's.
"Blaine is such a winner,'' said Graves, the admiration rising in his voice. "I knew how to steer wrestle. He kind of polished me and showed me how to be a winner inside and outside the arena. Blaine, he installed all the factors what you saw the 10 days of the Finals.''
Graves was also quick to credit his hazer, fellow Canadian Curtis Cassidy, and Louisiana steer wrestler Bob Lummus for their help.
Graves won an NFR steer wrestling record $126,412 and finished with a PRCA single-season record of $206,415.
He also earned money in tie-down roping during the regular season and finished second in the world all-around standings to Jarrett.
"This is so big, so huge,'' Grave said of the world title. "I know I'm not better than a Blaine Pederson or Mark Roy (former Canadian world steer wrestling champions), but I can wear the same shoes they are.''
What's more, for the first time Graves was a participant in the awards ceremony.
"So many years, I came down in the stands and watched it,'' he said. "Most guys leave. Not me. I would watch and say, 'Someday, that's going to be me.'"
This year, they watched Graves and applauded.