What a difference a year made for Jeffrey Willert.
After making the 2004 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo as an injury replacement, he didn't feel as if he belonged in the field of riders and it showed in his riding.
This year, the 23-year-old Willert, of Belvidere, S.D., came into the NFR in first place in the world standings and left that way as well, capturing his first world championship in record fashion.
Willert earned $278,168 for the season, including $118,629 at the NFR to break Glen O'Neill's earnings record of $236,031, set in 2002.
"It feels really good," Willert said. "I don't think it has sunk in yet. I am all smiles. I am sure that my dad, grandparents and the whole town of Belvidere is excited."
Indeed, while there have been numerous saddle bronc world champions from South Dakota, Willert is the first Belvidere resident to win the title since Earl Thode did it in 1929 and 1932.
Willert joins the ranks of Casey Tibbs (Fort Pierre), Clint Johnson (Spearfish), Brad Gjermundson (Marshall), Robert Etbauer (Ree Heights), Tom Reeves (Eagle Butte) and Billy Etbauer (Ree Heights) as a world champion saddle bronc rider from South Dakota.
It was Billy Etbauer, Willert's hero, along with Cody DeMoss of Crowville, La., who challenged Willert up to the final round.
"It's hard to beat Billy (Etbauer) and Cody (DeMoss). I got lucky," Willert said, stealing a trademark line from Etbauer about "getting lucky."
Willert's title came two years after he was bucked off his bronc at the Reno Rodeo and kicked in the head, suffering nerve damage to his left eye and losing the vision in it. He took three weeks off before returning to riding and ended up qualifying for his first Wrangler NFR in 2003 and finished ninth in the world standings.
He struggled at the 2004 NFR after earning his spot when Dan Mortensen and O'Neill went down with injuries. He finished 17th in the world standings.
"I didn't feel like I belonged there," he said. "The last two years I was more worried about what was going on and all the distractions. This year I just came to ride, have fun and it worked out a lot better."
Willert won the first, fourth and sixth rounds; finished second in the third and 10th rounds and third in the seventh and ninth rounds. He also bucked off his broncs in the second and fifth rounds and needed a strong showing in the 10th round to clinch the title.
He answered with an 89.5-point ride on Big Bend Rodeo Company's bronc Kool Toddy to wrap up the championship.
"I could have rode a little bit better a couple times this week, but it all worked out in the end," he said. "I kind of saftied up (Saturday) night because I was pretty nervous with the eliminator pen. I don't know, I'll try to ride better next year."
DeMoss, who see-sawed with Willert atop the world standings for much of the regular season, finished second with $239,372. The ageless Etbauer, at 42, had another stellar NFR and finished third in the final world standings.
Canadian cowboy Rod Warren won his third consecutive average title and fourth overall. He was the only rider to cover all 10 of his broncs. He also ran his consecutive ride streak at the NFR to 34 in a row.
"My whole rodeo career, I've approached every horse the same," he said. "Get on and try to make
the best possible ride. It seems to work here for the average. There are lots of different types of horses, and I just seem to try hard on all 10 horses and hopefully it turns out. I hate bucking off. That's why I try so hard to stay on."
Milford, Utah, cowboy Cody Wright finished second in the average, followed by Etbauer, Willert and DeMoss. Wright finished fourth in the final world standings.
The gold buckle, though, is going home to South Dakota with Willert. STW