January 1, 2005: Clay Tryan and Patrick Smith made a pact. They set their sights on a matching set of gold buckles, and vowed not to be distracted by the detours, downpours and disappointments they knew they'd encounter along the way.
December 11, 2005: At road's end, professional rodeo's world championship stage was lowered from the rafters of the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Tryan and Smith were called to the center of that stage and awarded their golden goals with a handshake by PRCA Commissioner Troy Ellerman. They smiled and tipped their hats to the crowd. Then they stood, side by side, and stared at those buckles. Sure enough, dreams do come true.
The 2005 regular-season leaders had to repave a couple of crater-sized potholes to pull off the fabulous feat, which was a first for both of them. The last team to rope on opening night, they went down in flames and out of the average when Patrick missed a wild one twice. They tanked again on day two, when Clay couldn't connect in two attempts.
"With eight rounds to go, and $15,649 up for grabs every night, we needed to get a fire built back underneath us again and open our eyes," Patrick strategized. "We had the air let out of us a few times during the week, but we had to keep picking ourselves back up and holding our heads high."
Meanwhile, their closest rivals, seven-time Champ of the World Jake Barnes and Kory Koontz, were cranking up the heat, placing in both of those first two rounds. Clay and Patrick rallied with victory laps in rounds three and four, but Jake and Kory wouldn't back off. They split fifth and sixth in round three, and with a solid 5.7-second run on a strong steer in round four took a rather commanding 3.2-second average lead over the pack. Little brother Travis Tryan and his partner, three-time World Champion Allen Bach, who entered NFR '05 in the third spot, also cashed checks in rounds three and four to keep things interesting.
Then disaster struck. Travis and Allen were the fifth team out in round five, and came dangerously close to getting the 30-second whistle. They were 29.3 after Travis had to rebuild and regroup from a wave-off. Clay and Patrick roped seventh, and went down in flames with another no-time, though that hardly seemed significant next to what happened to the sixth team out that night. Watching a Hall of Fame legend and dear friend lose the thumb on his roping hand was one sickening sight. Suddenly, the world championship race seemed so small and insignificant. That was obvious, even to the young guns.
"What happened to Jake made me not be so bummed when we had a tough night," Clay said right after round 10. "Jake really wanted this world championship, and he was right there in the middle of it when he got hurt. That's not the way I wanted to win it. I'm still sick to my stomach about what happened to Jake. I hope he comes back better than ever."
"Nothing is worse than what happened to Jake," Patrick added, though the Mother Time in me had to remind him that what happened to Lane Frost was indeed a lot worse and that we all need to be thankful Jake's still here. (It's true, and I think I keep saying it in hopes of cheering myself up, too.) "It definitely put a perspective on what we're doing here. We're all competitors who want to win, but you don't want to see that happen to anyone. Jake's a legend, and he's tough. If anybody can come back, it's Jake Barnes."
Before I talk too much about Jake here, I'm going to pull up and listen to what I know he'd be saying if he was sitting next to me right now. "This is about Clay and Patrick. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine." Love him as I do, I know there'd be a "doggone" and a "my goodness" in there somewhere, too, but I have no doubt that his main message would be to give Clay and Patrick their due-so I will. As Jake would say, "They're the champs, and my hat's off to them. I'm happy for those guys. They deserve it."
So, did Clay and Patrick hit the panic button after posting a pair of goose eggs in the early going?
"It wasn't looking good after the first two rounds, but one thing you learn after being here a few times is that there's only so much any of us can win in one week," said Billings, Mont.-based Clay, 26, who's roped at the last five straight NFRs. "Once we went out of the average, my goal was to win $75,000 here, because I thought that might be enough to win it based on years past."
At $71,682.70 apiece, they just about got there. They won rounds three, four and nine, and placed second in the sixth and 10th go-rounds. After a couple of no-times in rounds seven and eight, Clay and Patrick brought the crowd to its feet with a world-record-tying, NFR-record-setting 3.5-second doozer.
"We were in a spot where we had to win," Patrick said of the clutch blur. "When the clock stopped at 3.5, it was awesome that we had the record. But the timing of it was the best part. Round nine is what catapulted us into this world championship. That run, more important than the record, is what got us this gold buckle today. We were under the gun. By no means was the world championship sewn up at that point, but we were back in the driver's seat.
"This is so special, because the guys we're roping against all came here in contention for a gold buckle. Every guy here had a chance, so it was pretty intense. They all roped great, and they're all our friends. We're all family on the road."
Blaine Linaweaver and Jory Levy set the world mark in San Angelo, Texas, in 2001. Clay was the previous owner of the 3.7-second NFR record. He and Michael Jones were 3.7 in round seven at NFR '04 on their way to winning the average crown and setting the NFR team roping earnings record of $95,101.
Clay and Patrick roped last on round-10 Sunday, and the way things played out in front of them, they had the buckles in the bag before Clay nodded his head. That last steer was for bonus bucks, and 4.0 seconds later, they cashed a pair of second-place go-round checks.
"We'd done the math," Patrick grinned. "Being in the world championship race is like being in a football game. You know the score."
In the end, Clay and Patrick pocketed $167,204 apiece on the year. NFR average victors Tee Woolman and Cory Petska were the reserve titlists with $147,669 and $148,144 in 2005, respectively.
Tee's the guy who gave Patrick his first shot at the big time, by the way. The kid's come a long way since he first picked up a head rope at 17, and threw his first heel loop at 19.
"This is amazing, it really is," said Patrick, still just 25, who lives in Midland, Texas, with his wife, Christi. "This week has been a roller-coaster ride. We've been in the bottom of the valley and at the top of the mountain in the same week. It's been very unpredictable. We came here in the lead, then were the only team to have two no-times in the first two rounds. I was thinking it was over. Then I realized we needed to keep the faith. I knew with my partner and that black horse of his that it wasn't over 'til it was over."
That black horse is 2005 PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year Thumper (see more on him on page 104), who actually belongs to Clay's mother-in-law, Pauline Robertson. The Top-15 types are still searching for a chink in that horse's armor. The same is also often said about Patrick's sorrel sidekick, Jaws.
"The horses we ride are so important, and we have a couple of great ones on our team," Clay said. "The head horse makes the whole team go round. I owe Thumper a lot of the credit. He is so outstanding."
So are their predecessors, who must be mentioned here also. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton are headed their separate ways in 2006-Speed will head for Clay O'Brien Cooper, and Rich will heel for Trevor Brazile-but they've been the guys with the bull's-eyes on their backs for eight straight years now. After Trevor and Kory tied Clay and Michael's 3.7-second NFR record in round six, Speed and Rich answered with a 3.7-second run of their own in round eight. Clay and Patrick erased that with their 3.5 in round nine, but Speed and Rich had the final word when they took round 10 in 3.9. What an appropriate exit for those two.
"I don't think their run of eight in a row will ever be broken," Clay said. "I know how hard one's been to win, so I can't imagine a team getting that done again. What they've done is unreal. Those guys are great competitors, and two of the best there's ever been."
"Hats off to Speed and Rich," Patrick chimed in. "They're eight-time world champs, and that's something that will never be forgotten. What a team. When you heard their names called, everybody ran to the fence and watched, including us.
"I'd also like to congratulate some of the other guys who roped so great here this week. Tee and Cory, Wade (Wheatley) and Kyle (Lockett; the winningest team at NFR '05 with $83,966 each) and Kory had an outstanding week. Kory is such a champ. When we knew I won it, he gave me a big hug and told me he was happy for me. Guys like him remind you that there are more important things than gold buckles."
Clay and Bobbie are expecting their first baby in March. When it was time for the PRCA to repossess the buckle so their names can be etched in gold-only about an hour after they took ownership of the prized possessions-it was almost like having to hand a brand-new baby back over to the doctor.
"I'm still just looking at this buckle thinking 'Wow,' " said Clay, who was chuckling about his NFR heeler dad, Dennis, running around out back trying to buy their 3.5-second and 10th-round steers from the stock contractors. Clay and Travis' mom, Terri Kaye Kirkland, was again on the NFR barrel racing roster. "We've been really focused. The world championship has been on our minds all year. There are so many good teams nowadays that you just have to stay focused on what you're trying to do.
"This is a dream come true. I've been dreaming about this since I started roping. A lot of teams roped good and stayed in it all week. Winning it with guys like Jake, Tee and Speed in the mix is pretty special to me. Those guys were great when I was growing up, so that's pretty cool."
"To God be the glory," added Patrick, the 2003 PRCA/Resistol Rookie Heeler of the Year, who won that year's NFR average with Matt Tyler before finishing 19th in the world in 2004. "He's the only reason I'm holding this gold buckle. This is unbelievable. This is what we've dreamed of." STW