His eyes told the story. Stran Smith initially sat in silence, struggling to find the right words.
"I thought this might happen," Smith said as eyes filled with tears. How do you describe achieving a goal you conceded might never happen?
"This goes to show, never give up on your dreams," Smith added, the words, his pure feelings, starting to pour out in torrents. "Like Jim Valvano, never give up."
The Texas tie-down roper had been to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo nine times prior to 2008 during his career. And nine times he returned home to Childress, Texas, without a gold buckle.
He had been close. A year after undergoing heart surgery Smith returned to Las Vegas in 2004 as one of the top 15 in the world.
"You don't know how much you love something until it's taken away from you," he said. He actually won the 10th round at the?NFR, but still fell an agonizing $1,800 shy of a world title. It seemed like it might be his last shot. Most calf ropers are past their prime at 38 years old and Cody Ohl and Fred Whitfield always managed to shut him out.
"After that, I told myself, I was good with it," Smith said of his place in professional tie-down roping. "I'm not satisfied, but I was good with it. I didn't think I would get that chance again. The gold buckle was down my list a long way of the things I wanted to be known for."
His most important goal, he added, was being a good father to sons Stone and Scout. Smith is more than a good husband, father, brother and son. He is now a world champion. With sharp eye and steady arm, Smith won both the world tie-down gold buckle and the NFR average, the latter of which was the impetus for the title that was so long in coming.
Smith's average victory-for $42,998-allowed him to slip past Hunter Herrin and 2007 champion Trevor Brazile in the final standings. When the dust settled at the Thomas and Mack Center, Smith had won $181,400 and his championship by $2,388 over Herrin. Brazile was just $8,000 back and rookie Tuf Cooper $9,000 behind.
"It wasn't the prettiest win of my career. But my career hasn't been the prettiest," Smith said with a chuckle. "During the week, I thought about all the ups and downs I've had in my career. And I've had plenty of ups and downs."
Smith secured his championship with a clutch 7.2-second effort for second place in the final round-after missing opportunities for similarly fast runs earlier in the week. The first to tell him the good news was his wife, Jennifer, a rodeo reporter for ESPN.
"I had no idea I had won the world," Smith recalled. "She didn't have to say it. I knew it when I saw her face. I kept asking, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?' I wouldn't want anybody else but her to tell me."
Smith thought his opportunity for a world title had passed when his prized horse Topper was killed on May 5, 2007, in a hit-and-run accident near the family ranch. Topper was a two-time AQHA tie-down roping horse of the year. The accident came when Smith was still rehabbing from shoulder surgery a few months earlier.
"How was I supposed to come back without him?" Smith said. "People say you get only one really good horse during your career."
His second chance came in the form of his mare Destiny. He bought the horse from Wes Adams, father of team roping heeling world champion Randon Adams.? "It's the most I've paid for a horse," Smith said with a small smile. "I ran three goats on her and bought her. She's a winner. She knows when it's time to get the job done."
Along with getting Destiny arena- ready, Smith got himself prepared. "I lost about 30 pounds, I'm in the best shape of my life," he said.
Smith and Destiny won six rodeos during the regular season, including San Angelo and Austin, Texas, along with Red Bluff, Calif.
At the NFR, the pair placed in five of the 10 rounds. Their fastest time came when it counted most. They finished 87.1 seconds on 10 runs to win the average by a scant 1.2 seconds over Tyson Durfey, of Colbert, Wash.
Smith was spurred by some words from his mother Rita.
"Oh, she has this cheesy saying she always told me," said Smith before sharing it with others. "She said, 'Just keep going as you're going and you'll get to where you're going.' I can't say enough about the support I have received from family."
Smith's father, Clifton, is a two-time Wrangler NFR qualifier in the tie-down roping and the first calf roper to dismount from the right side to tie calves.
"I feel I am truly blessed and fortunate. It's something to be surrounded by great people. Because they help you achieve greatness. You don't have to win a world championship to know you have a purpose in your life. As long as your heart is beating in your chest, God has a purpose for you."