When Tyler McKnight pulled into Salt Lake City to rope his first steer in the first performance of first-ever the Days of ’47 Cowboy Games, he had $300 to his name and a blown trailer tire, and his 19-year-old header Jr. Dees had $19 in his bank account and got there on borrowed fuel money. And when they got together to run some practice cattle just hours before the first perf, they only caught three steers over the few pens they ran.
“I have never roped with him in my life, and I could not imagine being him and still thinking he had a chance to win it because I roped terrible,” Dees said of the ill-fated practice session with his designated partner for the day. “We never roped in our life, and I was terrible. He told me not to worry about it, we’d win it, but I don’t know how he thought that way.”
But McKnight, who the team roping world knows as Knightrider, wasn’t worried.
“JR is pretty gamey,” McKnight said. “I wasn’t worried.”
They were 4.5 on their first steer and finished second in the round behind Nelson Wyatt and Matt Kasner, worth $3,467 a man, and got to move on to the gold medal round the following Monday night.
“I won the #15 at the US Finals, and I had the same feeling (at Salt Lake City) I had the morning before I won that,” Dees said. “I wasn’t stressed—I was just ready. I think I was at the stage where I accepted the fact that if it went bad, it went bad, but I’d try my hardest. If it worked out it worked out. My goal was to accept it either way.”
Dees was in Salt Lake City with his partner for the last year and a half and long-time mentor, three-time WNFR heeler Matt Zancanella. “Zanc” took in Dees when the South Dakota native was 7-years-old when Dees parents ran into some tough time. Dees has been with him at his Aurora, South Dakota, ranch ever since.
“I haven’t had $20 since the Fourth of July,” Dees said. “No matter what I need, Zanc does it. Horses, fuel, if I’m broke he pays my fees. He might not have the money to do it, but he does it. He’s been rodeoing for 20 years. When you rodeo for 20 years, you know what you’re doing. It’s funny—he told me he didn’t want to follow everyone all around the country this summer. He wanted to get into Salt Lake through our circuit standings, and he told me if I got in there I’d make the NFR. I’ve been trying to get my circuit money. He didn’t get in, but I did. What’s funny is a week ago I thought I needed to go home. Zanc looked at me and said, 'Don’t worry about it, stay positive,' and here we are.”
Neither Dees or McKnight say they were very nervous for that second steer on July 24, but both knew what was at stake.
“I kept telling myself I was going to win it,” McKnight said. “It just worked out. I told myself the whole time that’s the only steer I needed to catch and I’d make the NFR.”
They drew the steer Lane Ivy and Trace Porter were 4.7 on in the first round, and Ivy told them it tried to run right. McKnight told Dees he planned to take an aggressive haze, as Dees prefers his steers down the middle.
“I think he wanted to step right, and I think I scared him,” McKnight said. “He threw his head up and took a half a step and was just perfect. He handled really good and let me get a fast shot off on him.”
McKnight was able to take such a good start thanks to his 23-year-old heel horse Skeeter that came from Matt Kasner, who coincidentally won the bronze medal with Nelson Wyatt for their 14.7-second short round run. Dees rode a 10-year-old gelding he calls Pistol Pete that he and Zancanella have had for the last six years, and Dees credits the horse with a lot of his success.
"I wish I had 20 of him," Dees said. "He scores and never tries to screw me.“
The unprecedented mid-summer payday put Dees at sixth in the PRCA world standings with $68,625 won after mostly circuit rodeoing all year, and bumped McKnight up to fourth among heelers with $77,120 won. Both numbers surpass the threshold it took to qualify for the WNFR in 2016. This year, circuit finals and All-American Finals money counts toward the world standings, so in theory it will take more to qualify in 2017. But sure enough both ropers are in serious contention for a trip to the Thomas & Mack.
"Zanc was crying," Dees said. "He was so happy. It sucks that all the other guys didn’t do very good, but it was really cool to experience it. To get to a chance at the NFR at 19—I’ve dreamed of it my whole life. I always joked around roping the cowboy toy and now I have a chance."
Dees will rope with Badlands-Circuit-standout Levi Lord for the remainder of 2017. Zancanella will head home to work on his business and spend time with his family after Aug. 12.
McKnight roped with Arizona's Tom Richards all year, but they hadn’t won much this summer and decided to part ways a few weeks before Salt Lake. Both men got into the Days of ’47, though, and both found themselves in the gold medal round. Richards roped with California heeler Kyle Lockett, and despite Lockett getting a left leg in the gold-medal round, they finished second and banked $25,000 a man.
"Tom winning second made it even better," McKnight said. "Tom roped good for me and turned me lots of steers. We won decent but didn’t quite win what we wanted. A lot of our problem is that we’re both rodeoing on whatever we win. Now that the pressure is off and we have money to go on and not worrying about how we’ll keep diesel in the truck and pay our fees, we’ll be able to win a lot more even if we aren't roping together. Tom is one of my best friends—there’s nothing I’d love more than to rope with him at the NFR and win with him."
Richards is rodeoing with Ryan Motes for the remainder of 2017, while McKnight is planning to go with all-around standings contender and tie-down roping world champ Caleb Smidt.
"It came at a good time, it was well needed," Richards said. "I think if there were more rodeos like this, it would be a lot better for the whole sport. If it would take $150,000 to make the Finals, we could really make a living. There’s a handful—Houston, San Antone—they pay good. But there needs to be more."
Lockett, who has stayed home since last making the WNFR in 2005, is now planning to head out on the rodeo trail for the rest of the season given that he's jumped to 16th in the world with $45,850 won.
"I entered Caldwell with Lane Karney, and with the chance that I got, for the next month and a half a guy might go try it," Lockett said. "There’s few options out there but we really don’t have anything settled in yet. I don’t know who, but I know I’m going to head up there from Caldwell on."