This time last year, Colby Lovell was standing in Las Vegas, next to the box at the South Point the Ariat World Series of Team Roping's #14.5 Finale, watching his friend Cody NesSmith ride his roan horse Bartender while the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was going on across town.
Lovell, 33, hadn't rodeoed much in 2019, but he'd gone enough that he'd had a chance encounter at a Louisiana ProRodeo with NesSmith's dad, Tony, who told Colby about his son, 23-year-old Cody, who was battling Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer mainly found in children, and deeply loved team roping.
[Must Read: This is Living: The Cody NesSmith Story]
[Rather Listen? The Short Score: The Cody NesSmith Story]
A fast friendship developed between Lovell and the Louisiana kid who loved to come stay at the Lovell's Madisonville, Texas, home, in between his chemo treatments at St. Jude. That friendship defined Lovell's last 12 months and shaped him in ways he never expected.
And that friendship led NesSmith to the deep, unwavering belief that Lovell would win the PRCA's world title in 2020. A belief that—despite NesSmith's untimely death July 6 of this year—came to fruition when Lovell and his partner Paul Eaves won the last three rounds of the 2020 WNFR in spectacular fashion to secure the championship. It's Lovell's first gold buckle, and Eaves' second.
After Round 7, Lovell and Eaves didn't have much of a chance at a gold buckle come Dec. 12. They'd already been called out for a crossfire in Round 4 and an illegal head catch in Round 5, and they'd only had four times recorded. Murphy's law of what could go wrong would go wrong was well in effect.
But somewhere along the way they'd also won $46,384.62 each, and both men had a bit of a chip on their shoulders. Eaves—as cool, calm and collected as cowboys come—took an extra swing in Round 8 just to be sure, and they still won the round with a 4.3-second run worth $26,230.77 each.
"After that bad call, the whole world saw it was not a crossfire, I thought in my mind Cody was watching and said ‘Forget the judge, I got this. There’s Higher Powers than the judge. We’ve got this under control,'" Tony NesSmith thought as he watched Round 8.
Lovell—not quite as even-tempered as his partner—dug deep, and found inspiration in the war he watched NesSmith fight against his cancer. He had a reminder of NesSmith with him in Arlington, too—the rope NesSmith used at the WSTR Finale, as well as a patch with NesSmith's brand on his shirt.
"Cody changed my life, and he made me try hard," Lovell said. "The stuff he’s been through and what I’ve seen, there’s no sense in me ever weakening," Lovell said. "I just kept pushing kept pushing, kept pushing. Honestly, I never lost faith in having a chance. When I missed in the seventh round, I thought I’d let us down. After last night, literally I didn’t even know."
They split Round 9 with Chad Masters and Wesley Thorp and won another $23,480.77 each.
They led in the world standings coming into the 10th round and got to rope last. In a round with plenty of teams gunning for the day money, they watched as the teams in the hunt for the title—Erich Rogers and Paden Bray (the eventual average champs) and Nelson Wyatt and Levi Lord—made safe, solid runs to hold their spots in the average. But Luke Brown and Joseph Harrison—the week-long favorites to win the world—got a leg, and opened the door for Lovell and Eaves. At first in the world going into Round 10, Lovell and Eaves got to rope last.
"We had to win the round," Lovell said. "Everything started going, and I knew our steer came left. I took up my rope, and I used a smaller loop tonight and relied on my horse getting close and Paul."
"I knew the steer was slow, and I wanted to give him a little bit of a chance, but I knew if I give him too much breathing room, you can mess yourself up and not be in a good spot," Eaves, 30, of Lonedell, Missouri, said. "So I wanted to get the start I wanted, and I didn’t know if he was out, but he roped him fast and he was rolling left. And my mare read me just a little bit. And she knew what was coming so I had to make up for it a little bit. But it really felt good. Luckily for that steer, he was better than a lot of other ones you could have had."
The crowd in Globe Life Field—sold to the COVID-19-allowable capacity—exploded, and Lovell's and Eaves' reactions were one for the highlight reels.
"When I faced I couldn’t tell," Lovell said. "And I turned around and looked up, and when it said 4.4 I about fell off my horse."
Brown and Harrison were the first to congratulate Lovell and Eaves in the arena, and Lovell quickly rode out the back and text Tony NesSmith.
"Cody's family and his mom and dad are here tonight," Lovell said. "That was the first thing. I texted his dad and said, ‘He was right.’ With the ups and downs, I wasn’t even planning on rodeoing. Stuff came together, and he literally called it shot for shot. He said everything that happened. When I flew home to him, him and his family, I got to be with them. He told them, he made his mom and dad promise to be here. And they were here tonight."
Lovell finished the year with $187,835 to Reserve Champ Brown's $187,382, while Eaves earned $178,485 to Bray's $175,503. (Editor's note: That's real money, not points, as the PRCA announced before the rodeo that the Finals would pay the $10 million it does in Las Vegas this year despite COVID-19's dampening of the rodeo season.) Lovell and Eaves finished 11th in the average with a time of 55.3 seconds on six head, not winning a dime in the average payout—a feat nobody in recent world title memory has accomplished.
"There were a lot of tears shed tonight," Tony said. "We knew he won the round, but we didn't know he won the world. People at home had seen it on TV, and they were blowing up our phones. When we finally found out he won the world, tears were flowing like a river. There was excitement, joy, sadness. All of the above. We owe so much to Colby Lovell. He gave Cody so much in his last year."
Lovell won the title on Bartender, the same horse he'd lent out to NesSmith for the #14.5 Finale last year and the same horse he won the $25,000 windfall aboard at RFD-TV's The American with Jared Fillmore in March. Lovell actually sold the horse a few years ago, but got him back in the nick of time.
"The first rodeo I rode him back was the night I met Cody’s dad," Lovell said. "I promise. I got him back the day before, and I went to the rodeo in Louisiana. Cody’s dad stepped over the fence and came back there and introduced himself and told me about Cody.
"You know, Bartender is A LOT of horse. He is A LOT of horse. And he wants to go. Victory laps the last two nights, he literally ran off with me. And he’ll move in the box a little bit, and do some stuff. But in December when Cody got on him, even in the practice pen, I mean, just watching Bartender’s expression—he literally—I could watch him and I knew that that horse knew."
Eaves started the week on Ted, a roan gelding owned by Jake Smith. But when things went awry in Round 1, Eaves opted for a mare he owns with whom he's got a love-hate relationship, registered as Docs Gunslinger Chic.
"Me and that mare’s had some ups and downs this year," Eaves said of the 9-year-old he calls Jade. And just kind of finally, at the roping in Oklahoma that me and Colby won, a few days before that, we kind of got on the same page. It’s just gotten better ever since. The biggest thing is that she’s fast, she’s big, athletic, strong, but she didn’t give it to me every time. It’s like she would give me about 80% half the time. Everybody that’d watch, our buddies Kollin (VonAhn), whoever, they’d be like ‘She looks great! I don’t know what more you’d want?’ And I’d just say it’s just not right. So the next round I did some stuff, and the next night it got better and it just kept getting better."
For Eaves, this win solidified his spot among the great heelers of the generation. Truth be told, Eaves was the odd-man-out in a partner split after his 2018 gold buckle, when Smith decided to rope with Jake Long for the winter rodeos. Eaves again was left without a run when Cody Snow had the chance to head for Nogueira this spring.
And the way in which Eaves won world title number two is reminiscent Bobby Hurley and Allen Bach in 1993, when they won the last five rounds to get Hurley the title.
"In 2018, we missed the first one and then we just kind of picked away at them and won good all through the rounds," Eaves, who roped at his ninth NFR, said. "And this time, it was just big expectations at first, and then we didn’t do good for a little bit there, but then you don’t want to say you don’t have a chance, but, like Colby said, you’re just going to do the best you can do...After the eighth round I thought if we could win the last two I think we’ll have a chance is what I thought. You know how that is. I’ve thought that a million times and been wrong, too."
For Lovell, he thinks this first gold buckle in his seventh trip to the NFR finally means he's growing up.
"I just, the last time I was in the 10th round, the maturity level as a team roper and me, it wasn’t all there," Lovell said. "And that’s why I felt like I went home. It just wasn’t all there. This, from day one, this has been the goal. And I never thought of it like that before. Literally, that’s all I’ve thought about. Tonight, when I roped, that steer went left, I knew, I just told myself I usually would reach but I said I’m a get a little loop, and I’m going right to him and let Bartender run and let him do everything and Paul throw fast and if it’s fast enough it’s fast enough."
For the NesSmiths, who brought Cody's buckle to Round 10 just for good luck, Lovell and Eaves' win was the completion of their son's dream.
"This is a highlight of our life," Tony said. "It would have been a lot better if Cody'd have been here. But he had a lot better seat than we did I’m sure." TRJ
Full Round 10 Results:
Kolton Schmidt and Hunter Koch: NT
Brenten Hall and Chase Tryan: NT
Jeff Flenniken and Tyler Worley: 6.5
Charly Crawford and Logan Medlin: 4.7
Erich Rogers and Paden Bray: 5.6
Levi Simpson and Shay Carroll: 4.4 + 10
Nelson Wyatt and Levi Lord: 5.2
Chad Masters and Wesley Thorp: 11.2
Cody Snow and Junior Nogueira: NT
Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins: 4.8
Clay Tryan and Jake Long: NT
Clay Smith and Jade Corkill: NT
Dustin Egusquiza and Travis Graves: NT
Luke Brown and Joseph Harrison: 5.6 + 5
Colby Lovell and Paul Eaves: 4.4