Before the Big Time
Trevor Brazile, Travis Graves, Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill talk about the early years of their careers.

Not many ProRodeo rookies pull a Roy Cooper or a Tee Woolman and win the world their first year out there. If you want to talk about tough, try making a living with a rope as the tool of your trade. The cost of horses, trucks, trailers and fuel keeps climbing, and the competitive bar is raised on the cowboy knife fight every year. It’s easy to forget that superstars like Trevor Brazile—the winningest cowboy of all time—his heeler and perennial gold buckle contender Travis Graves, and defending Champs of the World Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill had to climb the cowboy learning curve just like everybody else. But the lessons they learned in those first few lean years are gold.

Credit: All Photos by Hubbell Rodeo Photos

Trevor joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1996. He qualified for his first National Finals Steer Roping in 1997, and his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 1998. In case it’s slipped your mind, Trevor heeled at his first Finals behind NFSR regular J.P. Wickett. Trevor made his first Cowboy Super Bowl in the tie-down roping in his fourth year after going pro, in 1999.

“I was so green when I first showed up,” Trevor said. “I picked up the (ProRodeo) Sports News and looked for rodeos that had all three of my events. I’d enter a rodeo, then see if I had enough money to get to the next one. I had no idea. ProRodeo is a whole different monster than high school and college rodeo, where there are 12 rodeos, everybody shows up and the best guys win. It’s not that simple in professional rodeo.

“Everybody has a different strategy in ProRodeo. It might be just going to the big-money rodeos, staying mostly in one region or even going where the top guys are not. Everybody has a different game plan when they approach professional rodeo. I went out there with zero clue. I was the guy who didn’t have a game plan. I just wanted to go to the rodeos and win. I was a learn-as-I-go kind of guy.”

He’s not kidding. Before heading and heeling became separate events in 1995, Trevor would head one week and heel the next. This was the kid who went on to win an unparalleled, 19-strong gold buckle collection: 11 world all-around championships dated 2002-04 and 2006-2013; four world steer roping championships in 2006-07, ’11 and ’13; three world tie-down roping titles in 2007, ’09 and ’10; and the 2010 world team roping title he won with Patrick Smith. And he’s not done yet.

“Just doing my job had been enough in the past,” Trevor continued. “But when I got to the highest level, I tried too hard. I knew I could do it, but I tried to be the star everywhere I went. That doesn’t work at rodeos like Cheyenne, Casper and Sheridan. I was trying to be so fast on everything instead of doing what I did to win at every other level, which is to go make good runs. If you’re good enough you’re going to get paid. I threw my fundamentals out the window trying to prove I was good enough to be there right off the bat. Big mistake.”

There are always guys out there faced with the fork in the road—gut it out and stay hooked on the dream, or go home, regroup (and maybe even find another line of work). Even Trevor faced that crossroad.

“Had I not been able to go to the Timed Event (Championship of the World, which this month celebrates its 30th anniversary at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla.) at 18 and not won $25,000 there, I don’t know if I’d have been able to stay out there long enough to hit the groove as a rodeo cowboy,” Trevor said. “I worked my whole life to save money and try to get a better horse. Back then, I made all my money off of horses, not rodeoing. I sold 50 or 60 junior rodeo saddles to get my first living quarters trailer. There were no sponsors for me at that time. Sponsors were for the guys who’d earned them, not for me. I was in no position to ask.”

Trevor was not surprised that he didn’t pull a Roy or a Tee his rookie year. “I didn’t think I would ever win the world in anything, honestly,” he said. “Roy, Joe (Beaver), Fred (Whitfield) and Cody (Ohl) were the guys I looked up to, and Cody was in the age group above me growing up. He was that guy. I thought that the world championships were for those guys—that stereotype—guys over 6 foot with a 180-pound frame. That’s just the way it was, and I was so much smaller.

“I always said that if I could make a living with a rope and a horse, then I’d have made it. At the end of the year, my goal was to put more money in the bank than the guy who won the world championship, whether it was from jackpots, training and selling horses or rodeoing smarter. I just wanted to net the most money. I wanted to be good enough to be able to do it with a rope—as my job. I always had a string of young horses. I’d keep one or two out of the ones I trained that year and sell the rest.”

OK, Cowboy King, hit us with your best advice from lessons you’ve learned: “Confidence and a short memory are a couple of keys out here. I see so many talented guys whose attitudes cripple them from going on. Everybody wants the spoils, but not many want to make the sacrifices. You have to bring it with all you have. I worked at it that way then, and still do today. The difference between talented guys who make it and talented guys who don’t is the million-dollar question. I always knew my horses had to be better than anybody else’s, especially in the tie-down roping, because I wasn’t as big and strong. You just have to be real with yourself and you have to put in the work. I spent time with horse trainers. I loped horses at AQHA horse shows to learn from those guys. You can’t pay for that. You have to put in the man hours to really learn it. And it doesn’t happen overnight. None of this happens overnight.”

Trevor and Travis kick-started their new partnership with the win at January’s National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. Graves just roped at his fifth Finals, and these days is a constant in the world championship race conversation. But he was a PRCA rookie in 2003, and didn’t make The Show until 2008.

“I wasn’t all-in,” Graves says of his pre-NFR efforts. “I didn’t do everything I should have. I didn’t rodeo all year in those early years. I’d go in the winter, then run out of money and go home if I didn’t win enough. It takes some time to figure out how to win. And you have to have a short memory. When you’re young, stuff bothers you. You need to learn from your mistakes and go on.

“You have to have confidence, and it’s easy to lose it when you aren’t winning. You forget that it’s a yearlong contest and you give up. That was me. They beat me down and I never got up again. It took me that long to learn to stay up, fix the problem and go on. You lose more than you win, I promise you. I’m not saying when you go out there and miss you need to smile. It needs to bother you. But you need to learn from it, get over it and go on, because it’s over and you can’t get it back.”

The way Travis sees it: “If you’re good enough, you make it, just like every other professional sport. I’ve always had the goal of doing this—making the National Finals and being a world champion. That’s what I know and what I want to do. A lot of people probably would have quit, but I knew I could do it. I stayed with it and everything turned around when I started roping with Turtle (Powell). He’s the guy who got me there. He was older and knew how to make it. We worked at it, and he had confidence in me. He gave me that first opportunity. He saw that I could rope, and gave me the chance.”

Clay joined the PRCA in 1998, and made his first Finals in 2001. “I went to circuit rodeos in Montana that first year,” he said. “I did go to Denver with my dad (NFR heeler Dennis), and we placed in the average, which let us go to Houston back then. I roped with Nick Sarchett until July that next year (1999), then roped with Clay Cooper for a couple months starting in August. I think I finished 20th or 21st that year. I didn’t rope very good for Clay. I remember being a kid and not knowing anything compared to what I know now. I was just so green.

“It almost made me want to quit and never rodeo again. I think I went to 108 rodeos that year, and rode a bay horse I had at 100 of them. I rode a good horse into the ground, and by the end of the year he could hardly walk. I hauled him everywhere. I knew then it was stupid, but I did it anyway. I went to so many rodeos that I ruined my horse and I didn’t make the NFR. I had a good head horse when the year started and blew through him.”

In his third rodeo season, 2000, Tryan went to the winter rodeos with South Dakota’s Brian Meredith. “We went to seven or eight rodeos and didn’t do any good,” Clay remembers. “I was broke, so went back to Montana to practice, circuit rodeo and get better. I knew I was going to make it that next year (2001). Going home that summer before and working at my roping, Travis (Clay’s brother) and I riding (head horse legend) Walt and roping with Caleb (Twisselman)—by then I was good enough, had everything lined out and expected to be there. I didn’t expect to make it right at the beginning.”

As for roping with Clay Cooper as a teenager, “I wasn’t ready for it,” Clay Tryan said. “He was a legend and seven-time world champion. I was a kid no one had ever heard of from Montana. I did learn things being 19 and roping with the best who’d ever lived, though. Clay was really quiet, but so organized and professional. I’d never seen that side of it before. He had good horses, we practiced hard and I got to see how he did it firsthand.

“I’ve been a slow learner in a way. I’ve gotten so much better, but it’s taken time. It seems like yesterday I made my first NFR, and all of a sudden it was 13 years ago. It’s crazy how fast it goes. There were days I wondered if I’d make it, but when you’re younger you want to accomplish your goal. Taking that year off and going to circuit and amateur rodeos and jackpots, after that I didn’t have any doubt I’d make it. That was a very worthwhile sacrifice. We also learned to take better care of Walt than I had that other bay horse. We didn’t drive Walt every mile we went.”

Clay Tryan’s bottom line? “The guys who are good enough make it. The guys who aren’t don’t. The best guys find a way to be there. The level of competition is at an all-time high, and it’s going to get tougher ’til the end of time. It’s been that way all along. That’s just how every sport evolves.”

Jade is the only one of these four to be named PRCA Rookie of the Year his freshman rodeo season, in his case 2006. But he, too, needed time to learn to navigate ProRodeo waters. Jade made his first Finals in 2008.

“When I showed up at Matt Tyler’s house the winter of 2006, $38,000 had made the Finals the year before,” Jade said. “In my head, all I could think about was getting to $38,000. I looked at the standings every Monday, and I wanted to be 15th more than anything. I didn’t realize then how fast it can all change. I just thought, ‘I’ve got Matt Tyler. Surely I can make it.’ Looking back, I think I roped on defense back then. I don’t do that now.“If I’d shown up at Guymon in May not in the top 50 my rookie year it would have been heartbreak city and I’d have thought I had zero chance to make the Finals. In 2013 when I showed up at Guymon not in the top 50 it didn’t affect how I roped. I still roped like I was in the top 15. Experience teaches you that. When I first started rodeoing I thought you had to keep up with the standings at all times, so every single Monday mattered to me. Now the standings only matter to me one day of the year, and that’s December 15. A lot of young guys rope for what the standings say instead of just roping their game.”

Jade says he had to learn not to panic if he didn’t have a good winter. “Al Bach put it into the best perspective for me,” he said. “The four seasons in rodeo are just like four quarters in a basketball game. Michael Jordan didn’t have four perfect quarters, but by the time all four quarters were said and done he had the most points and was the best player. I rope now like I’m going to make it, and stay on more of an even keel. I also know they can have it (the NFR) without me. That’s why I rope all day every day and spend all my spare time looking for horses. I never take making the Finals for granted.”

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