The rodeo road comes complete with plenty of potholes. It’s just part of it—even for the big dogs, including Brazilian roping sensation Junior Nogueira.
The 2016 world champion all-around cowboy will next month ride into Cowboy Town for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo the leader of the heeling pack for the third straight year. Junior and Kaleb Driggers have been constant contenders since they joined forces, and when it comes to their world championship chances, the consensus is that it’s really not “if,” but “when.”
Before his trademark “Pullback for Jesus,” Junior can pull off shots most of us need to watch back in slow motion to break down and believe. But nobody gets a free roll or smooth sailing at all times in this business—not even the very best in the business. They bite the dust and need to navigate bumps in the road, too—yes, even Junior.
Take Round 9 at the 2017 NFR, when Kaleb and Junior tied the 3.3-second NFR and world team roping record that was first set by Chad Masters and Jade Corkill at the 2009 NFR, and was later matched by Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes in 2012 at the rodeo in Nacogdoches, Texas. Kaleb and Junior got the flag on the run of their lives. Then Junior fell off. Say what?!
“By that point in the week, we had to go for the go-round,” said Junior, who this year is roping at his fifth-straight NFR. “We had a good steer. Junior Dees (and Tyler McKnight), and Luke Brown (and Jake Long) had both been 3.9 on him earlier in the week.
“It happened so fast. It was crazy. I pulled back and undallied. The clock was still ticking, and running in the 2’s when I looked up. I should not have looked at the clock. Because when it stopped at 3.3, I got too excited, and went crazy. Green Card swung his butt under my legs and spun around.
“I was happy and starting to celebrate, and next thing I know I’m looking up at the roof of the Thomas & Mack. I was embarrassed, but I was so happy. I had watched Chad and Jade be 3.3 over and over before I even came to America. So I made the best run of my life, then I fell off. But at least I landed on my feet. I just laughed about it.”
Then there was the time three years ago, when Junior went down on the grass in the first round at the 2015 Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up. He was heeling for Oklahoma’s Jake Smith, who usually heels, too, because Jake Barnes—who was heading for Junior at the time—wanted no part of it.
“Jake (Smith) asked me what I wanted him to do, and I told him, ‘I don’t care—go ahead and reach, if you feel like it, and we’ll try to win the day money,’” said Junior, who was riding Raider, who belonged to Cole Davison at that time, who originally came from Patrick Smith, and is now owned by Kory Koontz.
“We were going down that hill so fast, and I was a little bit late. Jake reached, and stuck it on him. That horse started sliding around the corner, I heeled the steer, and held my slack, because I didn’t want to slip a leg. That horse kept sliding. When it was time to go to the saddle horn, he just lost his butt and went down. We were both all good, thank God, and nobody got hurt.”
Anyone who’s ridden forever has at one time or another fallen off and/or missed. Junior laughed it off, so the rest of us might as well do the same.
“Things happen to everyone, and even more with me, because I’m so emotional,” he said. “I use my emotion to rope. I think unexpected things are more likely to happen to me, because my heart is out there. I’m more aggressive, and I don’t think as much. But things happen to everybody.
“We all need to try not to get too high or too low out here. I learned that from Jake (Barnes). Keeping it in the middle is hard for me, because I am so emotional. But I’m working on it. Perspective helps. Team roping is what I love to do. We have to work hard to win, but it’s not everything.
“God and our families come first, and roping comes after. We need to remember that. Even when we work hard, we sometimes still get beat. But team roping is not our whole life. We got a gift to do something special. So falling off or falling down is not the end of the world. People laughed when I fell off my horse at the Finals. That’s not such a bad thing. I’ve learned to just laugh about it.”
As for all the buzz and expectations that go into the Finals with that world-standings lead, “This is my third year (in a row) to have the lead, so all the talk and pressure don’t bother me anymore,” Junior said. “I’m just thankful. Sometimes people come from the bottom and win it.
“It’s a blessing to end up #1 at the end of the regular season. We get a $7,500 bonus and a buckle. Anything can happen at the NFR. Everyone knows our goal is to win a gold buckle. At the right time, God will give it to us. We just need to enjoy our gift, and not worry about it.”