This will be my 26th NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo), and it seems like just yesterday that I was a rookie roping with Al Bach and headed to my first NFR in Oklahoma City—34 years ago in 1980. I’ve seen so many changes, from the conditions changing from Oklahoma to Las Vegas, when the Finals moved in 1985. The styles of roping have changed, the equipment, ropes, cattle, money we rope for and ropers themselves have all changed. Through it all I’ve had to make a lot of changes. I’ve had good NFRs and I’ve had not so good NFRs. I even lost my thumb at the NFR. This year’s going to be a unique year for me, because I’m roping with a rookie. I’m the veteran, I’m roping with Junior (Nogueira), who’s a rookie from Brazil, and we’re going to go to Las Vegas to try and make our mark. The goal I’ve always set going into the Finals is to win a world championship, and I’m optimistic about having a chance. I’ve always strived to be the world champion. This year’s benchmark was trying to get our team to the NFR, but now that we got that done it’s about the gold buckles.
I’m told we’re going to rope big cattle with big horns again this year. I like roping at the NFR, so I don’t really care what size cattle we rope. I just want an opportunity, and I punched my ticket for that opportunity. So I’m just excited about competing there, no matter what kind of cattle we rope.
Another thing that was hard for our team this year was when Junior got his permit, he filled it at the Denver qualifier back in January. He paid for his card the very next day, but there was $10,000 he won on his permit that didn’t count toward the world standings during the time his card was being processed. That was another obstacle for us. Junior should have made the Finals a lot easier and earlier than he did. But those are the rules, and that’s just how it went.
People ask all the time what it’s like roping at the NFR. I would say it’s the most stressful time of the whole year. There are so many responsibilities there in Vegas, like autograph sessions for our sponsors at the trade shows during the day, and that’s after intense training at home to prepare for it and not having been anywhere to compete in awhile. By the time we get there, we’re just ready to get it on.
I don’t like the smoke in the casinos or the traffic in Vegas, but all that money is exciting. I like getting to rope the steers in the Thomas & Mack before it starts. It’s nothing like when the big lights go on and those stands fill up, but it gives you a feel for the setup and lets your horses get acclimated to that small arena.
You only get the feel for the real deal on your first opening night. That place is packed with true rodeo fans. They aren’t just locals who go once a year to take their kids to watch the rodeo and eat cotton candy. NFR fans know what’s going on. It’s not their first rodeo, and that’s what makes the NFR—the best cowboys, the best stock and that crowd of people. The NFR is the ultimate, and we’re treated like stars there in Vegas. It’s pretty cool when we all line up to get our back numbers and NFR jackets a couple nights before it starts. That never gets old.