Three-time World Champion Heeler Jade Corkill spent most of 2018 in a self-imposed sabbatical from the sport of team roping. He and his 2013-2014 gold-buckle partner Clay Tryan had called it quits earlier that spring, and Corkill knew he had some serious work to do.
Fast forward to June 2019, with Corkill already having a cool $25,095 in the bank and at least another $40,000 in jackpot winnings on the year. He's ready to crack out on the rodeo road come Reno with new partner and reigning World Champ Clay Smith, a new horse in Travis Graves' former mount Huey and a fresh outlook on his roping that's got him poised to make a run at his 10th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualification and maybe even a fourth world title.
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"Last year, I got to the point where I was messing up more than I should," Corkill said. "The jackpots weren’t going good. The rodeos weren’t going good. There were a number of things I couldn’t get together. I wasn’t burnt out, but I didn’t know what I needed to do. I was tired of trying to think of it. It wasn’t fair to my partner. What I felt like, and what I was thinking, was just not knowing. It’s not like I wasn’t trying. I literally could not come up with what I needed to do to figure out what was going on. I didn’t want anything to come between our friendship. I didn’t want it to get to that point. I knew it would be more bad than good if I rodeoed last summer. If I had tried to go, I would have probably quit for real. The minute I decided that I was staying home and told Clay, it was a weird relief feeling. It was almost like I had plenty of time to figure it out."
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Nobody believed Corkill was actually staying home. Calls came streaming in from top headers thinking that he was just shopping for a new run, just telling Tryan he wasn't going to rodeo until someone else came along. But Corkill was serious. He needed a break.
"It almost started going better as soon as I said I wasn't rodeoing. It felt like I didn't have to worry about somebody else or if it was going perfect. I got to practice with my mom and my sister a bunch, and my friend Chance Kretchmer. I have never been a guy who thinks I need to practice full-contact with my rodeo partner to get everything out of it. I get more out of going slower. I like roping with different headers, because my side is reaction anyway. If I’m roping with my rodeo partner only, I know what’s coming every time. I like headers doing whatever they’re doing and not worrying about me," Corkill said.
So Corkill roped around Stephenville with family friends, taking the "job" part out of the equation and finding time to watch his sons—Colby, 8, and Kelton, 5—play baseball.
At the same time, he was horse shopping a bit. His great horse Caveman had been sidelined by injury again, and he'd thrown his young horse, Chrome, to the fire a little early, so he needed some time to regroup. He'd had his eye on a sorrel gelding named Huey Travis Graves let him jump-ride in Redmond, Oregon, in 2017. But TG wasn't ready to let the horse go.
"I tried to buy him then, but I think he didn't want to not get along with him because he knew he was a good horse," Corkill said. "He went back and forth a couple times, and last summer TG called and said he's sell him. I told him I wanted to try him. Then he called and something had happened and he didn't want to sell him again. So then he called after Caldwell, and said he's sell him again. I bought him over the phone then."
Corkill, who has owned some of the greatest heel horses of all time in Jackyl, Ice Cube, Caveman and Switchblade, knew he at least wouldn't hate the horse. But he didn't realize how much the horse—who's registered as JLC Royal American—would change his game.
"I didn't change anything about him," Corkill said. "I just went to roping on him and he's made me completely better... The horse is what showed me what it was I was missing."
Huey, a 2009 son of Royal Always (by First Down Dash and out of a Beduino mare) out of a Shining Spark-bred mare, came to Graves as a 6-year-old via Oklahoma's Gary Hughes, and John Louis Chamberlain raised him.
"He fits me almost like Ice Cube did," Corkill said, referring to his great gelding on whom he set the 3.3-second NFR and world record with Chad Masters in 2009. "He can really run and really drag his butt, and he just doesn't do anything wrong."
Huey wasn't just good. He opened the struggling heeler's eyes to what was wrong with his roping.
"That horse showed me what I was missing. My position was so terrible it’s a wonder I was able to catch anything at all. I’ve roped enough steers and won enough roping that you wouldn’t think I’d be as unconfident as I was. I was so worried about catching the steer that I was literally not even riding my horse."
He started to watch his videos, comparing runs from 2018 to 2009, and he didn't like what he saw in the modern-day runs.
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"I leave the box heading to the steer, and my horse starts slowing down to not run right into the back of the steer, then we have nowhere to go. My horse has to lose momentum to not T-bone the steer. It was a complete train wreck. I was making it hard and having it set up to where I had one shot, and if that one shot didn’t work out exactly how it needed to, it was bad. I didn’t know the person I was watching in the older tapes. I was calm. I didn’t have a worry in the world about catching up to the steer and the steer would turn, and I’d be where I needed to be and I’d heel on the first jump."
So in the practice pen, somewhere between Little League Baseball games and jackpots and a few circuit rodeos, Corkill roped with his mom Mitzi and sister Bailey—his two most honest and consistent coaches—and figured it out all over again.
"No matter what, I have to wait for the steer to turn. I can’t do anything until they turn the steer. I can’t pay attention to the header and get sucked into heading to the steer before it’s time. It feels like rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time. You have to disengage and do that or you’re toast because if it does happen fast I have to have my forward momentum and keep going. I need to not teeter totter in the turn and be going back when the steer’s going forward and be left in the dust. I’m just realizing that what I’m doing is good enough. I can relax a little bit and still be fast enough."
Clay, Part 2
While Corkill was home working a few things out in his head, one man—Clay Smith—was dominating the heading in 2018. Reigning World Champion Smith, who was still rodeoing with his little brother Jake on his permit when Corkill won his first gold buckle in 2012, had always wanted to rope with Corkill. He even named his son Jade, carrying on the Smith Family tradition of naming their children after great ropers.
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Smith and Jake Long dominated the rodeos and jackpots all winter, winning enough to have an NFR berth nearly clinched by early May, but when Smith heard Corkill was going to rodeo in 2019, he jumped at the chance to spin steers for Corkill.
"If the guy who is the current champ of the world wants to rope with you, I guess you better," Corkill said. "It was a big confidence boost for me. I was excited about roping again, and I was looking forward to roping with Colby Lovell because I think he's one of the best guys going. When Clay called me, it felt like when Clay Tryan called me for the first time to rope. I felt like my roping was going the other way, like I was on my way out. So I didn't think he'd ever call me to rope."
By the time Smith asked Corkill to rope, Corkill had already promised Luke Brown he'd fill in for Paul Eaves in California while Eaves was at home for the birth of his second child. Corkill was flawless for Brown, and they won over $40,000 on the California run between the rodeos and jackpots.
Then, a day after their partner change became public knowledge, Smith and Corkill won $25,000 at the Robertson Hill Open Showdown—marking what Corkill sees as a new era in his roping career.
"This is my first shift in the changing of the times and I don’t want to get left behind. It is different now—when I first started, you’d make the best run you can on the first one and build from there. Now you have to go as fast as you can on the first one. If you’re an 8 on the first one, that’s like having a leg. You have to get caught back up and then you start making mistakes. Now I try to build it backward—go as fast as I can and just maybe I can ease off at the end of the roping. Now high team has to be faster than they’ve been all day. To me you don’t have any control because you’ve roped the best roping and then you have to go for the day money like you’re out of the roping. It’s a hard balance."
If anyone is excited Corkill's heading back on the road, it's his boys.
"They didn't like not going to the NFR last year," Corkill said. "The family is going to go when they can, and both sides want to spend time with the boys. That's more important to me than myself, them getting to spend time with their grandparents and great grandparents. That's what it's all about." TRJ