Because I live in the boonies, it's typical for me to rise and shine at 3 a.m. to head for the airport in the dark and catch an early morning flight. Each fall, I also fly out of Omaha-home of the ProRodeo Tour's Justin Boots Championships-before the sun comes up on Sunday morning to head back home to California's Central Coast. The semifinals and finals are Saturday night, and this year Omaha was the last major rodeo of the regular season, with the lone exception of the Heartland ProRodeo Series Championships in Waco in October.
Every year, there's a large contingent of yawning cowboys in that Omaha airport when I get there Sunday morning. As we step out of our boots in the security line, their morning moods tell the story of the night before. I boarded a West-bound plane this year with four cowboys facing that day with various sets of circumstances. Sunday was to be a bonus for Luke Branquinho and Blaine Linaweaver, who fared well at Omaha and were "in." It was down to do-or-die for Clay Tryan, and Cory Petska was there to help on the heeling side.
Defending World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke was all smiles when he strolled in holding wife Lindsay's hand and was then promptly seated in the first-class cabin. Those are the days when life is especially good. He'd just won it all in Omaha for the second straight year and in dominating fashion to the tune of $31,731. He shot up the world standings ladder, second only to Canadian Lee Graves heading into NFR '09.
Sitting directly behind me on that same plane, and also bubbling from his weekend's work, was Blaine. He entered Omaha a classic bubble boy in the 19th hole among headers, and made the move that ended a three-year absence at the Finals. After roping at rodeo's Super Bowl with Jory Levy in 2001-the year they became the first team ever to rope a steer in 3.5 seconds at San Angelo, Texas-then heading at The Show for B.J. Campbell in both 2004 and 2005, Blaine got a little closer view of the outside of the Thomas & Mack Center than he ever wanted. It's been an interesting year for the Leavenworth, Kan., native, who plans to carry the Kansas flag in the NFR grand entry and now makes his home in Irvine, Calif., with his wife, Michele. Blaine kicked off 2009 with Richard Durham, and roped with him until the end of August. The lion's share of the difference in their earnings along the way was the fat Houston haul Durham scored with Kelsey Parchman. Blaine then roped with two-time NFR tie-down roper Clint Robinson at five rodeos this fall. "We did good together," explained Blaine, who also headed for Monty Joe Petska at a few rodeos last spring when Durham took a break back home in Texas. "That guy can heel."
Blaine hooked up with Bobby Harris for the fall rodeos in Ellensburg and Walla Walla, Wash. "He roped good, but I broke a barrier and missed one," Blaine said. "Then I roped with Brandon Bates at Puyallup (Wash.), and we won the first round there. I roped with J.D. Yates at Pendleton (Ore.) and Albuquerque, then Brandon again at El Paso (Texas). I was just dancing around trying to find a partner."
When Omaha rolled around, he teamed up with Rich Skelton when Rich's regular partner, David Key, was one hole out of the original roster (David was later rolled up to fill the spot left open by an ineligible Kaleb Driggers; David and Kaleb's usual heeler, Brad Culpepper, went on to win Omaha).
"I got to Omaha, and figured off the top of my head that I needed to win right around $12,000 to get in (to the NFR)," Blaine said. "I was trying to take it one run at a time. Rich and I wound up winning just over $12,000 before the semifinals.
"We were the first team out in the first round. Rich and I had talked about just getting our first one down. We made a good run and won last hole in the round. Then we came back in the second round with a good steer. It was just one of those things where I got an amazing start and got it on him pretty fast. Rich just did what Rich Skelton does and roped two feet. We wound up winning the second round and the average (for $12,496). We thought that was enough to get me in. But I told Rich if we could win something in the semifinals and get to the final round, it was over and I was in."
After the 12-team field was cut to eight by virtue of the two-steer average, the slate was clean. And for winning the average, Blaine and Rich got to rope last in the semifinals. "The first three holes in the semis were tough (4.3, 5 flat and 5.1), but fourth was a leg (remember that stat; it'll come up again later). We were last to go, so I made sure to stay behind the barrier and give Rich an opportunity to catch. Just trying to catch was more nerve wracking than trying to be 4. When all you have to do is be under 10.2 and you make the Finals, it makes it hard not to clam up. But it doesn't get any better than that scenario if you really think about it. And if you don't do good with Rich Skelton, you didn't rope good and more than likely it's your fault."
I walked with David up to the post-perf cowboy autograph session, and we visited mostly about his sons. The one he just lost in June, Riley. The one who somehow manages to put a smile on his face every single day in spite of the hugest heartbreak possible for any parent, Kooper. And the one who'll join David and Josey's family early next year. When David sat down, Sharpie in hand, to bring joy to his many fans, I visited a minute with Blaine, who was winding down and whipped, but very content.
After finishing fourth in the semis, Blaine and Rich had to rope first in the four-team finals. Blaine grabbed a brisket, and Rich cleaned it up, but Blaine broke the barrier. This was a classic case of, "When it's your time, it's your time." David and Brad won the rodeo with a 5.6-second run, and Blaine and Rich were the only other team to catch. That translated into the reserve title, another fat check and the biggest haul of the 12 teams there with $24,194 a man.
"What a huge sense of relief," Blaine said. "All the hard work and dedication that I put into this finally paid off again. What's interesting is that it seemed like the last month of rodeoing-through all the trying to get here and there-I was calm through it all. I do this because, No. 1, I love it. I don't do it because I have to do it. Nobody's making me do it. I choose to do it. That makes it easier to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning.
"If you know you're going to give 150 percent and do all you can do, that has to be good enough. I had to come to grips with the fact that I might not ever make the Finals again. The old saying that you have to slow down to be fast works in your mind too. I needed to calm down and have fun again. I have a great wife at home. If I don't make the Finals it's not the end of the world. I have a great life."
He still had a grin on his face in the pre-dawn darkness that next morning. The first plane we got on was headed to Phoenix. He was then continuing on to John Wayne Airport in Orange County. His plans for the afternoon included two last rodeos of the regular season in Poway and San Bernardino, sans the pressure, courtesy of his and Rich's Omaha showing.
Michele met him at the airport. They then drove to Blaine's buddy Roger Koons' place in Riverside to run a few steers on his gray horse Blue (he rode his bay horse Pablo in Omaha). "I borrowed Roger's truck and trailer to go to Poway and San Bernardino," said Blaine, who again roped with Bates that day. "I missed at Poway, and Brandon roped a leg at San Bernardino." No sweat. He was already in. Blaine Linaweaver is back.
"I'm extremely pumped, but it's a different kind of pumped this time for some reason," he said. "I'm so excited and relieved. But it's a lot calmer pumped. I'm 34. I've been there before. I know what to expect. It's almost like, 'OK, I finally get to go play on the house's money for a while.'
"The plan at the Finals is to rope aggressive, and if I've got a good start at one, go fast. I haven't backed down these last few months. There's no sense backing down now. I'm not 100 percent sure, but the plan is to start on Blue. I live close enough and have enough friends that if I need Pablo, somebody will bring him to me." Blaine has buddies all over the map. His old amigo A.L. Summerlin from back home in Kansas has stuck with him win, lose or draw since 2001. That's cowboy friends for you.
Blaine will rope with Finals freshman Justin Davis. I don't really know Justin yet, but having known his grandparents, Cecil and Carol Nichol, all my life figure he's a good kid who rides a nice horse. "I'm excited about roping with him," Blaine said. "I like his style. He's roped with Spencer Mitchell his whole life and Spencer reaches, so he knows the play. He won't be in panic mode. He's mounted, he's talented and he ain't scared."
Back to that semifinals leg I mentioned earlier in Omaha, well, that particular five-second penalty belonged to Clay and Cory. They were 5.2 plus five, and it was cause for pucker at the airport that Sunday morning. Not that you could tell by Cory's sprawled out, snoozing self. Mr. Loose and Cool pulled his hood up over his eyes and caught a few winks while we waited for our plane. He had the Finals made, but you know how that goes-the pressure cooker gets even more intense when someone else's season's on the line. Didn't faze Cory.
I did finally have a chance to ask him how his parents are doing after that wreck awhile back that they somehow miraculously survived. I was happy to hear that Cory's NFR header dad Paul and World Champion Barrel Racer mom Gail are on the mend, thanks in large part to their NFR barrel racer daughter Tye's loving nursing care.
Clay was way too intense for a catnap. He sat with his rope bag in his lap, thinking only of the last two bullets left in the barrel of his NFR '09 rifle. Starting in 2001, Clay sailed through seven straight NFRs, the first two with Caleb Twisselman, then with Cory in 2003, Michael Jones in 2004, Patrick Smith in 2005-06 and Walt Woodard in 2007. There were so many fabulous feats along the way. Clay and Michael won the NFR average in 2004 after breaking the NFR record with a 3.7-second run. Then Clay and Patrick turned around and tied Blaine and Jory's 3.5-second world record, which was a new NFR record (Clay's brother Travis and Cory tied it in 2008) and won the world in 2005.
Clay had a great jackpot year in 2008, winning the BFI with Walt in June, and delivering a one-two punch at the U.S. Finals Preliminary Open with Cory and Kory Koontz in the fall. The next day, Clay and Kory won the U.S. Open. But when Clay came up just short (18th) of an eighth-straight NFR appearance in 2008-on the occasion of the 50th annual NFR, no less-it hurt.
"It was probably the best jackpot year I've ever had," Clay said. "But rodeo-wise, it was very disappointing. I didn't have any success at the tour rodeos, which is so key nowadays. I placed more than I think I ever had at rodeos percentage-wise, just no big checks. It was a weird year. It went so smoothly those first seven years I made the Finals. Then last year nothing went right for me.
"I'm over it, but it'll always bother me a little bit. When you put what I put into it and don't make it-after you've won a world championship, and you're only 29 years old and you have a good head horse-it's tough to take. It wasn't like I had things stacked against me. I was supposed to be in the prime of my career. That would bother anybody who's made it quite a bit. Once you've made it several years in a row, you know what it takes. The best guys make it every year. To not make it once was very disappointing."
A lot of people see Clay qualified for NFR '09 and think nothing of it, figuring he's supposed to be there. They have no clue what a cliffhanger it was, and that it came down to the very last steer of the regular season for him this year.
"2008 was a weird year, and I barely snapped out of it in 2009," Clay said. "Rodeo's changed. There's more money to be won at a few select rodeos. Guys can win $50,000 at one rodeo (Houston), so that's one spot at the NFR taken. Those big wins have a huge impact. They always have, but never more than now. There's no way to get to the lead in the world without big wins."
He says he placed along in 2009, but the pricey pops did not come. Clay started the year with Kory. "I felt like I roped pretty good in the winter, but we didn't win much, which happens," Clay said. "I started roping with Cory in the spring at Logandale (Nev.). I had a bad stretch, where I did not head good in the springtime. Then came summer, and I did not rope good over the Fourth either."
Part of the problem was that he was living through horse hell. Clay's black horse, Thumper, who's 17 now, can't be everywhere all the time. His gray horse, Sweets, broke his leg at the rodeo in Sisters, Ore., right before the Cowboy Christmas run. "I only had one horse, so started borrowing people's horses," said Clay, a Montana native who rodeos out of Lipan, Texas, where he lives with Bobbie and their boys, Tyler and Braylon. "I only rode Thumper at three rodeos over the Fourth, and I think we went to 10. Mel Potter was nice enough to let me borrow his bay horse for the rest of the summer. It's hard to get with a horse overnight, and jump on him as you head out for the Fourth."
Times are tough out there, and their 9.9-second total on two at Colorado Springs winning the last hole was a rather typical testament to that fact. Clay was encouraged when he had the chance to buy another good horse during Salinas (Calif.) in July. Then he died a month later after pulling back at the trailer. It was a freak deal. He damaged his spine, and died from it. "You can't rodeo on one head horse," he said. "You get split up too much, so you need another horse to ride. We all have to overcome things. But sometimes right in the middle of it, enough bad things happen one after another that you get sick of it. Losing another great horse was so disheartening. Those good ones are hard to find."
Fast forward to Omaha. Cory had the Finals cut cleared, but Clay was 16th going in. "I was just trying to win, and that rodeo paid a lot," he said. "I figured to make the Finals for sure I'd have to win about $5,000 or $6,000, so I was just going to try to win that, no matter how I had to do it."
They were 5.5 on their first steer for fifth place and $1,232 in the opening round. So far, so good, and Clay climbed to 15th in the world.
"By the time we went in the second round, we were guaranteed to make it to the semifinals, so I was thinking make a good run on this runner, place in the average and move on," he explained. "Another good run would get us there. I faced a little bit early, we got a slow flag and we were 6.7."
That was worth sixth in the second round for $880, and another $1,672 for splitting fourth in the average. But Clay was leap-frogged in the world standings by Blaine, when he and Rich won the second round and the average. Back to the heartbreak hole in 16th for Clay.
Then came Saturday night's semifinals in the Big O. "The semifinals is always the toughest round for some reason at the tour finales," Clay said. Their steer took off and ran, and Cory roped a leg. This was the all-important leg that came up earlier. It was a tough shot, and every once in awhile even Cory's human. This particular leg left them one spot out of placing in the semis, which would have done the NFR trick for Clay, and fifth in a finals field of four.
Clay headed for the parking lot with his calculator, and got on the phone for a road report from Albuquerque, where Driggers, then 15th, was taking his last shot. "I figured I needed $1,100 or $1,200 on Sunday to get in," Clay said. (On a side note, come to find out Waco wasn't going to be a factor in the NFR team roping qualification race, because the teams in contention were over their 70-rodeo limit and couldn't count it.)
Fast forward back to the pitch black pre-dawn at that airport in Omaha that Sunday morning. Clay's alarm went off at 4 a.m., and after the first leg to Phoenix, he and Cory were flying on to Ontario, where they rented a car and headed for Poway. Sherry (Potter) Cervi brought Mel's horse for Clay and one of Cory's horses from Arizona. The barrier rope gave him a pretty good jerk at Poway, and Clay missed. "I probably should have pulled up, but you never know for sure when things happen that fast," he said. "Then we took off for San Bernardino. Everybody had told us we could make both rodeos easily in the same day. They lied. It was not easy. My brother told me the night before that we needed to rent a car, and that we couldn't make it with horses. We sent our horses with Blaine, but we drove the car just to be sure we got there. We drove as fast as the traffic would let us go the whole way. The horses ended up getting there, because they started the rodeo a little late to wait for guys in other events coming from Poway."
Tick tock. One bullet left.
"Just like any other rodeo, we went to see how fast we needed to be to win what we needed to win," Clay said. "I called around to ask about the steer I had drawn, and he was a pretty good one. The score was pretty long. We made a good run. It was pretty crazy.
"This is a story I'll tell my kids one day-I made the NFR on the last steer of the year. We were 5 flat and won the rodeo. We won $1,857, and I'm not going to lie, I was pretty excited. This was new territory for me. The first seven times I made the Finals it was never anything like that. I'd seen guys have to go through it. It was pretty exciting to make it on the last steer."
Clay was amazed by the crowd of well-wishers who called and texted. "I've never had anybody tell me congratulations for making the NFR since the first time," he said. "It's kind of cool to see the amount of people who actually follow what we do and care. Rodeo's a big deal in Montana. People follow you and keep up with what you do.
"The fact that I was able to sleep Saturday night goes back to not making it last year. What's the worst thing that can happen? Not make it? I'd already survived that once. And it wasn't the end of the world. I didn't want that pressure to ruin my life. Rodeo is an up-and-down life. Nobody wins all the time, not even Speed and Rich or Chad and Jade. You can't let yourself get too high or too low, or you won't make it. Everybody asked me if I was nervous. No. I was mad at myself that two years in a row I let it come down to the last steer of the year. I've done this long enough that it doesn't bother me anymore."
In the final analysis, Clay edged PRCA Rookie of the Year Driggers by $857 for the 15th hole. Missing the Finals last year taught Clay some profound lessons that will help him in the long run. "One good thing about not making the Finals is that losing doesn't carry over as much as it used to. I'll never forget about it career-wise, but I'm over it. It doesn't end your life when you don't make the Finals. I have a wife and two kids. In 10 years, I'll probably be done anyway. There will be no NFR for me. Sometimes disappointments are what drive you, so you don't let it happen again.
"When NFL coaches take their teams to the Super Bowl, they say they remember the losses more than the games they won. The feeling you get when you lose sticks with you. I don't like losing. But I was almost panicked by it before. I still get mad when I lose, but in a different way. It's not the end of the world. When you're in it you can't see out of it. The last 10 years went pretty fast. Maybe I have 10 years left in me, so I might as well enjoy them.
"If you do this long enough and you're a competitive person, how do you replace this? What else do you do in life? The only way to get your competitive fix is to go compete against the best people. It's like anybody who loves what they do. You start roping because you love to do it."
At 30, you're smarter than you were at 20, but you haven't yet lost a step physically. After sitting out last year, Clay can't wait to take his show back on the road to Vegas. "It feels like it's been a long time since I've been there," he said. "I know what to expect as far as the roping part. I'm working hard to get ready for it. I'm going there to try to win the most money, because that's who did the best, no matter how you did it.
"You have to be smart. The only way you win a bunch is to do good in the average. No one wins the most money at the Finals only in the rounds. I'll start the week with the shot where I know I can catch nine out of 10. It's not the 3.5 run. You have to see how the week plays out. Your next move depends on the steers and the situations. You have to practice everything, so you're ready for whatever comes up when you get there."
Thumper will, of course, get the call. "He excels in that building, mostly because he's easy to throw pretty fast on in that setup," Clay said. "He runs flat, and doesn't get too quick over the 10 days. He always pulls good, which keeps the steers' feet together. With that solid wall, a lot of head horses don't want to pull, which causes their heelers to rope a
lot of legs."
Travis' great horse Walt will be there, too. On the eve of opening night, Travis will pick up Walt's fourth bronze for American Quarter Horse Association/Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Head Horse of the Year at the December 2 PRCA Awards Banquet. Walt's 19 now, and overcame summertime colic surgery to get here. Walt has been so tough and so great for so long. Remember, both Tryan brothers rode him at their first Finals in 2001.
"Walt's possibly the greatest head horse that's ever been," Clay said. "Not taking anything away from the other great horses, but he scores and runs and faces great, and he's done it for nine years. I've never seen another one do it so great for so long. The competition's tougher than it's ever been, and this horse gives Travis a chance to win every time he rides him. He's just a special horse to last this long. He overcame ringbone and now colic surgery. And none of it's slowed him down. He's an amazing horse. He's 19 years old and he's still running hard and going strong. It's a testament to my brother and how he's taken care of him over the years. The guys who ride the horses the longest take care of these horses."