If you ask Junior Nogueira how things like winning $100,000 at RFD-TV’s The American happen, he’s got one answer: “That was God.”
The Brazilian world champ will also tell you that losing your hat in the process is also God, just making sure he stays humble. (Just like the night he fell off celebrating his 3.3-second run at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this past December.)
Hat or no hat, Nogueira and header Kaleb Driggers (who won the American in 2014 with Patrick Smith and 2015 with Travis Graves) notched the biggest single win of their partnership at the 2018 edition of RFD-TV’s The American with a 3.32-second long-round run and a 4.57-second short-round run.
"Junior got to throw a little faster (on this 3.3-second run)," Driggers said. "I didn’t head him as fast as I did in Vegas. It’s crazy when you’re thinking about being 3, but at the same time, I knew I had to catch that steer. It was crazy. There was a 3.7, a 3.8 and a 3.9 that didn’t make the top four."
Speed Williams and Wesley Thorp roped first in the final round, coming tight in 9.74 seconds but slipping a leg. Erich Rogers missed the next one for Cory Petska, and Chad Masters and Travis Graves got the next one down in 5.03 to guarantee them $25,000 a man. So Driggers and Nogueira just needed a good, clean run for the big payday.
"It was so tough to get to the Final Four, then it fell apart," Nogueira said. "And it was so scary because we just go fast. It’s tougher to just go catch. But at the same time we didn’t want to just back off. We needed to be aggressive also."
The $100,000 check was Driggers' third in five years at the event, and Nogueira's first. It came at just the right time of the year, when the Georgia-Brazil team only have $7,181.12 each won in PRCA competition and needed a momentum swing heading into the spring rodeos. They're 31st and 26th, respectively, in the PRCA world standings.
"We’ve been taking turns messing up," Driggers said. "It’s been a slow winter. We won a little bit jackpotting, but not as much as we could have. We’ve been taking turns making mistakes, but we got it put together yesterday."
Driggers rode his 22-year-old campaigner Dre, while Nogueira rode 13-year-old Green Card–the same team of horses that let them be 3.3 in Las Vegas. Driggers had given Dre to his father Nick two years ago, but borrowed him back right before the WNFR last year. Since then, he's ridden him at Denver's National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, the San Antonio (Texas) Stock Show and Rodeo, the Sandhills Stock Show & Rodeo in Odessa, Texas, and on one steer at the Fort Worth (Texas) Stock Show and Rodeo.
"I had planned on riding him," Driggers said of the gelding he won The American aboard in 2015 as well. "I knew the barrier was going to be short, and he's so good in that set up."
Nogueira opted for Green Card, the horse that's become his signature mount since buying him from James and Brandi Watson in 2015 through Robbie Schroeder.
"He pawed in the box," Nogueira laughed. "When I put pressure on him he’ll do that."
RFD-TV's The American will always hold a special place in Nogueira's heart, as the 2014 edition was his appearance on team roping's national stage. It was the first time the world got to see Nogueira's pull back, that year for Jake Barnes.
"That was the first big shot I took, it was my first big rodeo," Nogueira said. "It is my favorite and it means a lot to me. And I always wanted to win it. I made the Final Four four out of five times there.
"For a little bit I was thinking I might have to throw on the wrong side but I brought him back and took one more. It was so fast, I didn’t want to miss. We had to be fast and make a clean run. I wanted to let him go straight. But as soon as Kaleb reached he followed him. My horse didn’t follow very good, but I know him very well. Luckily he's strong on the saddle horn and I had a good dally," Nogueira added.
What's more, the Brazilian AQHA honored Nogueira's late father the night before at their Hall of Fame celebration, where Nogueira's mother accepted the induction on his behalf.
"Saturday night, my dad was honored," Nogueira said. "He died in the box and had a heart attack. He was about to nod his head when he died. I couldn’t go for the presentation. My mom went and gave a speech. It was an honor for me. My dad died nodding. He loved it, so this is really special for me."
Getting to rope at the same event as Leo Camarillo was also a high point of the event for Nogueira, he said. Nogueira even asked Camarillo to take a picture together, something he rarely does. Camarillo heeled for Tee Woolman, and the duo was a short-5 and finished eighth in the long round.