The 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is coming in hot, as the World Series of Rodeo takes center stage December 3-12 at Globe Life Field—home of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers—in Arlington. COVID-19 moved the ultimate annual cowboy convention from Las Vegas this year, and that won’t be the only change, starting with the size and layout of the arena. Other important items will remain the same, including the feat it is to come into the Finals ranked first after besting such a grueling regular season; how hard it is to finish one out in the heartbreak hole; and honorable mention of those who will be most noticeably absent from the NFR lineup.
Leaders of the Pack
Luke Brown and Joseph Harrison will be joining forces for just the second time in 2020 when they back into the NFR box together. Their $103,000 win at The American at AT&T Stadium in Arlington in March—of which $50,000 per man counted in the world standings—set the stage for a stellar regular season.
While those who didn’t have a significant winter strike found it tough, if not impossible, to catch up, Brown sailed through the regular season roping with Patrick Smith. When Smith came up short of the Top 15 cut—as did Harrison’s other 2020 partners, Wyatt Imus and Lane Ivy—regular-season champs Brown and Harrison were a natural fit for the Finals. Coming out on top in the regular season is a first for both Brown and Harrison.
“It’s always been a huge goal of mine to do it,” Brown said. “It’s not really fair to say I did it this year when I got a $50,000 head start and most of the big rodeos were cancelled. But in general, winning the regular season means you’ve had a good year and you’ve been consistent. I obviously had a big advantage getting it done in 2020.
“Joseph and I are really good friends, so it’s exciting getting to rope with him at the Finals. He’s got some really, really good horses that make his job pretty easy, and everywhere we’ve ever roped together we’ve done pretty good. Joseph loves to throw fast, so that’s going to let me slow down and try to turn him all 10 steers. If I can do that, I’ll bet it works out pretty good.”
Three headers—Andrew Ward (who’ll head for Buddy Hawkins in Arlington), Nelson Wyatt (Levi Lord) and Jeff Flenniken (Tyler Worley)—and three heelers—Logan Medlin (Charly Crawford), Paden Bray (Erich Rogers) and Lord—will be doing Big Show battle for the first time. It’s worth noting just for fun that Ward and Hawkins are married to sisters—Hayli and Tori, respectively—which makes them a rather rare brother-in-law team.
“I’ve been looking forward to roping at the Finals since I was a kid,” Ward said. “This is something I’ve dreamed about. To get to rope for that much money for 10 nights still seems surreal. I’ve never gotten to experience anything like that before, so I’m super excited. Winning good money won’t be a longshot. That’s an especially big deal this year.
“As for our team, Buddy and I think about roping and how we handle wins and losses pretty similarly. We want to do good for ourselves and our family, so we work at it constantly. When I do bad, I’m pretty hard on myself. I’m trying to get like all the guys who came before us, who learned to let things roll off of their backs. I can celebrate with the best of them, too. Roping is what we’re doing for a living, but how it goes in the arena can’t take up days of my life. Keeping my priorities straight helps with that.
“Our wives are incredible. They’ve roped and rodeoed themselves, so they get it. They know all about the highs and lows that come with the territory. Because Buddy and I are both competitive, failing is hard on us. But then we move along. Everybody who has success in anything expects to do good. But it doesn’t go great for anyone all the time. It is just roping, and there are a lot more important things in life. All four of us know that.”
There’s a Sweet 16 in college basketball, but there’s nothing nice about coming up one slot short of the NFR cut. Matt Sherwood was 16th among headers this year, and Kyle Lockett was one out on the heeling side.
“Generally speaking, this season was better than I thought it would be,” said Lockett, who last year roped at his eighth NFR with Rogers—Lockett’s first Finals was all the way back in 1997. “There were a lot more rodeos than I thought we would have by a bunch. It was tougher, because you had to go to every rodeo they had, and every contestant there is was there at all of them. So it made every rodeo extra tough. We went to rodeos we’ve never been to before and will probably never go to again. But I thought it was cool to see a lot of country I’ve never seen before. I enjoyed that.
“Sixteenth sucks. But hell, it’s better than 17th. It’s just what it is. It’s not what you want, but it could have been a lot worse. There’s a lot of stuff that’s important to worry about in life. The way I look at it, it was a pleasant surprise that we even got to go to rodeos this year.”
A few of the most glaring omissions from this year’s NFR team roping roster have to be brothers Riley and Brady Minor—who have 21 NFR back numbers between them, including 10 together and Brady’s from 2006 with Garrett Tonozzi—and Kaleb Driggers, who’s made eight NFR appearances and missed only one NFR since 2011 in 2015.
The Minors own two of this year’s three team roping horses of the year. Riley’s Bob is the 2020 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Purina Head Horse of the Year for the second time in three years, and Brady’s Sug tied with Medlin’s Drago for Heel Horse of the Year honors.
“I think it’s even worse not making the Finals when you have some of the best horses,” Riley said. “The first word that comes to mind about not making it is ‘depressing.’ But I’m not a depressed person, and it’s not devastating, because I have saved for a rainy day. We did not have a good winter or Fourth of July, and we only went to 40 rodeos. But make no mistake—with 100 teams everywhere, and almost all rodeos being one-headers—it was tough to get ahead this year if you started behind the eight-ball.
“I’ve tried to rope smart my whole life, and have made a living getting out of the barrier and turning steers. You could throw that out the window this year. In 2020, it was back in there, then reach and duck every time. It was a hard year to win, and a great year to ruin head horses. Brady and I aren’t bombers. But this year, you could not tell yourself to just go make your run and catch the steer. It was all or nothing.”
As for big brother Brady, “It’s a disappointment to not have a chance to win $100,000 in December, for sure,” he said. “This is how we make our living, and Riley and I ride two of the best horses going. To not make the Finals on them is a pretty big letdown. But we weren’t alone. Numerous professional team ropers missed the Finals this year. I’m working on places in Ellensburg (Washington) and Wittmann (Arizona), so I’ll make good use of the time. But this is what we do. So we need to be there (the NFR).”
Records Are Made to Be Broken
Chad Masters (who’ll head for defending World Champion Heeler Wesley Thorp this month) and Jade Corkill (who’ll heel for reigning World Champion Header Clay Smith) set the 3.3-second NFR and world team roping record in Vegas in 2009. It was matched at the 2017 NFR by Driggers and Junior Nogueira (who’ll heel for Cody Snow in Arlington; Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes were 3.3 at the rodeo in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 2012 to share in that world record, by the way). What’s nuts is that Hall of Fame dream team Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper’s 26-year-old NFR average record of 59.1 seconds on 10 steers still stands.
“I’ve always felt like the average is the big ticket and the ace in the hole in the world championship race,” said Barnes, who won NFR average crowns with Cooper in 1985, ’94 and ’07, and is as surprised as Cooper that their mark has yet to be surpassed. “If you can place along and stay in the hunt, then have a shot at that big money in the average at the end, it’s a big deal on the last day.”
Charly Crawford recently made a man-sized decision that this is it for him on the full-time rodeo trail. The 1998 PRCA Rookie Header of the Year, who roped at his first Finals in 2005 with Richard Durham, says this 10th one will almost certainly be his last.
“The 2020 NFR will be my last dance,” Crawford said. “I was kicking it around last year. I was missing my family, and it was pulling and wearing on me. I had a great partner and great horses, and felt like I still had some petrol in the tank. I told Logan I’d go this winter, then play it by ear. I hated being gone, and leaving everything on (his wife) Jackie. Because Logan and I had a good winter, I was still able to work and provide. So it worked out pretty well for me this year, all things considered.
“I felt like I roped good, had the best horses I’ve ever had and as good a partner as I’ve ever had in 2020. I thought about going one more year in 2021, but then Jackie got pregnant, which is a total blessing. That was my answer right there. It’s time to be a dad (daughter Kaydence is 16, son Creed is 3 and baby girl Crawford is due in March) and enjoy the next journey in my life. I’m a dad first, so if there’s a high school rodeo or a T-ball game, I’m there.
“I don’t see two people trying to do this at the same time, so my plan is to rope with Cory Petska at the big winter building rodeos that don’t get canceled, then start my next venture after Houston. If I happen to have a $50,000 winter, you might see me at places like Reno and Cheyenne. But I got 10 (NFRs) made, and that was way more than a kid from Canby, Oregon, ever dreamed about. This is pretty cool. I get to go out the way I want. People ask me if I feel more pressure this time, because this is it. The answer is no—this is fun. I have one last chance to pitch a no-hitter. This is awesome. I’m excited. Bring it on.” TRJ