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Kaleb Driggers stood in the back of the Thomas & Mack press room—situated next to the alley where the team ropers line up to ride into the box—watching the 10th go-round unfold on the big-screen televisions in the front of the room. 

The zip zip of Driggers' rope buzzed over the tap tap of the reporters' keyboards, and, like he's done every Round 10 for the last few years, Driggers assessed his chances at a gold buckle as team after team rode into the box. 

Three teams into the round, Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins clinched the NFR average title and broke Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper's average record, and Driggers smiled with cautious excitement. 

"We needed Andrew and Buddy to catch, and I had full confidence in them, but I wanted to see it happen for them too," said Driggers, 32, from Hoboken, Georgia. "To come here and keep your composure when 18,000 people are sitting there, and the adrenaline is going, with $26,000 on the line, to stay composed and go and do your job every single night, that's unbelievable. They did amazing."

Other world title contenders Erich Rogers and Paden Bray got a leg, and Rhen Richard split the horns for Jeremy Buhler. Driggers and Nogueira knew they just needed to stop the clock to clinch the deal.

Last out, Driggers saw his start and then some, and he ran all the way to him at the three-quarter mark of the arena. Nogueira was coming in hot to the steer, took a few extra swings and threw—and the flag fell in a world-title-winning 7.1 seconds. 

"I think I've won second four times, and come in No. 1 a lot," Driggers said. "Heck, one year, we came in No. 1 and won $150,000 and won more than we won this year and still won second. We've always had a really good Finals. It's all part of God's time. We're blessed and thankful to be here." 

Junior Nogueira Round 10

Nogueira came tight on their Round 10 steer in 7.1 seconds to seal the World Title. 

Driggers and Nogueira finished third in the average with a time of 52.60 seconds on nine head, and they won $263,226.67 and $277,611.77 on the year, respectively. They earned an NFR-best $143,896.27 each over 10 rounds, including their only go-round win of the week in Round 4.

"We love to rope no matter what," said Nogueira, 31, from Presidente Prudente, SP, Brazil. "We go home and we rope the lead steer because we love to rope. I think I'm tired, so I go sit on my horse and rope the lead steer. It's been a long journey. For sure on this whole week, Kaleb did a good job. And we just stayed hooked and it happened for a reason. We're so thankful—people in Brazil are freaking out. It's like the World Cup and I'm the Brazilian team. That's what I pray before I came over here. Honestly, we know we're good friends and I'm not better than anybody else. I pray and say, 'God, I know for a reason we didn't win yet. Please, if you just let me win this time, for sure, whatever you can use us to glorify your name, or just to motivate somebody to use this title in the whole history of not giving up, but have faith in you, help us go through this time. Just help me catch this steer and finish strong the way we plan it. And we damn sure did it.'"

Nogueira, already the 2016 All-Around World Champion, has been on the cusp of a gold buckle in the heeling more than his share. He was closest in 2015, when he heeled for JoJo LeMond after his first partner, Jake Barnes, suffered a brain injury in a roping accident right before the Finals. LeMond lost his rope after hooking one in the 10th round to cost them the world title, the average title and the average record.

"We had to be like 8.7 or 8.8 to break the average record that year," Nogueira said. "But it's honestly even better, doing it right now, with all the experience and all the hard times. We always had a great Finals, and leaving out of here, the goal was just to win it, and gosh dang it we were so sad. And then next week we started working again. We'd just have zero motivation and, at the end of the day, we know, we know it doesn't matter. It matters as a professional, yeah you want to have the goal. Every kid wants to be the World Champion one day. But at the end of the day, our family is healthy and everybody is healthy."

This year marks Driggers' ninth National Finals Rodeo since he first qualified in 2011. Driggers made the Finals in 2012 with Jade Corkill and finished second in the world that year, with Corkill winning his first title. Driggers and Travis Graves were fourth in the world in 2013, and he and Patrick Smith were seventh in the world in 2014. In 2015, Driggers heeled for Brandon Webb and missed the Finals. After that, Driggers and Nogueira paired up for the first time, finishing second in the world that year. They were second again the next year when they broke the world record with a 3.3-second run in Round 9, and second again in 2018. Driggers and Nogueira were third in the world standings in 2019, and then parted ways in 2020, with Driggers roping with Petska and Nogueira roping with Cody Snow. While Nogueira made the Finals with Snow, Driggers missed them and took a hard look at himself in the process.  

"Last October, coming fresh off of not making the Finals, I didn't feel like I was being the best me I could be," Driggers said. "That's where I'm like, I can have fun and party and all that stuff when I'm 50 years old and retired. And I just felt like I have been in my prime for five years, but some time Father Time is going to catch up to me. You can't rope forever. And this has really been my dream and my goal. Coming up so close, it's all been—you know—tumble weeding. I don't have to have it. I don't need it. That's one of my goals. I was going to set it down. It's been awesome. I feel great every day. I get out there and work hard every day. Ride my colts, my horses, and don't really have anything bad to say about it. It's not like I was out of control. There are definitely people out there who definitely party and drink and do everything 10 times more than I did, even. But it felt like it was just a small part in there. One day, Walt Woodard said to me that he'd never heard a successful guy say, 'Man, I feel like my career really took off after I started drinking.' And that really hit home for me. It's just one of the things in the journey that I stay consistent with."

Driggers and Nogueira were one of the few teams of the 2021 NFR to stay hooked on the same horsepower all week. On the head side, Driggers is riding Cuervo, the 13-year-old bay gelding registered as Remis Gays On Ofadoc. The horse came from 2020 NFR header Jeff Flenniken, who rode him during most of his 2020, NFR-qualifying regular season. 

Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira

Of all the great horses Driggers has ridden in the Thomas & Mack, the 13-year-old bay gelding Cuervo is officially his world championship mount in 2021.

"People were shocked I bought him," Driggers said. "Me and him just clicked. I don't know what it is with the chemistry between me and him; he's honest. He does the same trip every time. He's not the fastest barn burner in there. He doesn't really drag a leg and pull perfect. But he does everything that's important. He scores. He runs toward the steer. He lets me handle the steer and he faces, and that's all I can ask for." 

Nogueira never got off Timon— Kiehne's Frosty Pepto—the 11-year-old buckskin gelding he's ridden since 2019. The horse came from Maryland's Kenny Brown, and he's been Nogueira's pick in the Thomas & Mack since he was just newly seasoned on the rodeo trail. 

Junior Nogueira

Junior Nogueira has been rock solid on Timon in his last three NFR appearances. 

"He's been really good everywhere pretty much," Nogueira said. "The more you ride him, the better he gets. He's really good in small buildings. This week, he stayed free and let me get out around them and take the shots I wanted to take." TRJ

Round 10 Results:

1. Dustin Egusquiza and Travis Graves, 3.5-second run, worth $26,996.97 a man

2. Tyler Wade and Trey Yates, 3.7-second run, worth $21,336.32 a man

3/4. Clay Smith and Jade Corkill, 4.3-second run, worth $13,716.20 a man

3/4. Coleman Proctor and Logan Medlin, 4.3-second run, worth $13,716.20 a man

5/6. Clint Summers and Ross Ashford, 4.5-second run, worth $5,660.65 a man

5/6. Coy Rahlmann and Douglas Rich, 4.5-second run, worth $5,660.65 a man

Average Results:

1. Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins, 54.7 seconds on 10 head, worth $69,234.17 a man

2. Erich Rogers and Paden Bray, 98.1 seconds on 10 head, worth $56,171.12 a man

3. Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira, 52.6 on nine head, worth $44,414.37 a man

4. Rhen Richard and Jeremy Buhler, 62.6 seconds on nine head, worth $32,657.63 a man

5. Clay Tryan and Jake Long, 43.2 seconds on eight head, worth $23,513.49 a man

6. Clay Smith and Jade Corkill, 50.3 seconds on eight head, worth $16,981.97 a man

7. Cody Snow and Wesley Thorp, 60.7 seconds on eight head, worth $11,756.75 a man

8. Coy Rahlmann and Douglas Rich, 45.5 seconds on seven head, $6,531.53 a man

World Standings:

Headers:

1. Kaleb Driggers, $263,226.67

2. Erich Rogers, $229,990.01

3. Dustin Egusquiza, $227,403.10

4. Clay Smith, $221,373.41

5. Rhen Richard, $208,256.36

6. Clay Tryan, $198,086.57

7. Andrew Ward, $184,652.40

8. Coleman Proctor, $168,986.26

9. Tyler Wade, $156,514.95

10. Cody Snow, $150,637.48

11. Coy Rahlmann, $138,152.63

12. Derrick Begay, $128,355.60

13. Quinn Kesler, $125,526.30

14. Clint Summers, $103,859.48

15. Brenten Hall, $87,860.09

Heelers:

1. Junior Nogueira, $277,611.77

2. Paden Bray, $224.909.79

3. Jade Corkill, $221,373.41

4. Jeremy Buhler, $207,223.28

5. Travis Graves, $206,756,44

6. Jake Long, $199,062.09

7. Buddy Hawkins II, $184,652.40

8. Logan Medlin, $175,566.14

9. Jake Long, $199,062.09

10. Trey Yates, $151,659.28

11. Douglas Rich, $138,075.86

12. Joseph Harrison, $124,811.53

13. Brady Minor, $119,340.85

14. Ross Ashford, $101,199.26

15. Chase Tryan, $89,130.27

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