Some of you saw me shed sweet tears of joy when I watched Nebraska all-around hand Riley Wakefield take the steer wrestling victory lap at the Pendleton Round-Up the other day. You had no way of knowing why witnessing that career win of this young team roping, tie-down roping, bulldogging cowboy touched me the way it did. Let me tell you why.
My family meeting Riley’s family was a divine appointment arranged by God and Riley’s big brother, Brady Wakefield. Back when my Hall of Fame bulldogger boyfriend, Ote Berry, was hauling aspiring young steer wrestlers the likes of Wrangler National Finals Rodeo 2022 qualifiers Tyler Waguespack and Rowdy Parrott, he made a swing up to the rodeo in Spooner, Wisconsin, in the summer of 2015. Young Brady asked Ote if he could ride his bulldogging horse and he’d haze for him.
Of course, Ote said yes. He learned long ago from his hero and traveling partner Roy Duvall never to say no if you have a chance to help a fellow cowboy. Ote called me one night after hazing for Brady at Spooner, and was telling me about this talented, cool kid from Nebraska. Ote grew up in South Dakota, but moved to Nebraska in eighth grade, so took a special interest in Brady. He was so impressed by his skills, attitude, humility and kindness. Then came that dreaded next call.
“Remember that really cool kid from Nebraska I was just telling you about?” Ote said, audibly sick and sad. “He just died.”
What?? Sadly and suddenly, it was true. On July 12, 2015—while en route to Rock Springs, Wyoming with a dear family friend to watch little brother Riley compete at the National High School Finals Rodeo—the truck they were in blew a back tire and rolled. Brady died.
Very shortly after receiving that devastating news about a rodeo family I’d never met, Ote took me to Deadwood for the first time. I met Jim Wakefield at slack that morning. We hugged. We cried. We talked about Brady. It was as if this dad of two young cowboys and me—the mom of two young cowboys—had been very dear friends forever.
That December, Kyle Whitaker won his seventh Linderman Award, which is the coveted ultimate all-around test for excellence at both ends of the arena. As Kyle and Brady were traveling partners, Brady had been a big part of Kyle’s year and would now not have the chance to fulfill his cowboy dreams down here. It seemed only right to have Jim Wakefield join us on the Thomas & Mack Arena floor at the NFR that night.
There have been too many cowboy connections that are obviously orchestrated by God and Brady to count over the years. Riley, who was just 19 when he lost his 20-year-old big brother seven years ago, spending the last couple years living at my sons’ Lane and Taylor’s place in Stephenville, Texas, has been the best.
Riley, who put tie-down roping at the top of his rodeo priority list this year, and Taylor (who feels the same about the tie-down) have spent endless hours even after dark out in that arena. But like my Lane and Taylor, and Brady, too, Riley’s not just a tie-down roper, #9 heeler and occasional steer wrestler.
Riley Wakefield is a cowboy. He last year fulfilled a goal to qualify for his Badlands Circuit Finals in all three timed events, got it done and was the 2021 Badlands Circuit All-Around Champ.
Our families have enjoyed Thanksgiving feasting and arena volleyball. Grandma Pat—who was in Spooner that last rodeo of Brady’s life with him—even baked us her world-famous cinnamon rolls, with a special gluten-free batch just for Taylor. My boys have gained another brother in Riley—who’s as intense about everything from roping to chess and ping pong as they are—and God and Brady connected them.
Jim and Susan built Brady’s Bunkhouse on their piece of paradise in the O’Neill, Nebraska countryside after he moved from here to Heaven. Ote and I have gotten to spend time there twice. The bunkhouse is home to fun and friendship for good people of all ages, and much feasting and merriment happens there all the time in Brady’s honor.
At 26, Riley’s chosen to put the tie-down first at this time. Brady was much bigger than his little brother—both 6 feet tall, but Brady a brawny 218 compared to Riley’s slight-built 170. Brady’s second-favorite event had to be the heading. Ten years ago, Brady (who’d be 27 now were he still here with us) headed for Riley at the NHSRA Finals, and the Wakefield brothers were the reserve national champs. But it was steer wrestling on rodeo’s biggest stages that Brady dreamed about.
Are you starting to see why the tears flowed on short-round Saturday at Pendleton? I swear I saw Brady on the back of that victory-lap horse whooping and hollering with glee and hat-whipping the air with his little brother. Riley rides, ropes and wrestles for the both of them now, and what a sight it was to behold.
Character counts in my family, and the Wakefields are cut from the same loyal cloth as my people. My Taylor won the NFR Open in Colorado Springs this summer. It was no surprise that when we finally gathered out back after all the awards and arena hoopla, Riley was the one there patiently holding Taylor’s horse Tux and petting on him in the dark.
On closer review of the videos of Taylor’s eight-man semifinals and four-man finals runs there, Riley’s also the guy who pushed both of his calves and made first smile-to-smile, “we did it” eye contact with Taylor after that final flag dropped.
When Taylor needed to win $270 more to make last year’s NFR, Riley hopped a plane for Maine and met Lane and Taylor there for moral support and lobster. Lane headed for Riley on a pickup horse, and they won the team roping. Riley boarded another bird to make Lane and Jane’s wedding three weeks later in our pasture in Cali.
This is the cowboy and friend Riley Wakefield is, folks. And on that sunny Saturday afternoon—around that dirt track that surrounds acres of glorious grass arena—it was finally HIS turn to take a center-stage victory lap. Riley was there. Brady was there. Jim was there. I got to be there, too. Wow. Thank You, Brady and Thank You, God!!