Keys to an NFR Comeback
David Key has headed at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris RANGER nine times—from 2000-2007 and again in 2009. Partnered with Travis Woodard, he’s pushing for a 10th trip to Vegas in 2016.

Kendra Santos: Can you rattle off your partners from every NFR off the top of your head?

David Key: John Paul Lucero in 2000, Dugan Kelly in 2001-02, Clay Cooper in 2003-04, Clayton Grant in 2005, Kory Koontz in 2006-07 and Rich Skelton in 2009.

Ks: The 2016 College National Finals Rodeo is this month in Casper, Wyo. You were the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping titlist in 1988, and as a heeler, right? Who were you heeling for?

DK: Yes, back then it was go twice in college rodeo, and the regular season carried over and counted for the national championship. I actually roped with four different guys that year. 

KS: When did you swap boxes and become a header, and why?

DK: I had headed off and on my whole life, but I really changed my main focus in 1999. When I was a kid I headed and heeled, and would switch from one to the other. I tried making the Finals heeling in 1997 and ended up 17th. I tried it again in 1998, and was about $8,000 behind when the Northwest rolled around, so I went home. I was basically broke, so I started hot-shoting (hauling) oilfield equipment that year to supplement my rodeo income. I stayed home and worked in 1999, and headed for a kid down the road, Justin Roemer. His dad had a head horse I could ride. After roping some as second partners around Texas, Clay Cooper’s the one who told me, “Hey, you need to head for a living. You’re good enough, if you get a horse and work at it.”

KS: You’ve told me you went to college for a year and a half. How strongly do you recommend today’s up-and-coming rodeo kids get a college degree?

DK: I recommend it big time, and I haven’t always been this way. Josey is very adamant about kids going to college and having something to back them up. She’s seen the ups and downs of rodeoing from being married to me, and she’s right. It’s important in today’s society to have a degree. If two guys are in line for a job, the one with the degree gets it. Then he gets to move up the ladder. Getting a good education is more of a big deal now than ever. There are so many kids out there today who want to try and make the Finals. I tell them that when you’re 18 years old college is the perfect place for you to go for four years or whatever it takes to graduate. You can college rodeo and circuit rodeo, but you don’t need to be throwing yourself to the wolves. Get your feet wet, work your way up and learn how to win. It really is that much tougher at the highest level, and that college time lets you mature mentally and physically. You grow up a lot between 18 and 22 or 23. You get more of a foundation underneath you, so you’re ready to stand up to all the pressures that are out there. If you’re going to be all-in, it takes about $100,000 to rodeo for a year. We’re basically gamblers for a living, and the stakes are high so you better be ready.

KS: It’s a matter of passion and planning and so much more, isn’t it?

DK: It doesn’t matter what the sport is—to be the best you can possibly be you have to have such a love for it that you spend all your time working at it. And not because you have to, but because you want to. If you’re doing it for the goal you’re doing it for the wrong reason. If you’re doing it because you truly love it you have a shot. This is a hard life. You don’t have to do it, so only do it if you want to. There’s a huge difference, and I’ve experienced it both ways. Rodeo sucks you in when you’re young, and it’s hard to get out of the tornado.

KS: You haven’t been to the Finals since 2009. How hard are you going to press to get back to Vegas this December?

DK: I’m dedicated to do it. I decided last year that I was going to make the NFR and I missed it. I ended up 18th. This year I made the decision that I’m going to commit and do what it takes to get it made. You can’t show up and compete on raw talent. You have to be prepared and all-in. I’ve spent a lot of time being involved in the oilfield business the last few years. I have some partners now, which lets me focus more on rodeo. I want to make the NFR again. One of the biggest reasons why is because Kase wants to go to the 6-and-under dummy roping in Vegas. He’s a roping fanatic, and he can’t go if I’m not entered. I set my goal for this year to get the NFR made and ultimately try to win the world championship. I’m having fun again doing what I grew up loving to do.

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