We all knew this one would be different. And as I sat there watching opening night from the press deck at my 34th straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo—one we are all so very grateful for during this dreaded pandemic—it was obviously not business as usual. I tend to see things through the eyes of my cowboy friends and family, and last night was no different. There all the timed-event contestants were—warming up in the Texas Rangers outfield, while our Super Bowl was happening in the infield, which is this year’s NFR arena—taking advantage of the wide open spaces of Globe Life Field.
Hot on the heels of Round 1 team roping winners Erich Rogers and Paden Bray were regular-season leaders Luke Brown and Joseph Harrison—who made big-money magic at The American earlier this year across the parking lot at AT&T Stadium—just a tenth back in second. With 17 NFR qualifications between them, Luke and Joseph are the perfect pair to compare the atmospheres at Globe Life and the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas from the contestants’ point of view.
“The biggest thing back behind the chutes at the NFR is always excitement and nerves, and it’s noticeable this year how much all the cowboys appreciate us getting to have an NFR at all during this crazy time,” said Luke, who’s made an annual impressive heading showing at every Finals since 2008, which makes this #14 for the soft-spoken South Carolina native. “It was different getting to ride around on the arena floor to warm up, then getting to watch every team rope.”
In Vegas, the University of Las Vegas practice basketball court becomes the NFR Press Room for two weeks. The timed-event contestants come up from the barns to a holding tent before the grand entry. They then walk to the other end of the building—there’s a strip of Astroturf that covers the concrete to ride their horses on—and come down the tunnel next to the press room. So I’ve been back there with those guys, who sit on their horses in virtual silence and watch the rodeo on a small TV screen while waiting their turn. That silence isn’t broken—and you can’t see the arena or hear the roar of the crowd—until you’re on deck.
“It’s quiet back there when we’re all sitting on our horses single file, then they call your name,” Luke said. “When you ride through that curtain it’s like walking into a lit-up room. That’s when the nerves hit you. I have nothing but good to say about Vegas, and now getting to be here in Texas to have a 2020 NFR. It is different. It felt a little more relaxed last night, just because we were all riding around together. And we roped last, so it was really different getting to watch every team rope. There’s a guy in the chute and a guy ahead of you when they call you in Vegas, so you’re in the hole. But you need to give that guy in front of you enough room to swing his rope. So the only team you watch rope is the one team in the chute in front of you.”
A lot of cowboys, including Brown and Harrison, live close enough that they’re commuting this year. With COVID cancelling sponsor appearances and autograph signings, Brown and Harrison are both running a few practice steers this afternoon.
“It was pretty nice to get to sleep in my own bed last night,” said Luke, who lives about an hour and 15 minutes away from Arlington in Lipan, Texas. “And I’m fixing to pen my steers and run a few, so that’s pretty nice, too. That said, we’re all nothing but grateful for all Vegas has done for cowboys all these years.”
Harrison, who’s here roping at his fourth-straight Finals, lives about an hour and 45 minutes from Globe Life in Marietta, Oklahoma. He ran a few with 2020 Texas High School Champ Coda Myers at his house today.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, because I love Vegas and I love Texas,” Joseph said. “But it is totally different. In Vegas, we’re in that tunnel until we hit the bright lights of the arena. Last night, we were all basically in the arena the whole time. We warmed up, rode over and roped.
“Getting to sleep in my own bed and getting to rope at my house in the middle of the day, like we do every day, is fun. At the same time, it is an hour and 45 minutes each way for me to get down there. It’s an 1,100-mile, 18-hour trek each way for me to get to Vegas. But by my math, it’ll be about 35-36 hours of driving here this week, too.
“It’s all good. It doesn’t matter where we have the Finals as long as we have it. We’re all so thankful for the people who figured out a way for us to have an NFR in 2020. I feel so bad for the people who didn’t get to compete (positive COVID tests ended barrel racer Dona Kay Rule and tie-down roper Caleb Smidt’s 2020 NFR before it started). They worked hard to be here, so that stinks. I’m just happy to be here, and I’m looking forward to the next nine nights and seeing what the future holds.” TRJ