'Tis the season when the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is the talk of the team roping town. As we head for the Super Bowl of our sport each season, I stop and think about the guys who barely made the cut and barely missed it; the Finals freshmen and those who, voluntarily or not, have graduated to the next chapter of their lives-at least for now.
As we went to press with this issue the first of November, the 2007 NFR team roping roster had yet to be finalized, pending the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championship presented by the Texas Stampede in Dallas, which was set to run November 9-11. Here's what we did know for fact: Finals freshmen Dean Tuftin, Brandon Beers, Keven Daniel and the Cooper twins were in for the first time. Heading brothers Jimmy and Tommy Edens were ranked 13th and 16th, and both had Dallas to look forward to. The toast at the Edens family dinner table lately is, "Here's hoping three sets of brothers rope at NFR '07 (think Tryan Times)."
When I scan the standings right now, two names jump off the page for all the wrong reasons. Seventeen-time NFR heeler and eight-time World Champion Team Roper Rich Skelton is 16th in the world. And with no Dallas in his day timer, he's done making heel shots for the year. But Rich still had a rainbow to rope at, because he qualified for his first-ever National Finals Steer Roping. The 2007 NFSR rolled into Hobbs, N.M., Nov. 2-3, just before we went to press. Rich placed in two rounds for $3,750.
Therefore, the guy who gets my vote for the most noticeably absent at this year's NFR is reigning World Champion Header Matt Sherwood, who sat on the sidelines in the 17th spot with nowhere left to go. It's not a complete reversal of last year's rags to riches tale, in which the star of the show was a humble husband and father of seven who laid tile and carpet for a living one day, and not so many days later was fitted for the world team roping crown. Still, it's tough to take for a guy with such high expectations of himself.
I picked up the phone for a visit, and found Matt running errands with his family. He was as friendly and upbeat as ever, despite the understandable disappointment. I spent the first five minutes convincing him that I was serious about wanting to talk about his season and his life. After a year that was darn near devastating relative to the last one-I reminded him that classic Cinderella stories are difficult to duplicate-he actually kind of figured he was forgotten and that nobody cared. Hey Matt, give your friends and fans a little more credit than that. We're not that fickle.
Here are outtakes from my conversation with the guy who wears the 2006 gold buckle. He's 38 now, and he and wife Kim have a For Sale sign on their home in Queen Creek, Ariz. They just built a house in Pima, which is an hour east of Globe. It's three hours from the Phoenix airport instead of 45 minutes but, they figure, it's a small price to pay for the small-town atmosphere they're looking for.
"How can you put a price tag on that big a benefit for your family?" he noted. "I expect high morals and great things out of my kids, and I hope this lifestyle change will really help them. I know how people around here are raised, and I like it. Pima is an area settled by the Mormon pioneers in the 1800s. Around here, people irrigate and chop cotton. Where we used to live, all the kids want to hang out at the mall. Here, the kids will play sports and rope. I have 50 acres of cotton right now. I'm going to grow some hay, too. That's how I was raised, and that's how I want my kids to grow up."
Kendra Santos:Tell me about your life before 2006.
Matt Sherwood: I was a typical small business owner (of Sherwood Flooring). I got up every day, picked up supplies, met my guys and worked my jobs. I roped a couple days a week, and went to the circuit rodeos and the bigger ropings. Trying to make the Dodge (National Circuit) Finals (Rodeo) was the big deal (he's not about to mention it, but Sherwood won the 2005 DNCFR in Pocatello heeling for Rube Woolsey). It was a big deal to get to go to a big rodeo. I was a circuit cowboy, so I went to all the circuit rodeos. Being a husband and father of seven is impossible to explain. I have great kids, and there are kids everywhere. I have a great wife and a great life, but it does get interesting. At any given time, there are kids who need help with homework, some who want to play catch, others who want to go ride, and one who wants to be read to. You come home and all the kids say, "Dad's home!" There's nothing else like that. I wanted a big family. I believe in it.
KS:After all those years as a weekend warrior, what made you take the big plunge and set your sights on making the Finals? How tough a decision was that?
MS: It was a very tough decision, but I had made a few good financial investments, so it wasn't going to kill me if I didn't do great. I had confidence in myself and my partner (Walt Woodard). But if I didn't make it, I wasn't going to go broke. I wasn't waiting on every check so I could go to the grocery store, or I wouldn't have done it. I hadn't done it before, because I never had that level of confidence in my roping until then. A lot of people try it, but they don't rope good enough. I finally felt like I did. I had confidence in my horse (2006 PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year Nickolas), too. I finally felt like I had a chance, and my wife was behind me on it. I lived my whole life thinking it would never happen. It's really hard to do this when you're winning, much less when you're not. There's a lot to sacrifice.
KS:Who ran Sherwood Flooring while you were on the road? Did you sell it?
MS: There wasn't a whole lot to sell. I turned over a few contracts to my father-in-law, and pretty much walked away from it. There are two flooring companies in Pima, and I'm trying to buy one of them now. If that doesn't work out, I'll probably start up a new company. I'd like to teach some roping schools and ride some horses, too.
KS:Do you have any regrets about putting your previous life on hold?
MS: I won a world championship, and I still can't say for sure it was worth it. The time away from my family is tough. I'm happy to have achieved something I never thought was possible for me to do. What ended up happening wasn't even a dream. One day, it was hey, I want to try to make the Finals. Honestly, I can't even tell you when I thought I had a chance to win the world championship-maybe halfway through the Finals. Walt was saying way back in January that we both rope good enough to win a world title. I was thinking, "Hey, you're 50, it's been 13 years since your last Finals and I've never headed good enough in my life to even think about the Finals." I appreciated his positive attitude, but at the time it didn't look all that probable. Possible yes. Probable no. I had $33,000 won by Reno in June, and needed about $7,000 more with half a year left to do it. I was in a panic worrying that I couldn't win enough to make the Finals with another 40 rodeos to go. I remember thinking, "Please don't let this end." Then we won $14,000 over the Fourth (in fact, Matt and Walt were the winningest Cowboy Christmas team in 2006). After the Fourth, we had $52,000 won. Having the Finals made changes your mentality. You don't quite have the same pressure, so you can relax a little, change your focus and think a little bigger.
KS:What do you do to pass the time on the road?
MS: That's what I hate the worst-the down time. I'll enter rodeos some other people won't, because if I'm gone I want to stay busy. I don't watch much TV. I read a lot, and rope the dummy a lot. I like to stay busy, because sitting around makes me feel like I'm wasting my life.
KS:Describe the thrill of making the Finals for the first time last year.
MS: It was a fantastic feeling. We had the Finals made after the Fourth, so I was excited way back then. I was super excited, but it started in July, so the emotion was spread out over a few months. I never thought I'd get to do it. My oldest brother, Steve, always told me I roped good enough; that all I needed to do was go and I could make it. I never thought that was true. Having it spread out like that took away that overwhelming feeling of if I'd barely gotten in at the last minute, and let me get to the point where I actually felt like I belonged.
KS:And, looking back on it all, what about winning the world?
MS: Looking back on everything that took place for me to win the world championship makes me feel like there was a hand of God involved. It's amazing to me how everything happened. After Walt and I won Omaha, we flew to Poway and San Bernardino. I borrowed Chad Masters' horse (a notable twist, since Chad's the guy Matt barely beat for the title). There we were at one of last rodeos, we're 4.6 and the announcer says, "Plus 10." Then they realized that the guy working the chutes was standing on the neck rope, so they reversed the call. We won $1,600 on a questionable call, and I ended up winning the world by a little over $800. There were so many little things like that. I also unofficialed two of the biggest one-headers of the year, so I could be eligible to make my circuit finals. I unofficialed over $5,000 from Norco (Calif.) and Fort Collins (Colo.) to count Williams (Ariz.) and the little fall rodeo in Tucson (Ariz.). So I didn't get to count that $5,000 as official. Instead, I got to count the $1,300 I won at Williams and Tucson. That cost me $3,700. But remember, my mindset was still stuck on the circuit finals. It seems kind of silly looking back on it. I'd have felt pretty bad if that had made the difference.
KS:This is probably pretty obvious, but what do you consider the high of 2006?
MS: Winning the world championship. I started crying. My wife and kids are what are most important to me, but that was one amazing experience. Riding in to rope our last steer, I needed fourth in the day money to win it. We needed to be 4.2, so we backed in there to go for it. It was the toughest round all week, and we were the last team out at the whole Finals. It was storybook. We've all pretended to be in that position. Talk about surreal. I'd roped that steer on the dummy quite a bit. And there I was. I looked up at the clock, and I knew. The fastest Walt had ever been in his life was 4.2. His son, Travis Woodard, and I were 3.9 at San Bernardino in 2005. But I'd sure never been in that spot before.
KS:And the low of 2006?
MS: January. We went to three big rodeos and won $800. It was a little bit of a panic for me. Guys who go every year wouldn't panic that early. But I was looking at guys who'd already won several thousand dollars. Walt was the veteran, so he kept his head on straight, we went home and practiced, and tried to do better. I didn't have the wisdom not to worry.
KS:Tell me something about Walt Woodard.
MS: I'll never take away from what a great opportunity it was to rope with Walt Woodard. I'd like to do it again sometime. He was great to be around, always positive, and he always had so much faith in our team.
KS:And what about that sorrel horse of yours?
MS: Nickolas is a great horse. He allowed me to win a world championship. I could never have done it without him. When I get on that horse, I know I can win. I now own his mom, too.
KS:Talk to me about 2007-your partners, your roping and how it's gone.
MS: I started with Walt through Houston. Then I roped with Brad Culpepper through the end of July. Then I finished the year with Randon Adams. This was a lot more of a learning experience for me than 2006. Sure, there were times my partners could have roped a little better. But I felt like I roped poorly.
KS:Which is more shocking for you-making the Finals in 2006, or not making it in 2007?
MS: Not making it in 2007. I'm extremely disappointed in the way I roped all year. I didn't deserve to make the Finals. Generally speaking, I roped poorly. I hate to say I roped great last year, but I turned a lot of steers for money. My roping this year was way too sporadic. I take full responsibility for it. Being home in December is not going to kill me. But it's very disappointing.
KS:Has winning the world changed your life in any way?
MS: Winning the world did affect my roping a little. Last year, I just backed in there and took my shot. I started out this year letting expectations of a world champion affect my roping a little. I felt like I had to turn every steer to be 4, instead of turning the bad ones to be 6. I felt like I had to do something great every run. Pretty soon, it was the middle of July and I was barely in the top 15. For everyone who does good, someone has to do bad. I'm not happy about my year, but I do love to see some of these other guys going to the Finals and so excited.
KS:What has rodeo taught you about life?
MS: I'm disappointed in some of my decisions, like doubting people when they're not doing their best. I've learned I need to show more confidence in people. There are more important things than winning every time. You just need to do your best and have more faith in others. I've learned to try to do better within the team instead of just changing teams.
KS:We all know it's a jungle out there. What's the key to making it in this game?
MS: What really helped me a lot toward the end of this year is knowing I'm not going to make the Finals by what I win at Denver or San Antonio alone. You don't win a world championship on any one single steer. I've found myself trying to do huge things on every steer this year, instead of taking my best shot on what I draw. I found myself trying to win $10,000 on one steer, because that's how much I was behind. Winning consistently makes the National Finals, and you can't make the National Finals on one steer. The key is not trying to force things to happen every time the gates crack.
Going into it next year, win, lose or draw, I'm going to go do my best on every steer and rope him for what he is.
KS:You beat Chad Masters for the world championship by $848.72 last year. Who are you pulling for this year?
MS: I'm pulling for anyone who has not won a world title. It's a great group of guys and I like them all. The guys who've won one have gotten to experience that feeling I got to experience last year. I'm not pulling against anyone. They only crown a champ once a year, and whoever wins it will have roped the best and will deserve it. But it won't mean the same to someone who repeats as someone who hasn't gotten to do it. I'd love for everyone to be able to experience it one time. Guys like Daniel Green and Kory Koontz have deserved to win a world championship. Anyone who ropes that good and tries that hard deserves it.
KS:What's the plan for 2008?
MS: My plan right now is to rope with Randon Adams. I have confidence in Randon's roping and mine. The plan is to rope my very best all year long. I'm not going to California in the spring or the Northwest in the fall. If I can't make the Finals without that, so be it. You have to be gone too long during those stretches. They're great rodeos, but being gone for a month to go to four or five rodeos doesn't work for a husband and father. I hope the rodeo business will work together to make this make more sense for all of us. I'm excited to start next year. I have confidence in my roping again. I've learned a whole lot from this year, and hope to have success in this sport. I'm not going to do this forever. I'm going to head one more year. Then I might try to win a world championship heeling and be done. That would be the coolest thing-to be the only person to win a world title heading and heeling and walk away. I know it'd take a miracle, but me winning one heading was a miracle. So if a guy's going to dream, he might as well dream big.