This year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which will run December 4-13 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas-AKA “Cowboy Town,” per Brooks and Dunn’s 2008 NFR theme song-will be my 22nd consecutive NFR work-wise. Lewis Feild won his third straight world all-around crown my first year to work it, in 1987. Bruce Ford took his fifth world bareback riding title that year; Steve Duhon was king of the steer wrestlers; Clint Johnson topped the saddle bronc riding pack; Joe Beaver won one of his eight gold buckles; Charmayne James and Scamper rounded up their fourth of 10 straight world titles (she later won an 11th championship aboard Cruiser); and my dear late friend Lane Frost realized his dream of becoming a world champion bull rider. (Another late amigo of mine, Shaun Burchett, won his first world steer roping title that year, too, and I must mention it even though it’s not technically NFR-related because it happened at the National Finals Steer Roping.)
I was really just getting to know 1987 World Team Roping Champs Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper back then. I’d seen Jake around a little bit because of his early-career partnership with old family friend Leo Camarillo, and I’d stayed at Clay’s house in Arizona with my old college buddy Beth Beach (Clay’s first wife). But Clay was usually off rodeoing. Jake and Clay won the third straight championship of their storied seven world team roping titles that year. All three of us were on the shy side during those early interviews, but I do remember well that they were the same gracious, humble guys I’m proud to call friends today.
All these years later, I’ll be there interviewing the likes of Lewis and Bruce’s sons, Kaycee Feild and Royce Ford, at this year’s NFR. Joe B. will be in the broadcast booth working on the telecast, so there’s great news for those of you who can’t be there with us in person. And all these years later (pending an unforeseen disaster in Dallas), the ultimate warriors-Jake and Clay-will be back in action at NFR ’08. This will be Jake’s 24th NFR, and Clay’s 25th.
I wasn’t even alive when the first NFR played out in Dallas in 1959, but I do know contestants roped and rode for $50,000 in total prize money at that inaugural Finals. Team ropers were on their own, by the way. They duked it out over $5,000 in a separate event held in Clayton, N.M., then Scottsdale, Ariz., and Santa Maria, Calif., before being added to the official Finals lineup in 1962.
The first three NFRs were held in Dallas. Then Los Angeles enjoyed a three-year run. Oklahoma City was home to the Finals from 1965-84, with a venue change from the Jim Norick Arena to the Myriad in 1979. In 1985, the NFR moved to Vegas to stay. Contestants at the 50th annual NFR will be running at a record $5,625,000.
In honor of the thousands of memorable moments that have unfolded since the start, I’ve put together 50 special ones that stand out to me. There are countless other achievements in this sport of equal import, no doubt. I tried to spread it around, among various eras and events. Again, I wasn’t there to see them for myself in 1959, the 1960s, ’70s or early ’80s. But in my daily diggings for historical perspectives, these are a few of the highlights that stick out as special. I find it fun to look back at some of the highlights and memorable happenings from the first 50 years of the Finals. Here is a scatter shot of 50 cool accomplishments from different decades in NFR history, in no particular order.
1. Jim Shoulders won his record 15th and 16th world titles (all-around and bull riding) at the first-ever NFR in 1959. Shoulders won the NFR bull riding average at that first Finals, too. He also presented to President Dwight Eisenhower the first NFR ticket, made of solid gold, in Washington, D.C. that year.
2. Trevor Brazile managed a rare rodeo Triple Crown in 2007, with world all-around, tie-down roping and steer roping titles. He’s won eight gold buckles altogether, including five in the all-around, two in steer roping and one in tie-down roping. Brazile is the only cowboy ever to qualify for a National Finals in four different disciplines-tie-down roping, steer roping and team roping as both a header and a heeler.
3. Cowboy icon Casey Tibbs won his ninth and last gold buckle in 1959. The man who so loved the color purple and had a unique flair for fashion won his first world saddle bronc riding title in 1949, and went on to win five others from 1951-54. That run of four straight saddle bronc riding titles is a record that still stands, and today Tibbs co-owns the six-title saddle bronc riding standard with Dan Mortensen. Tibbs won the all-around championship of the world in 1951 and 1955. What a lot of people don’t remember is that Casey was the 1951 world bareback riding champion.
4. In 1998, Ty Murray became the first cowboy in PRCA history to win seven world all-around championships. The first hand Murray shook as he walked out the arena gate was that of living legend Larry Mahan. Mahan, who mentored Murray when he was just a kid, and Tom Ferguson both won six gold all-around buckles. Murray rehabbed hard after surgeries on both shoulders and knees to return to the arena and accomplish this unprecedented feat, which was his childhood dream. He also won a pair of world bull riding titles, and NFR bareback and bull riding averages in his legendary career.
5. Joe Beaver won his first of three world all-around championships in 1995. Beaver, who is a five-time PRCA world tie-down roping champion, won his first gold buckle in 1985. That was the year he also was named PRCA Overall and Tie-Down Roping Rookie of the Year. Because of Beaver’s reign of dominance starting with the move to Vegas in 1985, the Thomas and Mack Center is often referred to in rodeo circles as, “The House That Joe Built.” Beaver, Roy Cooper, Fred Whitfield and Olin Young share the record for most NFR average wins in the tie-down roping event with four apiece.
6. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton won a record eighth straight world team roping title in 2004. The dynamic duo won the NFR team roping average in 2001. For that stretch of time in team roping history, the saying rang true: “To Get Rich, You Gotta Have Speed.”
7. Saddle bronc rider Billy Etbauer, who this year will ride at a record 20th consecutive NFR, won five rounds and placed in four others en route to winning the NFR saddle bronc riding average and his first of five world championships with record single-event season earnings in 1992. Brothers Robert (who won the world in 1990-91) and Dan Etbauer, along with honorary brother Craig Latham (whose late brother Deke Latham also rode broncs at the Finals), proved a dominating force for many years. Dan will serve as an NFR pickup man this year.
8. Jim Sharp, the 1986 PRCA Overall and Bull Riding Rookie of the Year, became the first man in rodeo history to ride all 10 bulls at the NFR when he got it done in 1988. The ProRodeo Hall of Famer they call “Razor” won his first of two world bull riding titles that year.
9. Charmayne James and her wonder horse Scamper won the seventh round in 1985, despite her bridle breaking and falling down around the horse’s neck during the run. They went on to win their second of 10 world titles that year.
10. Lewis Feild won his third-straight world all-around championship in 1987. Feild also won world bareback riding titles in 1985-86. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1992. Feild won NFR bareback riding titles in 1984 and 1986. His son Kaycee, who won the 2008 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association bareback riding title, will ride at his first NFR this month.
11. The legendary Lane Frost won the 1987 world bull riding championship. At 25, the charismatic and popular cowboy died two summers later at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1990. (The legendary bull Red Rock, who was Frost’s bovine counterpart in the popular “Challenge of the Champions” between the 1987 world champion bull rider and world champion bull, also was inducted into the Hall in 1990.) Frost of Lane, Okla., won the NFR bull riding championship in 1986. Ironically, the only bull he didn’t make the whistle on that year was Red Rock.
12. Tuff Hedeman made a most memorable ride in round 10 of the 1989 NFR when he rode his last bull eight seconds to clinch his second of three PRCA world titles, then rode the bull another eight seconds for his fallen friend and 1987 PRCA World Champion Bull Rider Lane Frost. Hedeman, who rode at a dozen NFRs during his ProRodeo Hall of Fame career, lost his traveling partner and best friend Frost when he died in the arena at the Cheyenne Frontier Days that summer.
13. ProRodeo Hall of Famers Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper won their seventh world team roping title in 1994 after setting the 59.1-second NFR record on 10 steers, which still stands today.
14. Dean Oliver, who earned three straight world all-around titles from 1963-65, won a record eighth world tie-down roping title in 1969 at age 40. ProRodeo Hall of Famer Oliver won the 1961 NFR tie-down roping average at the third annual NFR.
15. After five consecutive world all-around crowns from 1966-70, Larry “Bull” Mahan won a record sixth world all-around championship in 1973. Mahan, who was an original ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee in 1979, was a longtime three-event Finals qualifier. Mahan, who excelled in the three roughstock events, won the NFR saddle bronc riding average in 1967.
16. Bobby Hurley, who was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame this year, and Allen Bach caught fire during the 1993 NFR and won five straight rounds (six through 10). The rare NFR roll led to Hurley’s first of two world team roping titles that year. In 1995, the first-ever separate heading and heeling championships were awarded. They were won by Hurley and Bach.
17. Tom Ferguson won his sixth consecutive world all-around championship in 1979 (he co-owned the crown with Leo Camarillo in 1975), tying Larry Mahan’s record for most overall all-around titles. Ferguson, who still shares the record for most consecutive all-around titles with Ty Murray (1989-94), was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1999. Ferguson roped calves and bulldogged at the NFR for many years, and won the NFR steer wrestling average in 1977-78 and 1981.
18. Cody Ohl blew out his knee in round nine of the 2001 NFR en route to his third of now five world tie-down roping titles. Ohl, who had the calf roped by one hind leg, suffered a severe knee injury stepping off his horse but pulled his pocket knife, cut the rope, flanked the calf and tied him-running on pure adrenaline-before collapsing on the arena floor and being carried out on a stretcher. Ohl also won the 2001 world all-around crown, and stepped up on center stage after round 10 on crutches. Ohl brought the packed NFR house down again in 2003 with a blazing 6.5-second record run. Overachiever Ohl came back and set the NFR tie-down roping earnings record of $132,652 in 2006.
19. ProRodeo Hall of Famer John W. Jones Sr. was the first-ever Overall PRCA Rookie of the Year in 1956. The 1970 world champion steer wrestler holds the record for the most NFR steer wrestling average championships ever at four (1965 and 1968-70).
20. Following in his famous father’s footsteps, fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer John W. Jones Jr. was the 1981 Overall PRCA Rookie of the Year. Jones Jr. won the average at the 1988 NFR, and world steer wrestling titles in 1984, 1988 and 1989.
21. Phil Lyne will go down in rodeo history as one of the true all-around cowboy greats. The 1969 PRCA Rookie of the Year won world all-around and tie-down roping crowns in 1971 and 1972, and at the 1972 NFR won average titles at both ends of the arena in the tie-down roping and bull riding events.
22. Ace Berry is one of only two cowboys ever to win an NFR average title at both ends of the arena. In 1972-the same year Phil Lyne accomplished the feat in tie-down roping and bull riding-Berry won the bareback riding and team roping events at the Finals. Berry also won the NFR bareback riding average in 1971, and the NFR team roping title in 1967.
23. Donnie Gay won a record eighth world bull riding title in 1984. A constant contender throughout his career, ProRodeo Hall of Famer Gay won the NFR bull riding championship in the USA’s bicentennial year of 1976. Gay rode at 13 NFRs between 1972 and 1985.
24. Leo “The Lion” Camarillo won a record six NFR team roping average championships in his storied career, from 1968-71, in 1980 and 1982. Camarillo won the 1968 NFR with Billy Wilson, 1969-71 with cousin Reg, and 1980 and ’82 with Tee Woolman. Leo won world titles in the team roping in 1972 and ’73, 1975 and 1983. He was the co-world all-around cowboy with Tom Ferguson in 1975. Leo’s brother, Jerold, won the world in 1969, and the NFR with Reg in 1975.
25. Bruce Ford won his fifth world bareback riding title in 1987, tying Joe Alexander’s record for most world bareback riding championships ever. Ford owns a record four NFR bareback riding buckles dated 1979-80, 1982 and 1987. He competed in a record 19 NFRs in the bareback riding event-1974-91 and 1998. Ford’s son, Royce, will chap up for his sixth straight NFR in 2008.
26. In 1975, J.D. Yates became the youngest NFR qualifier ever when he roped with his dad, Dick, at that year’s Finals. J.D. was 15 years, 4 months old. Ace Berry also qualified for the Finals at 15-15 years and 11 months-in the team roping event in 1962. In 1984, the Yates family became the only father-son-daughter trio ever to qualify for the Finals the same year, when Dick and J.D. team roped together and Dick and Jan’s daughter/J.D.’s sister Kelly ran barrels.
27. Monty “Hawkeye” Henson and Rod Warren share the record for most NFR saddle bronc riding average wins at four each. ProRodeo Hall of Famer Henson got it done in 1976, 1982, 1984 and 1985. Warren won the Finals in 1998, and three straight NFRs from 2003-05. Henson was famous for his flying dismounts; no pickup man required.
28. Will Lowe co-owns the NFR bareback riding record with Justin McDaniel. Both were 91.5 points at the 2007 NFR; Lowe on Mosbrucker Rodeo’s Magic Wars, and McDaniel aboard J Bar J Rodeo’s Delta Ship. That record ride led to Lowe’s 846-point NFR bareback riding record on 10 horses. Lowe also set the standing NFR bareback riding earnings record of $128,302 in 2006.
29. Billy Etbauer shares the NFR saddle bronc riding record with himself. He’s been 93 points there twice, both times on Kesler Championship Rodeo’s Cool Alley Dip, in 2003 and 2004. Etbauer also set the $120,775 NFR saddle bronc riding earnings record in 2005. Etbauer hasn’t missed an NFR since his first one back in 1989.
30. Rod Hay holds the NFR saddle bronc riding record on 10 broncs with 826 points in 2007. But if you go all the way back to the first NFR in Dallas in 1959, Jim Tescher was 1,806 points on 10 horses under a different points system that today’s scale translates to 860 points. from 1959-63, the roughstock events were based on 210 possible points. Tescher also won the NFR in 1963.
31. In 1994, Adriano Moraes became the third man ever to ride all 10 bulls at the NFR when he racked up 773 points in 10 rounds. The Brazilian joined Jim Sharp (771 points on 10 in 1988) and Norman Curry (1990). Curry holds the overall high-point record with 800 on 10 bulls. Sharp and Denny Flynn share the record for most NFR bull riding average wins with three each, Sharp in 1988-89 and 1992, and Flynn in 1975 and 1981-82. Flynn was tremendously talented, and is often referred to as the greatest bull rider never to win a world title.
32. ProRodeo Hall of Famer Tee Woolman won his first of three world team roping titles as the 1980 PRCA Team Roping Rookie of the Year after winning his first Finals with Leo Camarillo. Woolman, who won the NFR team roping average five times (1980, ’82, ’87, ’90 and 2005), has qualified for more National Finals than any other cowboy ever-45 in all-including 26 NFRs and 19 National Finals Steer Roping berths.
33. ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy “Super Looper” Cooper won his first of eight world titles as Overall 1976 PRCA Rookie of the Year after winning the tie-down roping title at that year’s NFR. Cooper’s oldest son, Clint, is a two-time NFR tie-down roper, and his youngest of three sons, Tuf, will rope at his first Finals in 2008. The Super Looper became the first-ever $2 million cowboy during the 2000 NFR. He also was the last cowboy to win rodeo’s Triple Crown before Trevor Brazile did it in 2007, when Cooper won all-around, steer roping and tie-down roping titles in 1983.
34. Walt Woodard won his first gold buckle in the team roping event back in 1981, and used a stellar NFR performance to regain the world championship throne more than two and a half decades later in 2007. Woodard, who was 52 when he won his second championship, plans to retire from the full-time rodeo road after the 2008 NFR.
35. Fred Whitfield raised the Thomas and Mack Center roof in 1997 with a 10-round record of 84 seconds flat. Whitfield’s won seven world titles in the tie-down roping thanks to stellar NFR performances in Vegas, and in 1999 also captured the coveted world all-around crown. As the PRCA Overall and Tie-Down Roping Rookie of the Year in 1990, Whitfield set an NFR record of 91.7 seconds and an NFR earnings record of $70,609 before later erasing those marks.
36. Twice in NFR history steer wrestlers have matched the 3.0-second mark. The record runs were made by Steve Duhon in 1986, and Bryan Fields in 2001.
37. The fastest steer ever roped in the team roping at the NFR was a 3.5-second run by Clay Tryan and Patrick Smith in 2005, when they won the world together. That run tied the world record in the event. Leading up to their signature season, Smith won the 2003 NFR average behind Matt Tyler, and Tryan took the 2004 NFR team roping title in front of Michael Jones.
38. Rope Myers parlayed an NFR steer wrestling record of 37.4 seconds on 10 head into the 2001 world title in that event. The record still stands. Myers is the son of 1980 World Champion Steer Wrestler Butch Myers, who won the NFR average in 1986 and 1997. Butch has another NFR-regular son, Cash, along with daughter Tygh (of “Rope and Tygh for Cash” fame). Ty Murray is a cousin to Rope, Tygh and Cash, and a nephew to Butch.
39. Tie-down roper Mike Johnson is an NFR institution. He qualified for his first Finals in 1983, and 2008 will be his 23rd. At 44, Johnson will outdo his own record for most NFR qualifications in the event.
40. Olin Young won the tie-down roping average at the first NFR in 1959, and went on to win the 10-head contest three more times in 1962-63 and 1971 for a total of four NFR average wins. The four wins tie him for the most ever in the event with Roy Cooper, Joe Beaver and Fred Whitfield.
41. Wacey Cathey and Ted Nuce are the co-ironmen of the bull riding event at the NFR. Cathey and Nuce each qualified for a record 14 NFRs in their storied careers, Cathey in 1976, 1978-79 and 1981-91; Nuce from 1982-95.
42. ProRodeo Hall of Famer Chris Lybbert won back-to-back NFR tie-down roping averages in 1980-81, then returned to the 1982 NFR and took the steer wrestling average crown. The 1982 NFR average victory propelled
Lybbert to that year’s world all-around championship.
43. Three-time World Champion Steer Wrestler and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Duvall qualified for a record 24 NFRs over the span of four decades in that event. He bulldogged at his first Finals in 1966, and his last one in 1994. Duvall won the Finals in 1984. He qualified for the most consecutive NFRs in any event with a string of 21 straight Finals appearances from 1966-86.
44. In 1971, Bobby Berger qualified for the NFR in all three roughstock events (after replacing an injured Larry Mahan in the bareback riding and moving up from 16th) and overcame the obstacle of multiple injuries en route to winning the NFR bull riding title. By round 10, Berger had a broken hand and toe, a sprained wrist and bruised elbow. But he would not be denied. Berger was the first man ever to make a qualified ride on Beutler Brothers, Linger and Cervi’s notorious Charolais bull 00 (pronounced Double Ott). In 1979, Berger beat out Tom Miller by a mere $5 for the gold buckle after 10 hard fought rounds at the NFR.
45. In 1975, the first-ever set of three brothers qualified for the NFR. Butch Kirby rode bulls, Kaye rode bareback horses and Sandy competed in both of those events. The bronc riding Etbauer brothers, Robert, Dan and Billy, later became the only other set of three brothers to qualify for the Finals. They accomplished the feat from 1989-92, and 1994-97, and are the only set of three brothers in rodeo history to qualify for the same event in the same year.
46. Three men in rodeo history qualified for the NFR and also worked rodeo’s Super Bowl as bullfighters. Wilbur Plaugher wrestled steers at the first Finals in 1959 and fought bulls at the 1972 NFR; Jerry Olson wrestled steers at the 1969 NFR and was a bullfighter at the Finals in 1973; Frank Rhodes was an NFR bareback rider in 1959, and an NFR bullfighter in 1971 and 1977.
47. A young, aspiring cowboy singer by the name of Chris LeDoux ran off with the 1976 world bareback riding championship by virtue of being the high-money man at that year’s NFR. From 1976-78, PRCA world titles were decided on that sudden-death Finals format. LeDoux beat out five-time champ of the world and that year’s regular-season leader Joe Alexander, and also that year’s NFR average champ Jack Ward for the world title. The late LeDoux went on to fame and fortune in the music business, but never forgot his rodeo roots. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2005.
48. In 1988, Australian Dave Appleton won the world all-around championship with a 10th-round bareback riding win to edge Lewis Feild for what would have been his fourth straight world all-around title by a scant $643.
49. Freckles Brown, almost 47, mastered the legendary Tornado at the 1967 NFR. Brown also won the NFR bull riding average that year. He won the world bull riding title in 1962, and went on to mentor the young man and fellow Oklahoman who would become the 1987 world champion, Lane Frost.
50. A dozen men in rodeo history have won National Finals averages in two events. They are, in alphabetical order: Dave Appleton, bareback and saddle bronc riding; Bobby Berger, saddle bronc and bull riding; Ace Berry, bareback riding and team roping; Roy Cooper, tie-down and steer roping; Sandy Kirby, bareback and bull riding; Chris Lybbert, steer wrestling and tie-down roping; Don McLaughlin, tie-down and steer roping; Ty Murray, bareback and bull riding; Dennis Reiners, bareback and saddle bronc riding; Mark Schricker, steer wrestling and tie-down roping; Tee Woolman, team roping and steer roping; and Olin Young, tie-down roping and steer roping.