[Originally published November 2015. Updated November 2022.]
Every sport is full of armchair quarterbacks who analyze the big dogs from the grandstands and throw things at the TV from their recliners at home. That’s just people, and it’s part of why watching the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is so much fun for fans at every level of the actual ability spectrum. I thought it would be that much more fun to see what true legends in our game have to say in terms of advice for twisting the Thomas & Mack, strategizing to win the gold buckle and their own most memorable NFR moments. Here it is, in the words of five guys with 21 gold buckles, 116 NFR go-round wins and 10 NFR average championships to their credit.
What’s your best advice to today’s NFR team ropers on how to win in the Thomas & Mack Center?
NFR Qualifications: 15
NFR Average Wins: 1, 2001
NFR Go-Round Wins: 28
World Titles: 8, 1997-2004
No matter what happened 23 hours, 59 minutes and 50 seconds ago, you have to believe in yourself and execute what you’ve been practicing. I’ve lived that experience, and you have to back in the box and do what you’ve prepared to do. You cannot dwell on what you did the last round, and you cannot second-guess yourself. The bottom line is you have to believe in yourself. You do not have time to hesitate. There’s no time to think or make sure in that little building. You’ve got to go with your reactions and do what you’ve prepared yourself to do. What happens to people in the Thomas & Mack is you start off bad and go to trying to do too much. If the first couple rounds don’t go according to plan, you have to be able to black out prior mistakes and bad things that have happened, and execute like you won the last round. Lie to yourself if you have to, because you have to believe it’s about to go great. In my mind, I won the last two rounds, no matter what happened, because if you don’t think that way it’s hard to fire.
NFR Qualifications: 15
NFR Average Wins: 0
NFR Go-Round Wins: 21
World Titles: 2, 1993 and 1995
It’s hard to win in that little small arena and short setup no matter what happens. The hard part is keeping your horse working when everybody’s trying to be 3. You’ve got 10 runs there, and it’s hard to keep your horse from cheating in that kind of setup. You have to get a good start, but they’re throwing so far now. The steers these days know how to take the jerk. Back in the day, the steers either went down or pulled you down the arena. They were liable to land on their side or be up in the bleachers, because they were only turned twice before the rodeo started. It’s a whole different roping now than it used to be, because the steers are coming from herds that’ve been roped. The way they do it now is more entertaining. Everybody likes to watch 3-second runs. When we were roping, middle 4-second runs were a heck of a run. They yawn if you aren’t 3.9 now. You basically need to get a good start, take a good shot, draw a good steer and make no mental errors.
NFR Qualifications: 20
NFR Average Wins: 6, the record, 1968-71,1980, 1982
NFR Go-Round Wins: 24
World Titles: 5, 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1983, tied Tom Ferguson for the all-around title in 1975
Now with $27,000 to win a round ($26,230.77, to be exact; the average pays $67,269.23 a man), sixth in a go-round is a pretty healthy win ($4,230.77). That would be a good win during the course of the year. I look at the Finals as chances to win money. When you’re one of the two or three or four last teams in a round to rope and you realize a leg’s winning third—if you’re still reaching to be 3 to win the day money, that’s not the way it’s drawn up in my book. When I see those kinds of decisions I’m not sure what they’re thinking. Money or mud, or if you’re first you’re last, I guess. To me, if you can just get tapped off, that’s the big thing. Maybe that means placing in the first few rounds. Now you’ve set yourself up for winning the average and winning it all. You cannot lose your composure. You have to rope to win big by just doing what you do best and that’s roping—not doing the wild west thing of reaching, shooting from the hip and hoping that’ll work sooner or later. When three-point shots work, you’re a hero. When they don’t, you don’t win anything. It’s all about business and being a professional. When you draw something good, don’t be stupid and not take advantage of that. You can’t squander whatever opportunities come up. I won by being opportunistic and taking advantage of situations as they arose. When you get that good one or a round is soft at the end and you still haven’t roped, do what it takes to win. The champions are about winning. Then there are the guys you see who are more hit and miss. Ten percent of the PRCA cream goes to the NFR, and 10 percent of that cream rises to the top at the NFR. In all sports there is a character about people who win who are obviously head and shoulders above the rest. They have that confidence, talent and intelligence about them that makes them stand out. Sometimes things happen when the best have off times because they try too hard or the ball bounces the wrong direction and you’re not what you want to be. There are times you can’t seem to get it going, and times when you’re just making it happen and everything you do just keeps getting better and you get further out in the lead. Getting tapped off is the key. When you waste good cattle and make bad decisions you can find yourself with a lot of catching up to do. This is a game of inches. A broken barrier or a leg can make the difference. You have to execute.
[Editor’s note: In 2022, the NFR will pay $28,913.70 to the go-round winner, $4,663.50 for sixth in the go-round and the average will pay $74,149.92.]
NFR Qualifications: 20
NFR Average Wins: 1, 1987
NFR Go-Round Wins: 13
World Titles: 2, 1981 and 2007
Don’t make it a big deal. It’s dirt and steers and a building. It’s basically just another rodeo. Yes, it pays a lot. But if we block and tackle better than they block and tackle, we’ll win. It’s the NFR, so you think, “I’m going to have to be 4 flat on the first steer, then 3 on every steer after that.” It’s not that way. Stick to the mechanics and fundamentals. Score sharp. Don’t make it a big deal. You can pace back and forth and make it a big deal, then you break a barrier or rope a leg, it’s the fourth go-round all of a sudden and you haven’t placed. Now you’ve got trouble. Start out by catching. Boxers get hit, but they realize they aren’t going to get killed. They get up and keep fighting. Go there and catch two or three, and you’ll feel so much better. If you start by missing three, and have seven to go with no money, your family starts asking you what’s the matter with you. People asking for your autograph at the trade shows want to know what’s wrong with you. You cannot make it a big deal. Do your job and rope the steers.
NFR Qualifications: 30
NFR Average Wins: 2, 1979 and 2006
NFR Go-Round Wins: 30
World Titles: 4, 1979, 1990, 1995 and 2006
One thing I haven’t totally understood is when they went to two loops a few years ago how it’s almost seemed like the roping at the Finals got more careless, for some reason. Certain guys used their heads, but a lot of guys let it fly every time. The name of the game is to be as fast as you can without missing. My advice would be to ride great horse position, and practice a lot before you get there taking the fastest shot you possibly can without missing. I’ve pretty rarely won good money there by not placing pretty good in the average, so that’s pretty darn important. But you have to stop the clock before you can win.
If you were roping at the Finals this month—with the goal of winning a gold buckle—would your game plan lean more toward winning rounds or trying to win the average?
The whole game’s changed now. We used to go fast, and if that didn’t work we had a second loop to stay in the average. You just had to be disciplined with your second loop—don’t miss or lose your rope.
Now it’s about making fast, controlled runs so you can win money in the rounds but you don’t eliminate yourself in the average. The whole game has changed since they went to two loops. The big thing now is not to get a no-time. The last couple years if you catch every cow you’re going to win first or second in the average. Sometimes all you have to do is catch to win good money in the rounds, and sometimes you have to be 3 to win good money in the rounds. How you go at that depends on how you draw up in the rounds. You can be 4.1 and win nothing, then sometimes a leg wins quite a bit. The goal is to make a clean, fast, controlled run without putting yourself on the plank to get a no-time. That’s why Clay (Tryan) and Jade (Corkill) have won the last few world titles. They don’t miss many steers and they don’t make many major mistakes. The No. 1 name of the game in the Thomas & Mack now is not to get a no-time.
You’ve got to win money in some of the rounds, but the average is going to play a major role in who wins the world when it’s over. So you’re going to have to do both. To do that you have to rope smart—win in the rounds when you have a chance, and knock ’em down and get a time when you don’t. When it’s paying like it is now, it really does all come down to the Finals on who wins the world. If you don’t do good in Vegas, you have no shot at the gold buckle. The first year I won the world, Allen and I won five go-rounds in a row. We won no money in the average. That’s unheard of now. I don’t think you could do that now. I don’t see how you can escape winning money in the average and still win the world. Somebody will probably do it one of these days, but I’d hate to go try it.
Guys like Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper think the same way I do. We go there with the attitude that we’re not going to miss. We’re going to take advantage of the good steers and make our run. If that’s good enough to win the go-round, that’s what we do. If not, we just go knock every steer down. Then we give ourselves a chance to win the average, which in turn leads to a gold buckle. With all that said, when I rope in any roping that’s an average that’s what I’m roping for, because that’s a very successful rodeo or roping. A lot of guys go practice and if they catch one out of 10 consider it a successful session. If I don’t catch 99 out of 100 I don’t consider it a successful practice. You have to catch over 90 percent in the practice pen. And if you’re a heeler, if it’s not two feet it’s a miss, because one foot is a miss in my world. What golfer would be happy with bogeying the course on every hole? To me, champions rope very consistently. I watch Clay, Jade Corkill, Travis Graves and Patrick Smith rope, and they’re not going to miss. You turn those boys cattle and it’s almost a given that they’re going to catch the steer, like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson would have if they were cowboys. The superstars in any sport and in any day prove they can be depended on. They are not going to do anything stupid. If a header could show them 10 round-winning shots, those guys would figure out a way to get those steers caught without exposing themselves to failure. Some headers are fearless and reach, and that’s their thing. Eventually, you live by the sword and die by the sword. At the end of the day, if you can pull that off 10 straight rounds, high five to you and more power to you. But those are three pointers. It’s not impossible to be consistent at making three pointers. Look at the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry. People didn’t think he could make those shots from way outside all season long, but he did and he’s the world champ. It’s amazing how consistent some of the headers are getting at that now, too. When guys in any sport pull that off you’ve really got to hand it to ’em.
You can’t try to win the average. No disrespect to those who’ve won the average. I’ve won it. But no one sets out to win that. You don’t even think about the average until about Round 6. Those go-rounds pay almost $30,000. People who win the BFI go there trying to win the average from go-round one. People don’t do that at the NFR. I won the NFR average, but only because Tee Woolman broke the barrier on the last one trying to win the world championship. If he’d just tried to win the average I wouldn’t have won it. It’s almost like you sometimes back into it. You could go try to be 6 on every steer and you’d get booed out of the building. And rightly so. The goal is the gold buckle. You aren’t going to win the buckle just by winning the average. To do that you need money. You can’t not place in the average, but you don’t have to win it. And you have to be placing along the way. It doesn’t have to be first every round. I respected Luke Brown a couple years ago when he tried to place in the last round to win the world, even though he was winning the average. That’s what gets respect from your peers. It ended up falling apart and as it shook out he still won the average. But he missed trying to win the buckle. All of our dream is to win the buckle—not the NFR buckle, but the gold buckle for the world championship. No one even knows I won the average at the NFR.
To win it all, it has to be both. Everybody wants it all, of course. Some guys think go for the rounds and let the average take care of itself. I think more of the average. I’m going to develop the position and heel shot where I think I can catch 10 in a row. I’ve always told my headers there that I’d rather they break out twice than get out late once. The Thomas & Mack is one of the most different places in the country to rope. If you’re not in the barrier you’re not going to get that shot right there. If you’re off of it you can be immediately two coils away, and past the 50-yard line. That’s where a run really gets out of hand in that building. So one of my pre-game deals was always to not be afraid to break the barrier. Be in that thing. You can stay in the average with a barrier there. It’s that no-time that kills you. The header riding the barrier sets you up to where he can turn those steers from a coil back. If I, as a heeler, ride aggressive position, I can get a fast shot off and still be consistent about it. If I could catch three on the first jump and the other seven on the second jump, I’d be pretty happy. Guys like us aren’t supposed to miss, but shot selection is tough there. It’s not easy to get around steers fast there. You can’t let your horse rate and cut the corner. You have to really ride strong and keep your spacing.
What stands out as your most memorable NFR moment?
No question. When I missed my dally, got the rope under my horse’s tail and around his leg, and was lapping the NFR arena. I remember to this day, my dad telling me in my head: Don’t give up. He was telling me DO NOT QUIT in my mind, and I was trying to tell him, “Dad, we’re in a bind here.” But by placing in the average we won the world title that year. I have some great memories in that building, but those were the longest 50 seconds of my life. And I got a bigger standing ovation for that run than any of the great runs I ever made there. I had slack, coils and half hitches everywhere, and I was dragging the cow. Talk about embarrassing. All I know is that horse (Viper) cowed so well. I was the monkey on top of the border collie, and that horse kept tracking that steer, who was ducking and diving all over the place. No other horse has ever done what that horse did in that arena besides old Scamper (Charmayne James’ legendary barrel horse). I won all eight world titles thanks to that horse in that arena. There have been some great horses over the years, but they didn’t stay great in that little building like he did.
Winning the five go-rounds in a row in 1993 has to be the most memorable for me. Each steer was faster as it went. We (Bobby and Allen) just got on one of those rolls when your horses are working and you get in that zone. You’re drawing good, you’re roping good, your confidence is up and it all just falls into place. That’s pretty hard to do. The thing about Spiff (the sorrel horse he rode there that year) is he scored so good and ran across the line so hard. He was really strong on that left wall in that arena. He’d get ahold of steers hard enough where those steers wouldn’t swing into the fence and away from the heeler and into the wall. He helped me get those steers into a line quicker for Allen, and that gave him as honest a hop as you could give a guy in that arena on some of the mushhogs we roped back then. A lot of those steers didn’t know how to take a jerk, so they fought it. They’d beller and jump in the air when your rope went on. You didn’t know where they were headed. The steers stand up a lot better now because they’re conditioned better. As you watched Clay (Cooper) and Allen back then, and the shots they had to take in that arena, they were amazing. These guys today are almost crossfiring. That was a really hard shot then, because you had no idea where those steers were going next. It’s set up more as entertainment now, and that’s how it should be. That’s what makes it the most exciting to watch.
One run that really stands out is when Reg (Leo’s cousin) and I were the last team to go in Round 10, and we were leading it all in Oklahoma City one year. It was a year when we dallied on half the steers and tied (team tied) the other five. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with team tying, in Leo’s words: Both ropers were tied on, the header roped the steer around the horns and turned him off, the heeler heeled him, then turned out (to the left) and pulled the steer down. If you roped a leg on a 600-750 pound steer, it was really hard to get him down. Then the header jumped off and stuck a square knot with a knot string/tie string, which was made of nylon about six feet long and carried in his belt. A square knot around the two hind feet, right above the heel rope, using any two overhand knots was considered a qualified knot. If a guy had a steer by one leg, the header would have to try to tail him to get him down before he tied him. The heeler carried a string, too, just as backup, for if a header hung his string on the saddle horn or a steer kicked the string away, the heeler could throw his string down. It didn’t happen much, but the heeler could get off and tie the steer if something went south with the header on the ground. It was a pretty primitive way of team roping, but that was part of it back in the day.) The last round that year was a team-tying round, and we had a big Hereford-Brahma—a big, red white-faced high-horned steer—nobody had caught or placed on. There was one like that every year—that one you did not want to draw. Reg and I drew that steer that had taken everybody out. We had a chance to win the Finals, but we had to make a run. I remember waiting our turn to rope, and everybody was buzzing about us having that steer. They didn’t think we could catch him. They all figured on moving up a hole. They counted us out. But in sport, it’s never over until it’s over. He was terrible. He ran so hard and he ran up the rope. Reg knocked that barrier back and turned him back, he ran up the rope, I hammered him, and we won the last day money and the average. It was a great run in my career, and one of the greatest runs of all time because of the circumstance. Everybody makes good runs on the good ones. But when you do it on an impossible son of a gun, that’s doing it.
Going into the last night one year Matt Sherwood had to place deep in the last round—fourth or better—and 4.3 was already fourth when we were about to rope. We had to be 4.2 or faster for Matt to win the championship, and that’s exactly what we were. A world championship was on the line for a guy. That’s a lot of pressure. And it’s team roping, so what I do is the difference between him winning or losing. I couldn’t win a buckle that year, but he could. Being able to come through for him—he was my partner—and being able to step up and make that shot is a great feeling I’ll never forget. And as for my son getting to rope with Matt at the Finals this year, that is awesome. I love it. I have a lot of respect for Matt Sherwood. I think he’s a smart roper who uses his head. He was amazing when I roped with him, and he knows how to win. Travis has become a fanatic about winning. To get an opportunity behind a guy like Matt Sherwood is pretty incredible.
It wasn’t my run, but the funniest thing I’ve ever seen at the NFR was one time when Rickey Green was winning the average with Brian Burrows going into the ninth or 10th round and Brian missed. Rickey ocean-waved the steer around the horns, and when he dallied he let go of the reins so he could fist pump the crowd. His saddle wasn’t pulled tight, so it slipped off to the side of his horse and off he went. The crowd gave Rickey a standing ovation, and we were all whipping ourselves it was so funny. Brian was still trying to heel the steer when Rickey fell off. That had to be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen at the Finals. I’ve never laughed harder. On the serious side, 1993 and 1995 are really memorable. We had to win the 10th round, which was five in a row, for Bobby to win the world in 1993. And in 1995, we just needed a good run on our last one for us both to win it and we drew the worst head ducker in the herd. He was so bad that Mark Arnold bought him to take home, so he could try to figure out how to rope him. Bobby coming through under big-time pressure on the last one in both 1993 and 1995 was pretty cool.