Remember Round 9 at the 2009 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, when JoJo LeMond and Randon Adams were 3.4 to set a new NFR and world team roping record, and it lasted mere minutes before Chad Masters and Jade Corkill broke it again with a 3.3-second blur (which was tied last summer by Dustin Egusquiza and Travis Graves in Oakley City, Utah)? At the other end of the team roping record longevity spectrum was Jake Barnes and Clay Cooper’s 59.1-second NFR average record set way back in 1994. It took 27 years to rewrite that one. But Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins finally cracked the code at the 2021 NFR, and set the new mark of 54.7 on 10.
“We consider ourselves a team with a high catch rate,” said Andrew, 31, who lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with his wife, Hayli. “I’ve also been very fast with Buds—we were 3.5 at Coleman Proctor’s Mock NFR roping in Tulsa in November, and 3.6 at the rodeo in San Angelo—but it’s both of our natures to catch.
“We make a lot of controlled runs. We don’t practice a lot together, but we jackpot together. And we see roping similarly. So when we’re apart, we’re working on things like getting control of our horses, so we compete better as a team. We make a lot of slower runs separately when we’re home, and it seems like our run keeps getting better.”
Same seems to go for long averages—like, say, the 10-header in December at the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas. Andrew saddled up his 11-year-old brown Biscuit, and Buddy backed into the Super Bowl of Rodeo box aboard his 15-year-old sorrel, X. And away they went, in hot pursuit of the dividends due their style and strategy.
“Buddy said, ‘I think we can go out there, catch 10 cows, win the average and set the record,’” said Ward, who just roped at his second-straight NFR with his brother-in-law. “I said, ‘I agree. Let’s go out there and catch 10 of them.’ We’re a catching team, but we can go fast when things line out right.
“When everybody started going fast from halfway in the rodeo on, my mentality of just catching got in the way of making a ton of money. I maybe had a little too much catch in me toward the end of it.”
Don’t get him wrong. He’s not about to complain about winning the NFR average, setting the new gold standard on 10, a $115,811 bank deposit on a 10-day job or a $184,652 season that put them both seventh in the final 2021 world standings. But if he’s honest with the man in the mirror, Andrew knows he might have left a little more money on the table that was his team’s for the taking.
“If I was critiquing myself, I could have continued to push the barrier and we could have been being in the low 4s with a few 3s sprinkled in,” Andrew said. “Because our team is capable of making great runs while we’re catching.”
“Andrew and I have been buddies about 15 years now, and we’ve always caught a lot together,” added Columbus, Kansas native Buddy, who’s 35 now. “That’s our history. We bought into the fact that if you simplify something and do it at a high percentage, you’ll inevitably be fast enough to win something. Catching a lot is our singular directive.”
These two kicked off their partnership in October of 2019, so have two full seasons and two NFR qualifications together under their belts. When Andrew and Buddy joined forces, Hawkins had roped at two NFRs—his first with Drew Horner in 2013; his second behind Lane Ivy in 2018.
“We weren’t rookies when we started roping together,” Buddy said. “Andrew and his brother, Reagan, were a catching team. Drew and I started as a catching team, and we struggled when we got away from that. Lane and I were a little more hit and miss, but when we hit, we usually hit big. Andrew and I, we’re a catching team.”
Hawkins hadn’t yet met Hayli Ward’s sister, Tori, when he teamed up with Andrew. After one of the world’s shortest courtships, Buddy and Tori are married now, and expecting a baby girl they plan to name Anne Elizabeth on 2-22-22.
“We’re really thriving in this season of life,” Buddy said. “We’re super excited.”
“I don’t think us being brothers-in-law changes anything in any way with our team,” Andrew added. “If we were going to be partners for a long time, we were going to have to do good together, whether we were related or not. We have a lot of fun. But Buds and I both need to provide for our families. So we went into our partnership with a business mindset. We thought we could catch together, and that would rack up money and make us a living.
“We’re both in the same spot in life. When we started, we were young guys worried about making enough to make our truck and trailer payments, and keeping enough horses to keep going. It’s all about making a living now. I really wanted to make $100,000 at the NFR to have a good year.”
Check. As for capitalizing on NFR experience, there wasn’t a lot Ward felt he could carry over from the 2020 NFR in Arlington, Texas, to his first Finals at the Thomas & Mack.
“The NFR felt new both years, because the two arenas and setups really didn’t relate to each other much,” Andrew said. “I felt like a rookie twice. The only thing that was the same is if you made a good run, they’d pay you good money in both places. But it’s hard to explain what it feels like the first time you ride in there at the Thomas & Mack, and all those people are right on top of you. I was more nervous in Vegas, because it’s a much more intense environment.”
Only two teams—Ward and Hawkins, and Erich Rogers and Paden Bray—roped all 10 steers. Buddy slipped a leg in Round 5. Erich and Paden had five legs and a 30-second crossfire, to finish with 98.7 on 10 and 44 seconds behind Andrew and Buddy. Riding into Round 10, it really was a mathematical matter of catching.
“We could miss our cow and still maybe win second or third in the average,” Andrew said of the scenario on their last steer. “But by the 10th night, it wasn’t about winning the average. By then, it was about breaking that record. (And they had 10.8 to tie Jake and Clay’s 59.1 on 10.)
“Our roping is simple. We just try to make the best run we can with no mistakes all year long. I made it harder by laying off of the barrier, because if I’d gotten a better start, I’d have made it easier on Buds and me. I kind of let the record get in the way of pressing harder. Luckily, I have a horse that came off of the racetrack.”
Part of their plan was to strike from the start.
“Our NFR strategy included trying to win as much money early as possible,” Buddy said; they ended up placing in four rounds along the way. “But we’re a catching team, and that’s in our DNA now. It isn’t in our makeup to miss.
“The easiest runs to make in that building are between about 3.8 and 4.2. How it ended, with us and Kaleb (Driggers) and Junior (Nogueira) just having to catch for us to win the average and them to win the world was a case of, ‘Don’t try this at home, kids.’ Neither 10th-round run was textbook, and both came with a high degree of difficulty.”
Andrew and Buddy are obviously both thrilled with the final outcome.
“I think it’s awesome that we set the record,” Andrew said. “And I’m super grateful for the great Finals we had. But I deviated from the plan a little bit by backing off. Rogers ran at the barrier every night, and turned all 10 cows. That’s what wins world titles. If I get to go back, I want to try and rope like that.
“4-second runs are par runs for that course. I’m being hard on myself, but that record got in my head. I know I could have done a little bit better. Buddy’s so stable. If you turn the cow, he’s going to heel him as fast as he can. The header’s the quarterback. It’s up to us to have the courage to be aggressive, and toward the end I felt like I got a little weak in that department. I’m not disappointed. I love what we did. I just feel like there was room for improvement at my end.”
Jake and Clay—last names always optional—continue to leave a lasting legacy on this sport. And it’s always easy to cheer for the good guys.
“Jake and Clay are both my team roping heroes,” Andrew said. “Jake’s been to my house when I was younger, and helped me learn how to break down roping. When I was really small, I remember him being really proud of me that I could rope a neck when a small-horned steer was tricky with his head or put his head down.
“Jake said, ‘You’ll use that your whole life.’ He was just really encouraging. I necked a small-horned steer in one of the later rounds out there in Vegas, so Jake was right. And I’ve never heard an arrogant word out of Clay. Those guys are both heroes I look up to a lot.”
“I’m Jake and Clay’s biggest fan,” Buddy said. “I’m team roping’s biggest fan, too.”
Buddy and Tori plan to put their Las Vegas loot toward the place they’re building in Stephenville, Texas.
“I’m a numbers guy,” he said. “Don’t come to me for financial advice, but I love math and I’m driving a truck with 214,000 miles on it, because I love making sense of things. I follow peace through life. Much of my communication with The Father is in terms of numbers, math and money. Because the money is confirmation, affirmation and evidence. Tori and I can continue to put the time and effort into doing this for a living, because we’re being compensated for it. Whatever it takes to provide for our family and have grace and peace. The big gift with the money is that we can continue living this lifestyle and living the dream.”
Andrew isn’t sure what he’ll do with his $115,811 windfall win just yet.
“We’re always trying to find the next best head horse,” he said. “I’m sure there’ll be something come up that I’ll invest it in.”
As for Andrew and Buddy not practicing much, it’s really not a matter of one living in Oklahoma and the other in Texas.
WATCH: Partnership Practice Plan
“I would drive up there, if I saw value in us practicing together,” Buddy said. “But what’s best for Andrew and his horses is not necessarily turning a bunch of steers for me. So even when we’re rodeoing in the summertime, one of us might go practice without the other. If I feel like I might handicap him in his best preparation, I don’t go. And vice versa.
“We ran three practice cows together the day before the Arlington NFR in 2020, and we practiced for two days together two weeks before the Vegas NFR in 2021. Our team has chemistry. And any one of the heelers there was capable of setting the record with the steers Andrew turned. Where a lot of our team’s success comes from is my support of his preparation, and his of mine. I used to be a 100-steers-a-day guy. I’ve matured past that.”
The humility with which Hawkins goes after his goals is flat refreshing.
“A heeler’s job is to react, and I’m at the end of this chain of things that has to go right for us to be successful,” Buddy said. “Heelers don’t win a lot of events, but we have the opportunity to lose them. Stability is crucial to heeling, and the Thomas & Mack can become chaotic and unstable fast when you’re running big, hard-running steers in that small arena. So as a heeler, the more stability I can bring to our team, the better. X is the most stable component I bring to the table, because he’s so consistent and there are no surprises.”
Hawkins has had his eyes on this prize all along.
“I’ve expected to get that (NFR) record the whole time I’ve roped,” he said. “And it won’t surprise me if I get it again next year, simply because I expect to catch. The record took over as headlines about halfway through the rodeo, and became the buzz. But when we rode in to rope our last steer, we had the steer Clay Smith and Jade Corkill were 3.7 on to win Round 7, and we had over 40 seconds to win $69,000.
“I was nervous. I’ve ran 40 cows at the NFR, am probably pushing 40 at the BFI, and I’m nervous every single time. But I do good because I’m nervous. That last shot wasn’t the easiest shot, but we are catchers. It’s just who we are. And the more mature I get, the less I change and the more I look ahead to the next one.”
In a word, Buddy is grateful.
“This record feels like a gift to me,” he said. “I love giving gifts, but it’s difficult for me to receive them. The record is awesome. But I know I’m not Clay O’Brien Cooper now because I have his record. To be in any conversation with greats like Clay and Rich (Skelton) is an honor and a dream come true. But Clay will always be The Champ.”
When Jake and Clay set their record, Champ roped a leg in Round 1. Both living legends take their hats off to Andrew and Buddy.
“Records are made to be broken, and 27 years is a long time,” Jake said. “It was an honor having that, but a big surprise that it lasted that long, especially with all the great ropers today. Every year at the NFR, I hear all the Monday-morning quarterbacks talking about how easy it is. But roping big cattle with big horns in that little building is hard.
“Those guys did a phenomenal job. It was pretty cool to have a little piece of history like that, but it’s time to move on and let somebody else carry the torch. It’s time to talk about the new generation of ropers now.”
“Those are two good kids, and I’m glad to see them have success,” Clay said of Andrew and Buddy. “That record is a nice little feather in the caps of their careers. Like Jake, I’m surprised our record lasted that long. If anybody was going to break it, I’m glad that they were the ones who did it. It’s fitting. Their goal was to win the average, and that was pretty evident from the get-go. They accomplished their goal. They made a new mark. And that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.”