Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins have a commanding lead in the 2021 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo team roping average, and are taking aim at the 59.1-second record held by living legends Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper since back in 1994—the year the Hall of Fame Dream Teamers won their seventh set of gold buckles—while they’re at it. Ward and Hawkins have now placed in four of the first seven rounds. They had a leg in Round 5, but with 38.4 on seven can average 6.9 seconds on their last three steers to tie Jake and Clay for one of the longest-standing records in rodeo. I had the pleasure of visiting with Champ while sipping coffee in the cowboy parking lot this morning.
Kendra: You’ve roped at 29 NFRs. What do you remember about that NFR record Finals in 1994?
Clay: I know I roped a leg on the very first steer, then we roped nine steers straight up. We were battling for the championship that week, so we weren’t thinking about anything but trying to make the best run we could every night. I just had to regroup after Round 1 and grind it out. What I remember most is that Jake roped a flawless roping, and turned 10 steers barrier-free. We won the world championship, and that was the end of that.
Kendra: What’s your best advice to Andrew and Buddy right now? Oh, and by the way, Rhen Richard and Jeremy Buhler are second in the average riding into Round 8 tonight. They’re 47.9 on seven, and still also have a mathematical shot at the record, if they average 3.7 on their next three steers.
Clay: I would just say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Why would you do anything else?” The only curveball that could come into play is if they find themselves with a chance for the championship (Dustin Egusquiza leads the headers with $200,406, and Junior Nogueira is tops on the heeling side with $198,145; Andrew and Buddy have each won $115,418 so far in 2021, and remember, the average pays $69,234 a man and rounds pay $26,997), and figure out that they need to win a certain amount of money in these last few rounds to get the gold buckles. That’d be the only reason I can think of to change their game plan. We’ve all done that before.
That’s part of what makes the average so hard to stay in. Some teams come into the Finals with the mindset that they can rope 10 steers in a row. That’s usually the top few teams in the world, because the cream rises to the top and those guys have a lot of confidence in their run. For some of the other guys, being at the NFR is kind of overwhelming. They aren’t sure what their game plan should be, and they think they should just go fast.
It all starts with the quarterback—the header. It’s his job to get a start, stick it on ’em and set the steers up. Some of those guys’ heaters get to burning red hot. They’re going to be 2.9 and set the world record. Sometimes it’s hard not to get detoured by the bells and whistles, and the bright lights. That’s what makes it exciting to watch. I know the mental game that’s played riding up that alley with all the scenarios playing through your head and trying to talk to you. You just need to fight it all off and stick to your plan.
Kendra: You’ve slayed the NFR average dragon four times—in 1985 (when the Finals moved to Vegas), 1994 and 2007 with Jake, and with Chad Masters in 2012. I know this record standing so long has surprised both you and Jake.
Clay: Yeah, how long it’s lasted is kind of laughable. This is a 3-second set-up, and a mid-4-second run is just a jackpot run. That run will also probably get you six or seven checks in the rounds on the week. To me, the best ropers in the world should be able to make a 4-and-a-half-second run every single time. If a team averaged 4.9 on every steer, that’d be 49 on 10, and that’d beat that record that’s lasted so long by 10 seconds. I’m the biggest fan of team roping there is, and the guys who’ve made the Finals the last 20 years can make great runs all day long without messing up. These guys can surely break that record every year.
Kendra: How do you like Andrew and Buddy’s chances?
Clay: Andrew and Buddy are the perfect team to stay on course and get it done. You could tell from the get-go that they had the average in mind when they got here. They’ve put themselves in position to take that record down, and I hope they do it. That record needs to be averaging 4.5 to 4.8 a run. That’s a repeatable pace. It’ll get you a lot of checks several nights in the rounds and the big one in the end.