Photos by Kirt Steinke
Wiping tears from his eyes, Ponoka, Alberta's Levi Simpson appeared from behind a curtain in the PRCA's press room in the underbelly of the Thomas & Mack, holding on to his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo average buckle for roping nine steers in 54.20 seconds. Behind Simpson was his partner, Arrowwood, Alberta's Jeremy Buhler, who wasn't just his usual quiet tonight--he was speechless.
"You always grew up as a little boy dreaming of being a world champ," Simpson said. "But you think it would be a little easier if you come in first or second... I'm at a loss of words. I've got emotions bubbling up. I'm in disbelief. This has turned out beyond my wildest dreams."
Simpson entered the 2016 WNFR 14th in the PRCA world standings, while Buhler was 12th heading in to the richest 10 days in rodeo. They netted some $186,000 a man inside the yellow and blue Thomas & Mack Arena, with Simpson putting on a clinic in the heading reminiscent of his hero, eight-time World Champion Speed Williams.
"He's lighting them up out there," Buhler said of his partner. "I don't even know other than that. This was such a dream come true to be here. The fact that we've had success, that we've done good the first night, it was unbelievable. This is unbelievable. It's unreal."
Simpson and Buhler, who've roped together the last two years, placed in seven rounds and won Round 1 outright and split Rounds 5 and 10. The pressure was on more than ever in the 10th round, when Simpson and Buhler backed into the box after watching Clay Smith and Paul Eaves, who were leading the average and in position to win the World, rope a leg to be 14.30. That opened the door for the Canadian duo, who knew Zac Small and Wesley Thorp were leading the round with a 4.3. Simpson made a textbook headshot, and Buhler cleaned it up easily on the backside.
"I knew we were second in the average. We both kinda come here just you know trying to win as much money as we could to pay the bills and get us down the road next year to do what we just did. So to go in there, the guys right before us leading the average were long, roped a leg. I never did any of the math or knew we had a chance. I just figured we'd try to stick to our gameplan and rope as fast as we could and try to win the round, win as much money as we could and congratulate them other guys for doing good. This is insane."
"I just tried to do my job," Buhler said. "There were a few times this week where I wasn't very sharp. I let a couple get a way that I shouldn't have. I just wanted to show up tonight and catch two feet. You have to give it to Levi."
Simpson won $249,133 in 2016, while Buhler won $258,311.
As the crowds of family and friends filled the press room, the Canadians' quiet disbelief transformed into sheer joy. They whooped and hollered long into the night as photographers and reporters clamored around them. The celebration would surely continue across the border--as both men confirmed that the party would be even wilder back home.