Most often you read about the guys getting on a roll at the Finals, like Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler did in 2016 and Turtle Powell and Jhett Johnson in 2011. Those are great stories—the ones legends are made of.
But the stories that don’t make headlines are the bad ones—the stories of that first steer missed that sets off a chain of events of bad draws and worse loops.
“The best way I can explain it, is it’s like quicksand,” said Cesar de la Cruz, who made the WNFR every year from 2006 to 2014. “The harder you fight, the deeper you get in over your head. You will die out there—you lose your heart and soul in that arena.”
In 2013, Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz went into the Finals leading the PRCA world standings. That had de la Cruz thinking a lot about a gold buckle from their win at Omaha, Nebraska’s Justin Boots Championships on to Round 1.
“I didn’t feel like I could get in the rhythm in the practice,” de la Cruz, from Tucson, Arizona, said. “It was too late by the time we got it lined out. That was the closest I’ve ever been to a title. I put so much expectation on myself to do good. You have a whole bunch of rodeo left to go to finish off your year in those 10 days.”
Kolton Schmidt, from Barrhead, Alberta, went into his first WNFR in 2016 riding his AQHA/PRCA Horse of the Year, but like de la Cruz, had a bad practice when they ran the steers through and couldn’t get things lined out after that.
“I was so overwhelmed with the whole experience,” Schmidt said. “Now thinking about it, I wish I’d talk to somebody the day after we roped the steers. The practice wasn’t right, and I was down and out right from there. I wish I’d have talked to someone and changed my attitude and got it right. It’s such a big deal to catch the first steer instead of starting with a miss and battling from there on out.”
World Champion header Nick Sartain could hardly make a mistake at the 2009 WNFR. He and Kollin VonAhn split first in Round 4, placed in six other rounds en route to winning the average title with a time of 59.2 seconds (just one-tenth of a second off the NFR record) and the world championship with total earnings of $186,689. But the next year he and VonAhn only placed in two rounds, and he and eight-time world champion Rich Skelton struggled in other years, too.
“All the gallery talk that you get—it wears you out,” Sartain, of Dover, Oklahoma, said. “The bad part of the NFR is everybody can see it. It’s fun no matter what, but it’s a tough place to rope at. Something about the fact that the arena is 140 feet long and most are 140 feet wide. When the arena is only 90 feet wide, normal rules don’t apply in that arena. Get down there by the box and look and see how much room you’ve really got once you head him to turn him off.
“The years I did good, I drew good cattle and they went up the middle. One bad steer will get you tipped over and you miss and you’re out of the average, and then a shit storm can come at you. You dally over the top of the horn and lose your rope, break a barrier, then your guy misses, then you look up and it’s the seventh round of the rodeo and you’re into the toughest rounds with those guys who are already on a roll, and you look up and you’re 4.1 and you split fifth, then you’re 4.0 the last night and win last hole,” Sartain said.
These guys will also tell you that it never fails: When you’re struggling to turn things around, the team roping gods don’t usually help you with a better draw, either.
“It’s hard to turn a steer that steps left, and is strong and doesn’t handle off very good in 3.7. You can’t turn chicken shit into chicken salad. When he leaves and he’s heading dead left and he’s huge and he’s run up the rope every night and you’ve already lost your rope and you’re out of the average and you’ve switched horses twice, you can’t do it in 3.7 or 4.0,” Sartain said.
"If you’re fighting it and frustrated, and it’s inevitable you end up drawing bad," de la Cruz added. "Just like in the roughstock, you draw on the bad end of the pen, and when you’re having hell you draw the runners or the ones that are tough."
And when all that happens, what’s the worst thing people can say to you?
“'It will turn around,'” Schmidt said. “I heard that a lot.”
“I got this the most: When I roped with Derrick, I used the Heat, and I used the Powerline after that. When I was using Cactus Ropes, I would get told to use the Classic, and vice versa. It shouldn’t matter—it should work. That was always the best advice I’d get, to try a different rope. That was pretty funny—believe me, it’s not the rope.”
Sartain stays off of Facebook, and during the WNFR, he’s even more glad for that.
“The ignorant things you hear people say—it’s an unforgiving place to rope,” Sartain said. “The advice they give you and the things that they say, it’s crazy.”
Despite all of that, though–the chance to turn things around keeps a guy coming back for more.
"It’s the ultimate test over 10 days," de la Cruz, who is roping with Colorado's JB James in 2018, said. "I’m curious to see, if I ever get the opportunity to get back over there—I’ll be a lot calmer, cooler, more relaxed over there. When I was over there I was always swamped with sponsor stuff. I remember I was riding Johnny Ringo at the tail end of his career. I was always getting him worked on to keep him going. I will try to have everything more lined."
Schmidt is roping with Texas' Cole Davison in 2018.
"A year later, watching, I can’t go to a rodeo that pays $27,000 all year really," Schmidt said. "It was a disappointing experience, but it was so great at the same time."