With the last day of the regular rodeo season being September 30, guys who rope for a living are either glad or sad right now. Some punched their tickets to the 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Others had their bubbles burst down the backstretch.
I was fortunate enough to qualify for the NFR 27 times before Clay (Cooper) and I switched gears a few years ago to focus on roping schools. I’ll say up front here that I was flat lucky to never have experienced not making the NFR cut in all the years I tried.
Thank God that I never experienced the bubble. I was close that first year I made the Finals with Junior (Nogueira in 2014), but we ended up jumping up the ladder at the end and didn’t really have to sweat it at the finish line. I can’t even imagine how devastated I would have felt to go all-in and not make it.
But it’s a yearlong battle, and only 15 headers and 15 heelers get to rope in Vegas. Near-misses are part of it. I can’t say I know how it feels to miss out firsthand. But that being said, the rodeos have never been tougher than they are now. So there’s never been more talent when it comes to teams that can really rope, yet find themselves on the outside looking in.
The stress of that last-minute scramble has to be worse than anyone sitting on the sidelines can even imagine. It leaves me at a little bit of a loss as to what to say to the guys who just gave it all they’ve got for a year, and will now be home in December watching the NFR on TV with the rest of us. It’s almost like coming up with the right words when talking to someone who just lost a family member.
I have to figure the financial devastation of a near-NFR miss has to be worse than ever, given the cost of fuel alone, not to mention rigs and horses. The chance to rope at the Finals is why we rodeo.
People put a lot of emphasis on winning gold buckles when they talk about rodeo. But the NFR is the shot at the big payday for the entire year. Qualifying in the Top 15 opens doors to sponsorships, and gets guys paid sponsor bonuses. The NFR is where you can really get ahead.
Times have changed in my lifetime. When I made my first NFR my rookie year (in 1980) with Allen (Bach), we shared a hotel room in Oklahoma City to save money. The first time we made the Finals after it moved to Las Vegas and they gave us a free room for 10 days, we thought we were kings. And now every qualifier gets a free room, and you get a $10,000 check before the rodeo even starts for qualifying.
I’m not sure all you young guys realize how it was in the good old days before living-quarters trailers, when it was four guys in a pickup with a pillow, and four guys in a hotel room when we got there. You can’t even imagine the hardships pioneers like the Camarillos went through who paved the way before we even had team roping at places like Houston, San Antonio, Cheyenne and Pendleton.
I think Clay and I went to five rodeos this year, and I don’t know when that burning fire to compete goes away. To this day, I still have it in me. I’d go to a rodeo every day if they had it at Salinas. What a fun few days in that cool weather roping in a five-header.
But I read the results. And I have no desire to be rodeoing full time right now. To all you guys who just missed the Finals this year—go home, even if it’s in a worn-out truck, and evaluate and regroup. Step back, and take a good, honest look at your horse, your team and, most importantly, yourself.
I’ve seen guys miss the Finals, then come back and win the world the next year. Don’t listen to anyone who says maybe you’re trying too hard. You can’t try less and win more, and sometimes a good butt kicking gets you over the hump. Go home, dig a little deeper and come back swinging. Find the winning combination that works for you and lines the stars up in your favor.