Clay won his first of seven gold buckles in 1985, the year the NFR moved to Vegas.
I grew up dreaming of living like my heroes, and making a living with my rope. It intrigued me that cowboys like the Camarillos could make a career out of doing what I also loved to do, and it fueled my motivation to try to make the (National) Finals (Rodeo). Winning the world was the ultimate fantasy dream for me back then.
After having some success while climbing the roping ranks, I gained some confidence that making a living at it was possible. I amateur rodeoed a couple years in Texas and Oklahoma, and was hot and heavy on the jackpot trail. Each time you make it to the top of another level of competition, it’s a shot in the arm. Then comes the time to get your card and hook up with the big boys.
I was roping with Bret Beach when I turned pro, and they kicked our butts. I was broke, and by the end of the Fourth of July run that year (1981), it was do or die. It all turned around for us when we were the last team out at Cody (Wyoming) to end our Cowboy Christmas run, we were 5.1 and won the rodeo. We caught fire after that, and went on a big roll, including winning Salinas.
When I got done at the Cow Palace that fall and had my first Finals made, I had a whole different look at myself than I did the morning of July 4 before we roped at Cody. By regular season’s end, I knew I could hang with the big dogs. Bret and I were rodeoing with Jake (Barnes) and Allen (Bach), and the Simon brothers (Jay and Mark). Allen was already a world champion, and Jake and I would talk in the truck about what it would take to win the world.
I made my first four Finals in Oklahoma City from 1981-84, and was getting closer to the top every year. But those four years of rodeoing and coming home without a world championship were a disappointment. My expectations were changing, and I started to feel like a failure.
Jake and I decided to rope together in 1985. I gave all the money I had for my best horse, Blue, right before Phoenix and Tucson. The combination of that horse, and Jake and I teaming up changed everything. Jake and I won Phoenix and Tucson, and went on a rampage that year. It felt like we were winning everywhere we went.
Arizona Evolution: How Arizona Became the Hot Spot For Team Roping
Before that, I was kind of a party guy, and was out there running with the crowd. But at the end of 1984, I’d done a self-evaluation and realized that I’d just failed four years in a row and not reached my goal. I admitted to myself that I hadn’t been giving 100 percent of everything I had. I committed to practicing harder, and going from 80% effort to 100%. That changed everything.
After we won the world in 1985, we didn’t get our buckles right away, because they put your names on them. I went out to the mailbox one day, and there it was. When I saw my name on that buckle is when I really had a spiritual awakening with God.
Instead of me looking at it and thinking about what I’d done, that moment made me realize how small I am. I come from a broken family. That my mom married a cowboy who taught me how to be a cowboy, and I grew up in California around all the best ropers in the world gave me a dream inside. God did that. Seeing that buckle for the first time made me realize that it was all God. And from that point, my life changed forever.
When Fate Stepped in and Made Me a Heeler with Clay O’Brien Cooper
Jake and I won five championships in a row, starting with that first one when the Finals moved to Vegas, then two more. I got to live my dream. I haven’t worn that 1985 gold buckle in 10 years. It’s kind of ironic, because I wanted it more than anything at the time. I wear a Pendleton or Cheyenne buckle now, because I don’t feel like I have to show people that I’m a world champion. And when I talk to people now, I don’t want it to be about a buckle.