Getting Over the NFR Hump
Every cowboy’s path to Rodeo’s Super Bowl is different. Some almost seem to snap their fingers and will themselves into red-and-white felt back numbers. For others, it’s a much longer journey.

Qualifying for the NFR is rarely a straight and simple path.

Every cowboy’s path to Rodeo’s Super Bowl is different. Some almost seem to snap their fingers and will themselves into red-and-white felt back numbers. For others, it’s a much longer journey. We all now think of guys like Coleman Proctor, Jake Long, Nick Sartain and Buddy Hawkins as Wrangler National Finals Rodeo regulars. All four cowboys have had million-dollar-plus careers. But Proctor, Long and Sartain’s roads to their first trips to Vegas were a lot longer than most might remember. And there was a five-year gap between Hawkins’ first and second Finals. Why was that, and what was it that flipped the switch and got them over the NFR hump?

Coleman Proctor

From his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rookie year in 2005, nine years passed before Coleman Proctor backed in the box at the Thomas & Mack. Now 37, the Pryor, Oklahoma cowboy has seven NFRs under his belt. He roped with Long at the 2014-15 NFRs; Billie Jack Saebens in 2016-17; Ryan Motes in 2019; and Logan Medlin at the last two in 2021-22. 

Hubbell Rodeo Photos photo

Looking back now, how were you different as a young rodeo rookie?

Jake and I were chuckling about this the other day. Just the knowledge base of knowing where to enter and how to get there grows every year. I didn’t really rodeo with the intent of making the NFR until I started heading in 2007. But for crying out loud, I didn’t take a back-up horse to the Northwest, because we were trying to split diesel four ways. Then we get out there, and my horse (Preacher) colics at the first rodeo, which was the tour finale in Caldwell (Idaho). Then the guys I was splitting diesel with jumped out of the rig. There was a very sharp learning curve for me. 

What changed in you between your rookie year and your first Finals?

I had a great horse in Preacher when I started, but I did get a great horse from Speedy (Williams) when I got Carmen. I had a way better understanding of what it took to make it in 2014, in part because I’d had the opportunity to go heel for Speedy in 2012. I got to learn how to prepare for each rodeo from the greatest header of all time, and that taught me just how much I’d been lacking in all areas of my heading. 

[WATCH: Roping Right to Left, with Coleman Proctor]

What are the most important differences between guys who are good and those who make the bright lights of Vegas?

There are hometown heroes who are big fish in small ponds everywhere. Everybody says they’d make the NFR if they had X-Y-Z. But getting over the NFR hump takes a certain degree of humility. You have to realize, “I’m not good enough to get where I want to go.” If you want to make the NFR, there comes a point where you have to sacrifice who you are for what you want to become. 

Is the difference between good and great team ropers more physical or mental?

This game is 90% mental, and great success comes from understanding what you’re supposed to be doing and not letting anything detour you from what you need to do. Tom Ferguson won nine gold buckles, and lived where I grew up in Miami, Oklahoma. He asked kids how they did at school, and told them if they weren’t smart enough to understand school, they weren’t smart enough to win in the arena. It takes hard work, discipline and taking instruction to succeed at school. In the arena of life or rodeo, you have to be able to pass the test, too. You have to be brazen enough to bet on yourself, which is what we do every day. 

Is the first Finals the hardest one to make? 

I actually thought the second one was harder. Anyone can get lucky and make it once, but you validate yourself with the second one. It’s all a mentality. I remember Jake telling me about being in the truck with the Tryans, and them saying, “We buy our card to make the Finals.”


Jake Long

Coffeyville, Kansas cowboy Jake Long was a PRCA rookie in 2003, and qualified for his first Finals in 2010. Now 38, Long’s NFR partners include Brady Tryan, 2010-11; Travis Tryan, 2012; Proctor in 2014-15; Luke Brown, 2016-18; Clay Tryan, 2019-21; and Clay Smith, 2022. 

Hubbell Rodeo Photos photo

Looking back now, how were you different as a young rodeo rookie?

The NFR was still a pipe dream to me my rookie year. Before 2007, I was just circuit rodeoing and going to college. 

What changed in you between your rookie year and your first Finals?

My roping got a lot better. I didn’t have the best fundamentals growing up, so I had a lot of gaps in my game and had to do a lot of self-evaluation. The first year I roped with Brady, we buddied with Travis and Michael Jones, who rodeoed to make the NFR. That was my first exposure to that way of thinking. 

[READ: Jake Long is Team Roping’s Newest $2-Million Man]

What are the most important differences between guys who are good and those who make the bright lights of Vegas?

You learn how to win out there on the road. There’s a difference between really good amateur guys who get to go home every night and NFR track. It’s a shock to their system when they can’t go home and fix their horses between rodeo runs. You learn how to fix things on the road, and things like where it’s crucial to go when. 

Is the difference between good and great team ropers more physical or mental?

Mental. Golf and rodeo are so closely related. You’re going to lose a lot in both sports, I don’t care who you are. The great guys don’t ride the roller coaster as bad, and don’t let losing get them down.

Is the first Finals the hardest one to make? 

Yes, because deep down you don’t know if you’re good enough before you make it. Some guys are touched by the hand of God, and it just comes easy for them. It was obviously a dream of mine to make it, but until you actually get it pulled off you just don’t know. 


Nick Sartain

Nick Sartain was a rookie in 2000, and qualified for his first Finals in 2006 with Shannon Frascht. Now 44 and living in Bandera, Texas, 2009 World Champion Header Sartain has roped at six NFRs, which also include 2009-10 with Kollin VonAhn; and 2013-15 with eight-time Champ of the World Rich Skelton. 

Hubbell Rodeo Photos photo

Looking back now, how were you different as a young rodeo rookie?

I was a lot greener and not nearly as knowledgeable about the sport. There’s not much difference in the way I roped then and now. I was already pretty aggressive as a rookie, and wanted to throw three coils and come with it. After that, I had to figure how to be more consistent. But I ended up circling back around to going faster as my career progressed, because that’s what is called for to win now. People gave me a lot of grief for throwing when I hit the barrier when I was younger, but that’s what it takes to win today. 

What changed in you between your rookie year and your first Finals?

I didn’t rodeo hard enough to make the Finals the first few years. I should have gone a little more full tilt, but I was still in the circuit game and didn’t really have the horsepower or the finances to make that kind of commitment. I think 2006 was the first year and maybe only year you could only count 50 rodeos. I could afford to go to that many, and I also had a good enough horse. I missed the Finals by $97 one year in there, and that gave me the confidence that I can rope with these vultures. 

[WATCH: Horsemanship Practice Sessions with Nick Sartain on Roping.com]

What are the most important differences between guys who are good and those who make the bright lights of Vegas?

The guys who make the Finals year in and year out are willing to do whatever it takes. They’re 100% all-in, and it’s all business. One key ingredient missing or out of whack is all it takes to not be one of the 15 best guys in the world. 

Is the difference between good and great team ropers more physical or mental?

Both. You have to be so mentally strong when you’re out there rodeoing all summer, not getting to practice and you’re wiped-out tired. Physically, it’s all about getting out there and building a strong team with your partner and horses. There’s a lot of physical work that goes into being ready to hit the road. If you don’t put in the work, roping won’t pay you back. 

Is the first Finals the hardest one to make? 

It was the hardest for me. It took awhile, and there’s a monkey on your back until you do it. It’s hard not to think, “These other guys are better than me.” The NFR was my goal since I was a little kid. When you make it, the coffee shop guys can’t say, “That kid ropes good, but he’s not an NFR guy.” You breathe a little easier knowing you are good enough.


Buddy Hawkins

Buddy Hawkins was a rookie in 2012, and made his first Finals with Drew Horner in 2013. The 36-year-old Kansas native, who now lives in Stephenville, Texas, has also roped at the NFR in 2018 with Lane Ivy; and the last three years running, 2020-22, with his brother-in-law, Andrew Ward. Hawkins is included here not for how long it took him to make his first one, but for the five years it took to make his second NFR. 

Hubbell Rodeo Photos photo

Looking back now, how were you different as a young rodeo rookie?

In 2012, I thought if I wasn’t in the Top 15 in the winter, I was really in a bind. I’d been to 12 rodeos and won $12,000, and thought that was a problem because so many guys were ahead of me in the standings. I looked too much at the results back then, and didn’t understand that I could make up ground later. Ten years later, 2022 was the most profitable year of my career, and Andrew and I had about that same $12,000 won at the end of the winter. This time, I knew we were not in a bind. Experience taught me that. 

What changed in you between your rookie year and your first Finals?

The thing that changed was my turn came earlier in the season. I roped better, yes, but it wasn’t a black-and-white difference. In 2013, I got into San Antonio, and had a big hit early on. I was #2 coming off of the winter, and broke $40,000 at Reno. Had I known you win when it’s your turn in 2012, I might have made it that year. You could now start me at Reno with zero dollars, and I’d still think I can make it. 

What are the most important differences between guys who are good and those who make the bright lights of Vegas?

Identity. The guys who do well are consistent with who they are. Some teams aren’t very consistent, and make the Finals on a few big hits. Others have lots of smaller hits at more rodeos. Andrew and I try to put a lot of times on the board. Knowing yourself, being your best self and doing what you do is where it’s at.  

[READ: On Character and Buddy Hawkins]

Is the difference between good and great team ropers more physical or mental?

Definitely mental. Being good requires mastering the fundamentals. That’s physical, and might get you into the top 50. To break through and get great, you have to exercise those fundamentals at a high rate of regularity. That requires knowing mentally that you have to consistently be yourself. 

Is the first Finals the hardest one to make? 

I would say not, but that’s up to the individual. We all grew up dreaming about the yellow arena, bright lights and gold buckles in that building. But a lot of people go their whole careers and don’t make it, or they only make it once. The reason it took me so long to make my second NFR is because I was magnifying losses and minimizing wins. If I didn’t do well, I was tearing myself down. When I was successful, it was like, “You finally did your job.” I’ve ratcheted up in my belief in myself and my abilities. We need to hope for the best, expect the best and live the best. But we should not be disappointed when everything doesn’t go perfectly. We need to keep looking forward. If I get to where I don’t look forward and keep the big picture in mind, I won’t enter. TRJ

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