On this day four years ago, I was at the Wildfire Open to the World Roping in Salado, Texas, when seeing this heeling huddle of Jade Corkill, Junior Nogueira, Clay Cooper and Rich Skelton stopped me in my tracks. I snapped this cell-phone shot on the fly, while asking them, “What’s this, a Baddest Cats Ever Convention?” True to form, they all just smiled.
I visited with Junior for a few minutes this morning, right before he ran one with Cody Snow in Rapid City. I told him I was thinking of him when this picture—which should have been a beautiful shot staged by one of my master rodeo photographer friends instead of a self-admitted hack like myself—popped up as a memory. I was sort of surprised that Junior remembered such a spur-of-the-moment, low-quality picture. Luckily for me, sometimes it’s the content that counts with cowboys.
“I keep that picture in my phone, and need to print it and put it on my wall,” Junior said of this 19-gold-buckles-strong wolfpack. “It’s an honor to stand next to those three guys. You don’t get any better than them when it comes to catch percentage. And it doesn’t matter what you need to do to win—whether it’s go fast and win the round or just catch to win the average—they don’t get better than Champ, Jade and Rich.
“I’ve learned so much from all those guys, and to get to be friends with them, too, is amazing. It’s hard to explain how much that picture means to me, because of what it stands for. Those three guys changed heeling history. They’re all record breakers. They’re the best.”
Junior makes everyone’s short list of heeling phenoms, too. And on this day four years ago—not long after I snapped that sad excuse for a roping-royalty keepsake—Junior and Kaleb Driggers shared center stage in the Wildfire winner’s circle with Aaron Tsinigine and Patrick Smith.
Just for fun, I asked Junior to shoot me his first few thoughts about each guy gathered for that picture, left to right.
Junior on Jade: “That guy is just so focused and perfect with his heel loops, no matter what the set-up. He’s so good, and does the same thing over and over. No matter where he goes or what he needs to do to win, Jade just does his job.”
Junior on Clay: “I grew up on Jake (Barnes) and Clay videos in Brazil. The first time I got to see Champ heel in person, I was in awe. It still amazes me when I get to watch him heel. A lot of people get good when they’re young, and Clay still has it. Clay’s mental game and the way he thinks—he’s just so competitive. Nothing bothers him or changes his mind. Clay’s solid as a rock, and he has cool blood.”
Junior on Rich: “No one else has ever won eight gold buckles in a row. What else needs to be said? Speedy (Williams) hung it on steers so fast. And Rich never missed. Rich roped two feet all day, every day.”
OK, moment of truth time. I backed Junior in the corner with, “In your eyes, who is the best heeler of all time?”
“Clay O—he’s unbelievable to this day,” Junior said. “How he heeled in 2015 before he kind of quit going hard was amazing. Clay and (Derrick) Begay roped that year, and Champ’s heeling was unreal. The last shot Champ pulled off in Round 10 at the NFR was—like always—out of this world. I think Clay is the best there’s ever been at roping two feet.
“All I can say is when I look at that picture, it inspires and humbles me. If I can get halfway close to being in those three guys’ league, I will be so proud. To come from another country, and get to rope with those guys, learn from them and call them friends is just a very big blessing in my life.”