There are five first-time team roping qualifiers at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Tanner Tomlinson, Lightning Aguilera and Jake Orman will head at the Thomas & Mack for the first time, and Brye Crites and Jonathan Torres will make their Vegas heeling debut. I remember my first trip to The Show like it was yesterday, even though 1980 was 42 years ago. I now have 27 back numbers worth of friendly advice for all you Finals freshmen.
I was lucky enough to rope with the reigning world champion heeler—Allen Bach—at my first NFR, so I had the advantage of being on a veteran’s team. But I was so green at my first NFR, and as a kid from rural New Mexico I could feel how big a deal it was.
Tee Woolman was the 1980 Rookie of the Year, and with the go-rounds only paying about $2,500 back then he basically had the world championship won before the NFR ever started and we were all roping for second. There were some rodeos that let you go twice back then, and Tee and Leo (Camarillo) had built up a big lead. But because Tee had more money won, Leo knew he couldn’t catch him either.
I was 21, still in college and amateur rodeoing down in South Texas when I roped at my first NFR. Stepping out into the big-boy league was a whole different deal. What a lot of people would never remember is that there was some cockeyed rule in place back then that you had to be a PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) member for a minimum of six months to be eligible to compete at the Finals. I was late to the party, so had only been a member just under six months.
The rodeo at the Cow Palace in San Francisco was the first week in November back then, and was the last rodeo of the regular season. They had a PRCA Board meeting there, and deciding whether or not I could rope at the NFR was on the agenda. I was in that meeting, and scared to death.
(ProRodeo Hall of Fame Calf Roper) Dean Oliver was on the board, and had a pocket knife out cleaning his fingernails in the board meeting. He said, “Boys, if this boy doesn’t get to rope at the Finals, you’re going to have a hell of a lawsuit on your hands.” Thank God, the board listened to him and voted to let me rope.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed at your first NFR. There’s no other rodeo or situation in rodeo like it. What I’ve seen at every NFR since I started paying attention is that it goes like clockwork—there’ll be a team that starts off hot, then has the wheels fall off midweek. There’ll be a team no one pays attention to until late in the week that all of a sudden enters the conversation because they have a good chance of winning the average. The names change, but the storylines stay the same.
You guys roping at the NFR now should be glad they changed the rotation order, to where they rope 15th down to first in the world standings on opening night, then drop two teams every round until Round 10, when it’s back to world standings order. Back in the day, there was no rotation in the go-rounds.
The order was determined by world standings in Round 1, 15th down to first. In Round 2, the winner of Round 1 roped last. Rounds 3 through 9 were based on money won at the NFR, with the guys winning the most getting to rope last every night. Then in Round 10, it went back to the world standings. So if you messed up on your first steer, you kept having to rope first and it was really hard to get back on track.
My best advice to NFR rookies and everybody entered is not to try and set a world record in the first round. Remember that the start is everything in that building. Get a couple runs under your belt, and get a rhythm going. Rope smart, because they pay a ton of money in the average after Round 10. Keep it simple, and don’t overthink it. You deserve to be there, and you’ve worked hard to show up prepared. Take a couple deep breaths, and nod your head. You’re there because you earned it.