David Key is a man of deep faith. He must be. Yet in the wake of his win at the Justin Boots Championships of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour in Omaha, he couldn't fully explain it.
Last year, Key missed the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo by two spots for the first time in nine years. Then, earlier this summer, Key lost his 18-year-old son Riley in a single car accident. Remarkably, after the death of his son, his season took off and he and partner Rich Skelton climbed the standings.
After the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash., Key missed the cut to advance to Omaha by one spot, however Skelton qualified. Then, due to an entering mistake, Kaleb Driggers was drawn out of the field in Omaha and Key was able to enter. However, Skelton had already entered with Blaine Linaweaver, so Key was forced to team up with Driggers's regular partner Brad Culpepper.
Somehow, through what appeared to be a roller coaster of emotions and heartache, Key emerged more even-keeled than ever.
"When we left Puyallup and we didn't have Omaha made, I thought all along it's no big deal," he said. "In the whole scheme of things, with Riley dying this year and stuff. Last year, missing the Finals I thought was devastating. Then I figured out this year it really wasn't. When I got the call to come to Omaha, I just said, 'Hallelujah, thank you Lord.' I know that He didn't have anything to do with Brad's partner not getting here, but I don't know how else to explain me being here, because I wasn't supposed to be here. I just give God all the honor and glory. I felt like I was going to do some good because I wasn't supposed to be here, but then we got the opportunity. We didn't have very good runs the first two runs. I just kept being thankful for what little I did have won because it was more than what I was supposed to have anyway."
But a funny thing happened. After two preliminary rounds in which Key and Culpepper looked like a team thrust together and unaccustomed to each other, on the last day they suddenly started roping like a team.
"The first round I roped one foot," Culpepper said. "The second round we were long, David's horse tried to face a little early."
In the semifinal round, they were 5.0, the second-best time. The other three teams to advance in the elimination style tournament were Travis Tryan and Michael Jones, Luke Brown and Martin Lucero and, interestingly, Blaine Linaweaver and Rich Skelton.
They were the first team out and roped their steer in 4.5 seconds, but Linaweaver broke the barrier and had to take a 10-second penalty. Next, Brown missed for Lucero and took a no time. Suddenly, with over $13,000 at stake, the team roping was soft.
"After those first two went out all I was wanting to do was catch the steer," Key said. "I wanted to score good and catch the steer. I knew he was slow and I knew he was good. I just wanted to give my partner a chance to catch two feet. I knew if we were winning it when we rode out of there, we'd finish no worse than second, and that paid like $7,500 or $10,000 [$9,939, actually] or something. I knew it was a lot of money. If they beat us, they beat us, if they didn't, they didn't. I was just trying to let us win as much as possible."
Both Key and Culpepper had the Wrangler NFR made, so they didn't have to press. In fact, with the exceptional reputation Tryan and Jones enjoy for roping fast, a shoot-out wasn't the smartest strategy.
"This steer was real slow and handled kind of choppy so instead of taking a risky shot I just took an extra swing to make sure I got him caught," Culpepper said. "Those guys could have beat us if they'd have caught anyway. We didn't want to beat ourselves. We knew coming into this round if we were winning first when we leave, that's what we wanted to shoot for. So all we had to do was beat a barrier."
In what looked like slow motion in the tiny Qwest Center, Key and Culpepper stopped the clock in 5.6 seconds.
Tryan and Jones had to be licking their chops. Tryan was out clean and turned the steer and Jones had a rare misfire and the title-and a total of $20,643-fell to Key and Culpepper.
Oddly, they weren't the big money winners in the team roping. Linaweaver and Skelton took that honor after amassing $24,194.
"The main thing I wanted to do was come here and win a little and try to catch up with Chad a little bit," Key said. "He's so far ahead of everybody. I've still got an outside chance, but it's a long shot for me to win the championship. I've still got the Heartland left, but it helps to catch up to Chad some, if I can get as close as I can, it's anybody's game there."
Meanwhile, while Culpepper is heading to his sixth NFR, Driggers will miss his first.
"He was ineligible at the time entries for this rodeo closed, he didn't have some fees paid, and it slipped my mind right at the end," Culpepper said of the 19-year-old partner. "We knew it and it snuck up on us. We were entered and they drew him out because he didn't have his fees paid and they kept me. It was a real bad deal, we roped all year together. He's a young kid and I had him under my wing. He dropped the ball and I didn't save him kind. Now he's probably not going to get to go to the NFR."
While the rest of the tie-down ropers may not have realized it, the team roping had a significant impact on what happened in their event.
Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith barely squeaked into the semifinal round with only one time on two head. As the first team to rope in the semifinals, Brazile was aggressive and they got a flag in 5.5. Brazile, however, was a little too eager and broke the barrier.
"The team roping was first and everything affects me differently," Brazile said. "When I don't do good in the team roping it makes me more aggressive in the calf roping. I just get madder at myself because there's someone else involved. I just go more aggressive after that."
While his go-to horse, Jaguar, was saddled and behind the chutes, he wasn't ready. He mysteriously turned up lame the day of the semifinal and final rounds, so Brazile mounted out on a horse owned by Sid Miller called Pearl, that both Hunter Herrin and Cody Ohl were riding.
"Luckily he fit me good and we were just able to keep rolling," Brazile said.
He roped his final-round calf in 7.2-seconds, enough to win $20,731 and maintain his lead in the world standings race. However, a hard-charging Hunter Herrin-who barely missed the world title last year-moved up eight spots in the standings after his performance in Omaha closed the gap between himself and Brazile. In fact, Herrin won more than any other cowboy in the tie-down roping, hauling in $28,449.
Still, Brazile's performance in Omaha was an exclamation point to an outstanding season-somewhat reminiscent of his 2007 campaign when he won the tie-down roping, all around and steer roping titles.
"We've had a great regular season," he said. "I was as excited about rodeoing this year as I ever have been. I'm definitely looking forward to going home and having some down time. It's just been a phenomenal year. I felt like I was the healthiest I've been in a long time. For some reason I was craving rodeo. I'm usually a little reluctant to leave home for the summer."
For Herrin and the rest of the field at the NFR, they just better hope he does well in the team roping every night.
Bull Rider J.W. Harris capped his own dominant regular-season performance with a win in Omaha. Until a year ago, Harris was considered an also-ran in the bull riding. He would make the Finals, but not contend for a world title. Then last year he rode six of 10 bulls at the Wrangler NFR, won his first world title and has completely dominated the sport this summer.
In retrospect, his tear began last year with a first in Pendleton, then one weekend later in Omaha.
He won the first round, finished second in the semifinals and second overall after riding three bulls all for over 86 points.
"Omaha is a place where you want to do well," Harris said. "You get that momentum going into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and maybe pull away from the field a little more and give yourself a little more distance from those guys, because they ride too well to be that close to you."
He won the first round, placed fifth in the second and led the average on two going into the semifinals. He didn't ride his bull in the semifinal round, but by virtue of his average score coming in, he advanced to the Finals.
He drew Velvet Elvis of the Four L and Diamond S Rodeo Company.
"I had never seen Velvet Elvis," Harris said, "but everyone said I would like him and that he was probably the one to have (in the finals). They said he just turned back and would be kind of up underneath himself and just not to fall off him. He had a lot of timing, and you could just sit there on him and have fun. He's the kind of bull where, if you stub your toe once, he's going to throw you off, but he gives you a chance. I'd like to have had him everywhere I went."
Really, though, it doesn't seem to matter what he draws. He's won 22 PRCA rodeos this year and pushed his earnings to $216,728. Matt Austin's 2005 regular season earnings record is $228,766. Harris does have a shot at that record if he wins nearly everything he could at the Heartland Championships in Waco in October.
Harris wasn't the only one who used Omaha a year ago as a springboard to a world title. Canadian barrel racer Lindsay Sears and her horse, Martha, won Omaha in what was the most dominating regular-season run by a barrel racer in the history of the sport. In fact, she set a new regular season earning record for the sport with $184,567.
Sears has basically taken ownership over the Qwest Center in Omaha. This year marked the third consecutive year she's ridden out with the title in her hands.
After a final-round time of 13.85 seconds, she added $32,787 to her world standings and closed the gap on Brittany Pozzi.
But Sears' trailing in the world standings is due less to world championship hangover and more to an injury. Sears broke her leg when it was smashed between her horse and a gatepost after a run, then Martha bruised her heel and had to be laid off.
"I've had a funny summer," she said. "I've had injuries with myself and my horse, so to come here and finish off the year strong definitely helps. We'll go to Vegas and see what happens there. I was lucky to get ride her here, it turned out great, she loves Omaha."
Martha's return to competition couldn't have come at a better place. In sum, she's won $70,287 in Omaha.
"I love this place and Martha loves this place," she said. "It's a great place to come and finish up the year. They do a great job producing this rodeo and it gets better every year. I'm happy to be here. You try to come back and peak in the final four, which she did, she always comes back and runs a little stronger the second time. I just got lucky and got around."
In his world title defense, Luke Branquinho hasn't exactly set the world on fire. He's had a solid season, no doubt, but after Curtis Cassidy won the $50,000 bonus at RodeoHouston and Jake Rinehart and Lee Graves stole all the late-season headlines, Branquinho just quietly went about his job, waiting for his opportunity.
For the second straight year, it came in Omaha.
In 2008, Wade Sumpter stole all the headlines and had a commanding lead most of the season. Branquinho, however, slowly inched up and then won nearly $17,000 in Omaha to close the gap.
This year, he's doing nearly the same thing.
After amassing $31,731, he moved to second in the world standings.
"Going into the last round, I knew what I had," Branquinho said of his strategy. "I had run that steer in the first round and was 3.6 on him. All the other steers they had been 3.3 or 3.4 on, but things didn't go real well for those guys. I knew if I got a good start and threw him down, I'd have a chance to win first, and that's what I tried to do."
When the flag dropped, Branquinho turned in a 3.4-second time, repeating last year's win. The only difference was the horse he rode. Last year, he rode Curtis Cassidy's Willy. This year, since Cassidy didn't qualify, he wasn't at the rodeo, so Branquinho borrowed Jesse Peterson's Gunner.
"I hadn't ridden him since Dallas last year," Branquinho said. "Gunner is such a great horse. I'm going to ride Willy at the Finals. I'm going to have Gunner out there, but it's nice that my backup is as good as my first choice."
Earlier this year, Ryan Gray tied a world record with a 94-point mark at Eagle, Colo. In Omaha, he nearly matched it again with a 92 in the final round. But while the mark fell just short of his record, he did win the rodeo and add $32,171 to his world standings.
"I'd never been on him so I didn't really know what to expect," Gray said of Classic ProRodeo's Big Tex. "So I just went out there and rode him like any other horse. I try to make the most of the ones I ride, and it was fun."
Despite the win, Gray still trails Clint Cannon, who's had a record-setting regular season.
"That guy rides so good," he said. "I'm not really concerned about that. He's going to go out there and win a lot of money and we're all trying to do the same thing."
Saddle Bronc Riding
Coming in to Omaha, Isaac Diaz was on the bubble for his second Wrangler NFR qualification. He sat in the 16th spot and in the final round drew MJM Rodeo's Little Stone, the same horse that took Chad Ferley to the winner's circle last year. He rode the horse for 86 points, but then had to wait while Shaun Stroh had three re-rides before he knew for sure if he'd won the rodeo.
"I've never been that nervous, not even the first round of the NFR," Diaz said. "I really wanted Shaun to do good, but it was nerve wracking."
Stroh could only manage an 83, so the title and a total of $21,523 was Diaz's.
"Guys dream of just being in this position, and I'm just blessed," he said. "It was a great rodeo, and I was happy to be here. I look at going to the NFR as a win, but as far as a single rodeo win, this is by far my best. I've dreamed of doing this since I was a little kid."