Tanner Tomlinson is about to take aim at his first trip to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The 2020 Resistol Rookie Header of the Year will do 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo battle with two-time Champ of the World Patrick Smith. The 22-year-old youngest son of Steve and Liz Tomlinson was raised in Angleton, Texas.
Q: Where exactly is Angleton, Texas, and do you have siblings?
A: Angleton is 25 miles south of Houston, near Galveston. I have two older brothers, Justin and Trent. Justin ropes left-handed, and won the (National) High School Finals (Rodeo) heeling one year. My dad and Justin are who taught me to rope. My Grandpa Willy (Tomlinson) helped me, too.
Q: When did you start roping?
A: I come from a family of team ropers, and we raised a lot of roping steers. I started swinging a rope as soon as I could walk, and started roping off of a horse when I was 8. What I really wanted to do was stay in the goat pen and rope goats. I didn’t care about riding horses and roping steers at first.
Q: What was your big dream growing up?
A: To make the National Finals and be a professional roper.
Q: Have you always been a header?
A: I actually heeled my entire life. I won a truck heeling when I was 12 years old, then when I got to be about a #8 heeler, I started heading in the lower-numbered ropings. I was a 9+ heeler when I turned 17. Ty Arnold entered us at an amateur rodeo with me heading in 2018. I was kind of dragging my feet about that, but we won the rodeo. That’s how my heading career really kind of got kicked off.
Q: Reaching is kind of your calling card, right?
A: Yes. I heeled my whole life, but I always jacked around roping the dummy, playing around heading and reaching.
Q: When did you start roping with Patrick, and how did that happen?
A: I was still roping with Brady Norman in the fall of 2020. Patrick and I got to jackpotting as second partners, and I got to practicing a little with him. He asked me to rope, and I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Our first rodeo was Odessa (Texas) in January 2021.
Q: How has pairing up with Patrick changed the course of your career?
A: It’s changed everything. Before Patrick, I was just a guy who knew how to rope the horns. But I didn’t know how to make a career out of it. He’s helped me evolve into a header who can win in any situation, whether we have to be 3 or just go catch to win. He’s also taught me to ride my horses better.
Q: How much time do you spend with the Smith family—Patrick, Christi, Kylee, Kenzie and Eli—in Lipan, Texas, these days?
A: It’s kind of my second home. Patrick treats me like I’m his son 24-7. Christi treats me like one of her own, too. The kids treat me like I’m their brother. They all treat me like family.
Q: You finished 35th in the world with Brady your rookie year in 2020, then 30th last year roping almost all year with Patrick. What are the most important things Patrick has taught you to help you hurdle the NFR hump?
A: He’s taught me how to keep my head horses going—scoring and running. He’s taught me that sometimes you need to go find a place to practice when you’re out rodeoing, all about the mental game and everything else that goes along with roping for a living. Words can’t even describe what Patrick’s done for me and my career. He’s taken a mix of styles he’s studied from guys he’s roped with over the years—like Trevor (Brazile) and Tee Woolman—and shared that with me. Patrick knows more about heading than most headers do.
Q: At 42, Patrick’s almost twice your age. Have there been any generation-gap issues in your partnership?
A: Patrick acts like a 19-year-old high school kid. He’s all business about rodeo, but he also likes to have fun, whether we’re roping or golfing. He makes it fun for me, too. Don’t let him fool you—he does not act like an old guy.
Q: Was there an intimidation factor when you first joined forces with a two-time world champ who used to heel for the King of the Cowboys?
A: There really was. It started hitting me every time they announced my partner as a two-time world champ. Seeing his trophy room was, like, wow. I grew up watching Patrick rope as a kid. To get to rope with him at the Finals this year is crazy. This will be Patrick’s 13th NFR.
Q: Tell us something about Patrick Smith we don’t already know.
A: Patrick’s a big video-game player. He sometimes makes Christi drive going down the road, and begs me to play video games with him. NBA 2K is his favorite. Patrick’s competitive as all get out, whether we’re playing pickleball, basketball or video games. It’s all about winning with Patrick.
Q: Does he do his fair share of the driving?
A: Yes. I had my rig out there most of the summer, but when we’re in the bus, he likes to drive when his kids are sleeping. Patrick’s very protective of his family, so in the bus, it’s mostly Patrick or Miss Christi behind the wheel.
Q: What horse(s) have you ridden this year?
A: I rode my 10-year-old dun mare, Maddie, all winter at rodeos like Denver, San Antonio and Houston. From Prescott (Arizona, in July) on, I’ve ridden my gray horse, Freightliner (who’s 14) 90 percent of the time. I’m planning to ride Coy Rahlmann’s blue roan, Blue, at the Finals. Coy’s my best friend, and that’s the horse he rode at the NFR last year.
Q: How pumped are you to be roping at your first NFR next month?
A: I’m very excited. I don’t think I’ve felt it yet. Coy told me when you break in the steers and go in for the grand entry it starts to hit you, and when you’re in the back of the tunnel getting ready to rope that first one on opening night it really gets real.
Q: Do you expect the Thomas & Mack to fit your style?
A: Yes, I do. I’ve looked forward to the opportunity to head there since I started heading. Patrick and I are working on getting a good run together for that building.
Q: You’re living your childhood dream. What do you dream about today?
A: Now that I have my first Finals made, I dream about being the next Clay Smith or Kaleb Driggers. I want to be one of the next big-name headers, and I want to win a world title. I want to head awhile, then one day I’d like to make it heeling. But for now, I want to be one of the best headers. My biggest dream is to win a world title with Patrick before he retires. Kaleb and Junior (Nogueira) have more won going into the Finals than they won the world with last year. But that’s the goal I’m setting for next year.