In the shadows of the parking lot of Rodeo Houston’s NRG Center in the winter of 2015, Jade Corkill roped his heeling dummy alone behind his trailer. He meticulously placed loop after loop, hammering in his fundamentals in a way that only Corkill knows how.
In between the clip clop of horses’ shoes on the pavement and the hum of the generators, Corkill felt like someone was watching him. He turned around to see the Champ—the master—Clay O’Brien Cooper, watching in silence.
“He didn’t talk, he didn’t give me the head nod,” Corkill said. “I roped it, I roped it a couple more times. He talked to me for just a minute, and he left. A minute later he comes back, he sits down right in front of the dummy again and he said, ‘Whatcha working on?’ I asked him, ‘What do I need to be working on?!’”
Cooper had just kicked off his partnership with Arizona’s Derrick Begay, and he’d been trying a few new things with his roping. In a way perhaps only the Champ can, he realized that Corkill had mastered what he’d been struggling to comprehend.
“I told him a little about what I was doing, and I hoped I wasn’t sounding like an idiot,” Corkill said. “Long story short, he gets up, he ropes it a couple times, asks me some questions, and I’m not wanting to answer anything because I still don’t know to this day if he’s pulling my leg or actually wanting my help. Next thing I know, he tells me he’s been working on the same thing, and he tells me how much he likes what I’m doing. He wasn’t kidding—he really didn’t think he had a lot of range. And now he hasn’t missed one since, I don’t think.”
“Jade was roping his dummy a lot that year,” Cooper remembered. “Hours and hours and hours he was roping it. When I was in the same place and warming up, I would gravitate over and watch him. Houston was the first time he opened up and shared a lot of his ways of thinking about how he does things. And so it was a good opportunity for me to have insight on his method. With anybody of that caliber of roper, it’s intriguing to be able to kind of look through their eyes as they’re describing the different dynamics that are important to them. That’s part of the fun really. Here I am, I’m 55 years old, and I’m blessed to be able to still be in the game at a level where I’m able to be around the very best ropers that there are, and Jade is definitely in my book on the top tier.”
Fast forward to 2016, and Cooper’s new heeling technique, paired with Begay’s heading prowess, is showcased alongside Corkill and three-time world champ Clay Tryan at the new Elite Rodeo Athletes' Premier Tour. The result has been nothing but smoking-fast times and sheer dominance. The two teams battled it out in 2015 in the PRCA regular-season world standings (with both falling short at the very end to Wrangler National Finals standouts Aaron Tsinigine and Kollin VonAhn), and the battle rages on. Not to mention, Begay and Cooper took home a cool $100,000 a man at RFD-TV’s The American, while Tryan and Corkill won $50,000 a man at RodeoHouston, $46,200 a man for second at the George Strait Team Roping Classic, $14,000 a man for their Hork Dog Classic win and $7,225 a man at Chris Cox’s Lifeline Challenge.
When the ERA season wrapped up in Albuquerque for its summer break, Begay and Cooper led the standings with 1,675 points, followed by Tryan's and Corkill’s 1,250. Begay and Cooper have been nearly flawless in ERA competition, winning first and second in Redmond, Ore., first and fifth at Nampa, Idaho, second at Salt Lake City (The second performance at Salt Lake was the only no-time they took in ERA competition.), and first and fifth at Albuquerque. Tryan and Corkill have been just slightly less consistent, but they still picked up points at six of the eight tour stops and smoked the competition twice, once with a 3.42-second run and once with a 3.35-second run.
The two teams’ friendly rivalry, loaded with mutual respect and brimming with intensity, has produced the fastest runs we’ve seen in 2016, letting team roping fans sit back and enjoy some of the best roping they’ve ever watched on TV. Begay, as Tryan puts it, has been “flawless” in his eight ERA appearances with no broken barriers and no misses. And the Champ and Corkill are having a wizards’ duel on the heel side, putting together years of practice pen work to out-shoot one other in the fast-throwing ERA set up.
When Tryan made the fastest run of his career—a blistering 3.35-second run—on night two of the Salt Lake City ERA this April, it was Begay whom he credited with forcing him to up his game in his post-run interview.
“Begay’s been sticking at every one of these,” Tryan said in his TV interview after the run. “The competitiveness comes out in me, and I was just trying to go as fast as I could.”
“I haven’t headed that well,” Tryan said weeks later after some reflection. “He’s headed better than me by far, and he’s motivated me to rope a little bit better.”
Tryan and Begay have talked smack behind the boxes and in parking lots from Redmond, Ore., to Kissimmee, Fla., for years, fueling both ropers’ fires. But the mutual respect began long before either had many accolades under his belt.
Begay, just a high school kid in Seba Delkai when Tryan broke out, remembers the Montana young-gun coming to Arizona and jackpotting in the winter the first year he made the Finals.
“I just kind of knew who he was and where he was from,” Begay said. “I saw him at a lot of jackpots down here. That year I saw him on TV at the Finals roping with Caleb Twisselman. I was just going to the Indian rodeos, and I think I was still in high school. But when I saw him on TV in Vegas, it was like, ‘Whoa, that guy made it.’ It added a new level of respect because I knew he roped good. I just was a kid, so it made me realize how good.”
Tryan took notice of Begay when he first broke out onto the ProRodeo scene in 2004.
“Begay was riding a Paint, throwing in the box, not pulling his slack and dallying and going at them harder than I’d ever seen anybody go at them,” Tryan remembered of his first time seeing Begay rope. “Throwing and dallying as a header right when he hit the line and his partner hazed them straight to the left fence. He was pretty good at it. I’d not seen anything like it.”
As both began to stand out, both took more notice of the other’s roping and style.
“I hate to say something good about him in case he reads this,” Begay said. “But he’s the guy on top of the mountain, so I’m pretty sure I’m not the only guy who looks at him that way. There’s two ways to look at him: You’ve got to try to beat him, and you’ve got to learn what he does and how he does it.
“You’ve got to look at his style—but I don’t try to go off his style,” Begay continued. “I try to go after how much he wins. He just knows how to win. That’s the hard part to steal from somebody—what’s inside their head.”
Begay might not be able to steal what’s inside Tryan’s head, but he does try to get inside it, the Montana header said.
“He only talks smack to me and no one else hardly,” Tryan said. “I give it back to him pretty good, but if I would say some of the stuff he says to me, I’d get in trouble for it and he doesn’t because he’s Derrick Begay.”
Smack talk aside, Tryan and Begay couldn’t be more different when it comes to their approaches to practice. Monday morning after Albuquerque, Begay was sipping his coffee enjoying the morning, while Tryan and Corkill were breaking in a fresh set of practice cattle they’d just brought in for their month off. In Begay’s defense, he too just bought a load of practice cattle—but he swears it’s the first set of fresh Mexican Corrientes (or as he calls them, "sports cattle") he’s ever purchased—and it took him a few more days to break them in.
“I have always been this way—I’ve never really roped because it was a job,” Begay said. “So that’s probably why Clay Tryan is better than everybody else because that’s what he’s doing now. At the end of the day, we understand what we all need and how many ingredients we need to put into it, and how much thought we have to put into it.”
Tryan, for his part, doesn’t buy Begay’s barely-practices reputation.
“He probably practices more than he lets on,” Tryan said. “You don’t get good without running some steers. A lot of guys practice good and can’t catch when they get there. I’ve roped with some guys who are only good practicing. But whatever Begay does, it works for him. If you’re a guy who doesn’t rope much, that’s what you do. If I don’t practice, I don’t rope as good because I’ve always practiced a lot.”
The Master and the Apprentice
The true smack talk between Tryan and Corkill and Begay and Cooper ends on the head side. For Corkill and Cooper, the rivalry transcends the traditional dog-eat-dog attitude of professional sports.
“I always tell him that he’s the greatest there is, and then he comes back and tells me I am, and we go back and forth,” Cooper said. “I tell him he’s goofy, I’m just an old guy out here. He tells me I’m still the man, and I laugh at him. We don’t tease the other way. That’s our smack talk.”
“We have—I wouldn’t call it a weird relationship—but it’s a different relationship,” Corkill added. “It’s a friendship. He’s my rodeo father figure/guidance counselor/priest. The one thing I wish I could prove is the times he’s texted me out of the blue something that sums up exactly what I’ve been going through without me ever saying anything to him to provoke it. He can see me when I’m not doing well. He knows what I’m thinking about, and comes out of the blue with the answer I’m trying to find, with what I need to hear.”
While it might have taken until RodeoHouston last year for Cooper and Corkill to really talk about heeling, they’ve both silently studied one another for years. Of course Corkill watched tapes and studied the Champ like nearly every other heeler who’s ever caught two feet, but Corkill actually used his heading skills to get an up-close-and-personal look at Cooper.
“I would head for him when I lived in Nevada,” Corkill said. “He thought I liked to head but really that’s how I would watch him heel.”
It was 2012, and Corkill was getting ready to make the switch to the head side for 2013. (That switch only lasted for a few rodeos.) Corkill heeled for Kaleb Driggers in 2012, and they buddied with Chad Masters and Cooper all summer. So when they went home before the Finals, Corkill and Cooper teamed up to practice.
“It was fun, because he heads really good too,” Cooper said. “It was before he’d won the world. He had bought the black head horse he sold to Chad (Masters), and he was wanting to head the next year. He had already won a few rodeos for the next year heading and had some money won. I told him he’d win the world heeling in a month, and then he’d start his heading career and win the world heading the next year and he’d flip everybody out. And then he would laugh at me and say, ‘Oh yeah right.’ I guess if he was just heading for me to watch me heel, he’s the one messing with me.”
Corkill has asked Cooper for heeling help as long as the two have known each other, but Cooper is famous for his non-answers in that department.
“Every time I ask him for help, he tells me he watches me or does that typical thing that he does—like those guards in England who aren’t allowed to speak or flinch—he would give me that look. He would tell me he was the one needing help from me and watching me to learn.”
In yet another unspoken sign of respect, Cooper and Corkill rarely fail to push one another’s steers.
“It started when I roped with Chad,” Cooper said. “I like to watch him, everything he does, because there are no weaknesses. So even when I’m pushing his steers I stay alert.”
Corkill watches Champ as long as he can through the cracked gates after he pushes his steer, but for him, it’s about the groove they’ve established.
“If I do bad early, I stay to push his steer at least just because I know I’m not going to break our flow,” Corkill said.
Cooper credits the friendship and level of competition with guys like Corkill for keeping him in the game, and said that he’s in a familiar spot doing battle like this.
“When Jake (Barnes) and I were rodeoing, it was Charles Pogue and Steve Northcott, Matt Tyler and Steve Northcott, and then Britt Bockius, and Bobby Hurley and Dennis Gatz,” Cooper said. “We won five of our championships down to the last steers at the Finals. We were battling usually with Charles and Steve and Charles and Britt or Bobby and Dennis. Tee Woolman and Bob Harris were in there, too. I’ve been used to that my whole career.”
The competition keeps it fun and intense, but it doesn’t keep either team from lending one another a hand any chance they get. Tryan has let Begay ride his great mare, Cate, and Cooper is only one of two people that Corkill will let ride any of his horses. (Junior Nogueira is the other heeler who can swing a leg over Caveman, Switchblade, Ice Cube or anything else Corkill owns.)
“That’s the level of friendship or respect that begins with being there for somebody,” Corkill said. “It goes back or forth continuously. Champ or Junior are welcome to ride my most crippled horse in three foot of mud if they need to, no questions asked.”
Begay and Cooper and Tryan and Corkill have proven that the limited schedule the ERA provides hasn’t made them rusty—in fact, at the jackpots they’ve beaten the teams who’ve been rodeoing much harder all year. They all plan to head to the Bob Feist Invitational at the end of June, and then enjoy the month they’ll have off before the new Salt Lake City Days of ’47 ERA Qualifier and Premier Tour.
“It’s been 10 years ago since I’ve been in Arizona all summer,” Begay said. “I’ve got to keep the gloves on and get a sweat band and some sun glasses. Like anybody who lives the Western way of life, there’s always something to do. Anybody that’s cowboy enough, you don’t ever tell anybody you’ve got nothing to do. I’ve got kids who work for me, and they say they don’t have anything to do, I tell them to go pound a post between a post. I’m not going to go become an actual mailman or something.”
Cooper will teach schools, spend time with his wife and kids and stay sharp on the Heel-O-Matic while he keeps his horses fit. Oh, and he’ll play as many rounds of golf as time will allow, too.
The easy schedule isn’t just great for Champ—his great horse, LB, can really use it, too. At 18, the hard-stopping bay doesn’t need to go to 80 rodeos.
Tryan will rope as much as possible, hitting weekly jackpots and open ropings while preparing for the BFI. But he, too, is looking forward to some down time. He and his wife plan to take their boys to their family’s lake house in Montana, as well as Tryan’s grandfather’s farm that he hasn’t been able to see in years because of his grueling rodeo schedule.
Corkill will head to Fallon, Nev., after the BFI and before Salt Lake to get some time in with his family, there.
“All that’s really changed is not having to have a big plan of trying to get here and there,” Corkill said. “We know the rodeos, when they are, which jackpots and when they are. As far as personally, I feel like my days aren’t near as hectic or stressful. I can make a plan for next Wednesday because I know what I’m doing. I’ve made plans around Colby’s baseball games.”
After Salt Lake in July, they’ll all hit the rest of the ERA schedule, which kicks back off in Sheridan, Wyo., in September, and will be aiming to come into the ERA World Finals in Dallas’ American Airlines Center this November 9-13. And while the rest of the pack is full of world champions, big reachers and the best heelers in the game, they’ll all be gunning for Tryan and Corkill and Begay and Cooper after the start these two teams have gotten in 2016.