When the Toughest of Times Bring Out the Best in Cowboys

[Originally published in the July 2020 issue of The Team Roping Journal.]

Cowboys cried when living legend Jake Barnes lost the thumb on his roping hand in the heat of world championship battle at the 2005 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. In the aftermath of that horrific Round 5 happening, the way the roping and rodeo world rallied around Jake’s heeler, Kory Koontz, to help him salvage the second half of Rodeo’s Super Bowl was nothing short of remarkable. Unselfish offers, decisions and sacrifices were made. If Kory was going to leave Las Vegas without that year’s gold buckle, it was not going to be because he didn’t have the best possible replacement partner, replacement head horse and best-ever, go-fast heel horse in his corner.

Jake and Kory entered that year’s Super Bowl of Rodeo ranked second only to regular-season champs Clay Tryan and Patrick Smith, and got their NFR roll on straight out of the blocks. Barnes and Koontz were going gangbusters with a 5.1-second run to split fourth and fifth in Round 1; 4.6 for third in Round 2; and another 5.1 to split fifth and sixth in Round 3. They were 5.7 in Round 4, which didn’t place. But it did put them in the driver’s seat of the world championship race with the average lead. Clay and Patrick hadn’t stopped the clock in Rounds 1 or 2. But they did rebound and keep it interesting by rallying back with victory laps in Rounds 3 and 4.

“At that point, I felt really good about how Jake and I were roping,” Kory said. “If we just stayed the course, the average would take care of winning the world title.”

Then came the second-saddest NFR round in my 33 years of covering the Finals front and center—the first being Round 10 in 1994, when my popular bull rider friend Brent Thurman had his head stomped on and died a few days later. Brent was the first and only fatality in Finals history, and he left behind the coolest broken-hearted mom and girlfriend in Kay and Tara. But that’s another story.

To boil down the blur of NFR Round 5, 2005, Jake stuck it on a neck and his great gray horse Barney headed left—hard. The warrior in Jake instinctively tried to salvage a tricky situation that happened way too fast in his signature Superman style. Down into the Thomas & Mack Center dirt went the right thumb—one of five fingers on the roping hand of this legendary all-time great. No way. Not Jake.

As Allen Bach came running back into the arena on foot in search of Jake’s thumb, I don’t think the crowd grasped what had just happened to our beloved Hall of Famer. I did. There it was right in front of me—Jake’s right thumb with the long tendon that was jerked out of his arm still attached to it. I yelled at Allen and pointed. We made momentary eye contact, he grabbed it and ran back out the end of the arena to return it to Jake. To go all the way back to the ties between those two, Allen won his first of four world titles in 1979. The reigning champ of the world at that time took a chance on a quiet kid from New Mexico in 1980, and that partnership turned into the first of Jake’s 27 NFR appearances and the third Finals of Big Al’s record 30 qualifications. Now he was running out of the NFR arena with Jake’s thumb in his hand.

Trevor Brazile borrowed Walt from Travis Tryan and subbed in for Jake. Kory got on Jackyl. The result was the 3.7-second Round 6 win.
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Kory and Trevor’s bittersweet Round 6 victory lap was for Jake.
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“When I rode out of the arena, I didn’t realize what had really just happened,” Kory said. “All I was thinking was, ‘Man, Jake lost his rope and we got a no time.’ I had no idea about his thumb. After we rode out, I saw that Jake was cradling his right hand and covering it with his left hand. He looked back at me with a bad look on his face and said, ‘I cut my thumb off.’

“I was just in shock. It took a minute for that to register. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Surely not.’ Then it flashed on me that Allen had run past me and back into the arena. Jake got off of Barney right there outside the gate and walked into the hallway to go to the Justin Sportsmedicine Room. I don’t even remember who took our horses. At that point, I was just worried about Jake.”

Setting an Example with Kory Koontz

The Score Season 1, Episode 10 with Kory Koontz

Kory headed to the hospital. So did I. The only call I made on the way was to Jake’s partner in those seven gold buckles, Clay Cooper, who didn’t rope there that year after one of his career trademark time-outs.

“My advice to Jake was not to have them try and reattach his thumb,” said Kory, who cut off his own thumb—heading—when he was 8 (they covered Kory’s nub with skin from his chest, and to this day when that reddish-blonde chest hair starts growing out of his hand he takes a lighter and singes it off). “Everybody I’ve known over the years who’s done that found it to be in the way and more of a hassle than if they did it like mine and just took it off. Mine might be ugly, but it’s usable.”

We stayed until Jake was out of surgery and we could see him again. I’ll never forget walking out of that hospital with Kory into the misty, middle-of-the-night fog in that dark, quiet parking lot.

“I left the hospital wondering if I could even keep competing,” Kory remembers clearly. “I didn’t know if I was out, too, or not. After I left there, I made some phone calls and found out that I could either rope with the 16 header in the world, which was Chad Masters, or with someone who was already in the Finals, just not the team roping. There were a few guys there who headed some, but in my mind there was only one option if I went that way, and that was Trevor (Brazile). He really stood out, and he just happened to not be entered in the team roping that year.

“I called Chad, who was back home in Tennessee, first and asked him what he thought I should do. He said, ‘Man, I would love to be there, and I’ll get there if you want me there. But I haven’t been roping, and I don’t have horses ready. So it might be better for you if you rope with Trevor.’ My next call was to Trevor. He said he would love to rope, and that he would do anything to help me. Then Travis Tryan—also being a great friend—told me if Trevor needed a horse, he could ride Walt.”

Yes, Walt, as in the only team roping horse ever inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. I recently checked in with Travis to talk about those 10 crazy days in December, 2005. Travis rode Walt in Rounds 1 and 2, then got on his palomino horse Gold Digger to give old Walt a break.

“I got off of Walt, because he was sore with the ringbone,” Travis said. “But when that happened to Jake, offering Walt to Trevor and Kory was obviously the right thing to do. When you can help someone, you should.”

Travis and that bay horse were a huge part of those unforgettable Tryan Times. I’ve long imagined how hilarious that year’s family Christmas dinner table must have been back in Montana, with Clay saying something to Travis like, “So let me get this straight, bro. My team is in a knife fight for the world championship, and you hand the other team a dagger (as in the not-so-secret weapon also known as Walt)?”

For decades now, Al Bach and I have talked about divine appointments. It seems some events—and special people—are scripted into the story of our lives.

“Before I went to bed that night—or should I say that next morning—I had a partner for the rest of the rodeo, and he was going to get to ride Walt, who will always be one of the greatest head horses ever,” Kory said. “It was sort of ironic that Trevor’s the guy who stepped up when Jake went down. Trevor had actually asked me to rope not that long before that, and I didn’t do it because the team roping having to take a backseat to Trevor working three events made me a little nervous.

“Trevor and I had been friends since he got into the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), and we’d jackpotted together at certain times when we were second and third partners. Some guys might not have been too friendly about doing me a favor after being turned down. But that’s not how Trevor rolls, and he’s always been a good friend to me, no matter what.”

Kory’s NFR game plan went out the window when Jake left Round 5 in that ambulance.

“The NFR can be funny, because you arrive with a plan,” Kory said. “Our plan was to stay the course and come out #1 in the end. Very seldom do you show up and it all falls into place and stays totally on track. That year, it felt like it was going exactly the way Jake and I had planned it. Jake wanted his eighth gold buckle, and he really wanted me to get one. After those first four rounds, it all felt pretty easy and was going exactly according to plan. But we all know it can all go out the window fairly fast in that building.”

As for the money Trevor and Kory won, the way the rules read Kory could only count go-round checks toward the world team roping standings. He couldn’t count average money, because he didn’t rope all 10 rounds with the same guy. Trevor would be paid for any go-rounds they placed in, which would benefit his bank account. But not a penny of it counted toward his world team roping or all-around standings.

All it took was telling Trevor Brazile and Kory Koontz that average money was not an option. A post-traumatic fairytale started to unfold in Round 6, when Trevor and Kory were 3.7 for the win. They were 3.8 to take their second-straight victory lap in Round 7, this time as co-champs with Wade Wheatley and Kyle Lockett. Not sure how adrenaline affects that insulin pump in Kory’s pants pocket that helps him counter and control his diabetes, but by then there were surely some adjustments to dial in there, too.

“Those two nights were the loudest ovations I’ve ever received in the Thomas & Mack,” Kory said. “In my own heart and mind, I was roping for Jake. The crowd knew that, and really got behind Trevor and I.”

Trevor and Kory struck a second straight night for the Round 7 win, this time in 3.8.
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Trevor and Kory were 4.4 in Round 8 for fourth. Kory took the lead in the world heeling standings.

“It felt like nothing could stop me,” Kory said. “Even what happened to Jake—which I was just sick about—was not going to stop me from getting that gold buckle.”

Adding Intensity with Trevor Brazile 

The fateful script stopped just short of that dream coming true. Trevor and Kory drew a couple of stronger steers, and Trevor ran out of rope.

Meanwhile, Clay and Patrick had come back and set the 3.5-second NFR record—which tied the world record at that time—to win Round 9.

“That changed the whole game, and put Clay and Patrick back in control,” Kory said. “They went back in the lead in the world, so they also got to rope last in Round 10. The scenario for us riding into Round 10 was that Trevor and I needed to win the round, and Clay and Patrick had to have a no time for me to have a shot at winning the world. We didn’t draw great, but under the circumstances Trevor had to cut it at him anyway. We went down trying.

“Back then, it was still three loops. So I crossed over at the back end, ocean waved and roped that steer around the horns and turned him for Trevor. I’d started the rodeo on Switchblade, but switched to Jackyl when I started roping with Trevor, because we had to go fast. So there I was turning a steer on Jackyl, who just might be the greatest heel horse of all time, for the greatest cowboy who ever lived, who was now heeling on one of the greatest head horses there will ever be.”

The G.O.A.T.: Jackyl

Remembering One of the Greatest Heel Horses of All-Time: Jackyl, c.1989—2018 

Now that it’s two loops, you can bet you’ll never see that again. Kory ocean waved that steer for Trevor just for fun—as a special little thank you to the crowd for riding shotgun in his corner that week. The world championship race was over. Clay and Patrick were the champs. Tee Woolman and Cory Petska won the average, and moved up to second in the world. Kory finished third on the heeling side, and Jake dropped down to eighth after sitting out the second half of the world’s richest rodeo in a hospital bed with his roping hand sewn into his abdomen.

“Jake losing his thumb is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me at the NFR,” Kory said. “It’s almost like it happened to me, because Jake was my partner, my teammate and my friend. It was devastating. But I’m an eternal optimist, so looking at the bright side, it’s the only time I’ve ever been perfect at the Finals. I roped two feet, dallied and executed on every steer turned for me with no hiccups and no bobbles. The 2005 Finals was the best performance of my whole career, and I got to ride two of the greatest heel horses of all time. It was just a really big week in my life, and one of the most memorable I’ll ever have, thanks to some great friends. I get choked up every time I talk about it.

Rodeo Thumb: Research on Whether to Save or Amputate

“Even though we only roped together that one year, I’ll always say that my partnership with Jake was one of the highlights of my career. We won Salinas, Ellensburg and the Tour Finals in Omaha, and went into the Finals sitting second. It ended in such a sad way, but Jake and I had a great year. And I’ll always be grateful for that.” 

The 2005 NFR was a mixed bag of extreme emotions for Kory. But his cowboy friends sure came through in the clutch.
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