Jake and Clay Reflect on Making Their First NFR and Why the First Finals is the Toughest One

There are five Wrangler National Finals Rodeo rookies in the team roping field at this year’s Super Bowl of Rodeo. Headers Brenten Hall and Tate Kirchenschlager, and heelers Hunter Koch, Caleb Anderson and Tyler Worley are taking their first swing at twisting the Thomas & Mack in 2019. We thought it would be fun to ask our Team Roping Journal teammates Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper, who have 56 NFR back numbers between them, what they remember about the first year they made the NFR, and why—in their ProRodeo Hall of Fame opinions—the first Finals seems to be the toughest one to make.


The first year I made the NFR (in 1980, which was Jake’s rookie year), I started rodeoing halfway through the year. My first rodeo was North Platte, Nebraska, that summer, and when I hopped in with Allen (Bach) I was just a dumb kid with no experience. I was a 20-year-old kid who could barely stay awake, much less get from city to city. Allen had already won the world, so he knew his way around and coached me along. It was all pretty overwhelming to me, so having Allen to hold my hand and guide me through it was the only reason I made it.

I think the reason the first Finals is the hardest one to make is because you just don’t really understand what it takes. It takes some time to learn stuff like letting a steer out 40 feet for the first time at Salinas. That was pretty overwhelming. Every rookie who goes to Salinas for the first time has a tough road to hoe—headers and heelers.

[Read more: Jake and Clay Reflect on Making Their First NFR and Why the First Finals is the Toughest One]

[Read more: Who Will Steal the Show in 2019? with Jake Barnes]

Back when I was a rookie, a lot of the Texas rodeos didn’t even have team roping. And we were roping Cotton Rosser’s 700-pound steers that had been bulldogged the year before, which was like roping Texas Longhorns for me. It takes a couple years to figure out what it’s going to take to win at every rodeo. It’s extremely hard for two rookies to make it, unless you buddy with a veteran team who can help you. It takes awhile to break the ice, but it’s darn sure worth breaking.


That first year I made the Finals (1981) was a tough year. I won $1,699 at the rodeo in Scottsdale, Arizona, in February, and that’s how much money I had won when I went to rope my last steer of that year’s Fourth of July run at Cody, Wyoming. I got my butt kick up one side and down the other. I went all that time with one check.

I got my butt kicked, and I was broke. They put me in my place, and I was considering going back to the amateurs and the jackpots. Then, low and behold, Bret (Beach) and I were 5.1 and won the rodeo. We won about $4,500 on that one steer, then—bam—we just took off. Then we went to Salinas, and we won that, too.

[Read more: Lessons Learned at 29 NFRs with Clay O’Brien Cooper]

[Read more: Mastering Fundamentals with Clay O’Brien Cooper]

I think the bottom line on why the first Finals is the toughest one to make is because you don’t believe yet. You haven’t done it yet, so you don’t really know what to think or expect. What you find out fast is that winning’s easy. Losing is what’s hard.

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