ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clay O’Brien Cooper is a rodeo icon of few words. He’s as famous for his quiet humility as his legendary heel loops. The seven-time world champion team roper and 29-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo heeler has been watching the nightly Cowboy Channel telecast on a laptop computer, snuggled up on the couch with his wife, Alisa. He agreed to a lightning round of questions regarding Rounds 1-5, so here goes…

Biggest surprise in the first five rounds?

“I guess maybe the biggest surprise is the average falling apart so quickly. It usually hangs together pretty good through the midway point, then about three quarters of the way has a tendency to fall apart. A lot of times things really change in the eighth or ninth round. I’m just used to seeing half a dozen of the teams with headers that typically lead the way—guys like Luke Brown, Chad Masters and Clay Smith, who determine that they’re going to really ride that barrier, but aren’t going to come over the chute and take a low-percentage shot. They’re going to try and win something in the round, but they aren’t going to shoot themselves in the foot and take themselves out. Chad waved it off of their first steer, but it wasn’t because he did something crazy. The consistent winners turn a high percentage of steers, and have that mindset. Some guys have really done that well here this week. Clay, Luke and Erich have turned every steer, and are doing a really good job. In some cases, it’s come apart on the heel end. Both guys play a part, and have to do their job and connect. Not that that’s an easy thing to do night in and night out at the NFR, mind you. But to be successful, that’s what has to be done.”

The controversial Paul Eaves crossfire call in Round 4: Yes or no?

“That was such a hard call, and from what I saw it all depended on which angle you watched the run from. If you were sitting at the back end, you said, ‘No way.’ Then there was an angle from the chutes, where it looked like he got him right in the switch. It was a matter of where you were sitting, which is often the case. Having to make those calls in real time in a split second with so much on the line is hard. The flagger doesn’t have the advantage of slow motion. That’s what I like about instant replay. You get see it from every angle, slow it down and get the call right.”

With $80,654 a man, Dustin Egusquiza and Travis Graves are the high-money team of the week through the first five rounds. What have you liked best about their run here at Globe Life Field?

“Those guys are the perfect combination of a team. Everyone—including his peers on the heading side—say that when Dustin’s dialed in, nobody can get it on ’em any faster. He dialed up those first few in a row, and there it was. When they set the barrier out there a little more (it’s two feet longer this year), that lightning-fast reach shot Dustin’s got can go get ’em before they get away. And TG’s a catcher. He ropes two feet all day long, and finishes the deal. When that combo clicks, it wins a lot of money.”

If you could walk around the corner and run into Kolton Schmidt and Hunter Koch, who haven’t yet stopped the clock, what would you say to those guys?

“Poor Kolton’s been off of the barrier, so he hasn’t really had a chance. Nobody knows that any better than him. You just have to take the day, go practice your start where you can nail it and get a go. It is what it is, and they know what they need to do to turn it around. I’d say, ‘Hey, you’ve got half the rodeo left, you can light that place up. Keep your head down, whip and spur and get it on.’”

Which horses are standing out to you?

“When you just look at the pure start, Clay Tryan’s horse has fired, and is giving him some really good goes. Dustin’s horse is obviously giving him the goes he wants, too. Luke’s horse is letting him spin steers off to place in the day moneys and also stay solid in the average. Erich Rogers’s horse is giving him good goes. Clay Smith’s horse is firing good, too. There’s a reason everyone raves about that horse (Marty). If you’re wondering why I’m talking about the head horses when I’m a heeler, it’s because the whole deal is about the head horse. The header spins the steer and sets up the run. The heelers’ job is just to be in the right place at the right time and seal the deal. That’s not nearly as hard as the heading equation. Headers have the hardest job in rodeo. If they don’t get the go they need, the team is toast. As for the heel horses, I’d like to throw a leg over every heel horse there this year.” TRJ

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