There's a story that's been intriguing me since July. World team roping leaders Travis Tryan and Michael Jones, and reigning World Champion Walt Woodard and his World Champ header Clay Tryan split the same week. I've heard all the speculations and conspiracy theories, but I hadn't gone straight to the sources to find out the real deals. The opportunity presented itself at the end of September in Omaha, where Travis, Walt and Michael were entered; Travis and Walt with each other, and Michael with Speed Williams (because Chad Masters and Allen Bach didn't qualify). I called Clay when I got home. Here's what I learned…
While in Omaha for the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour's River City Roundup, I went to Friday morning's Rough 'N' Ready Challenge Rodeo. It's basically a rodeo play-day for ProRodeo contestants and their physically and mentally challenged young partners. I took my camera when I should have taken a wad of Kleenex. I've been before, and it is an amazing and heartwarming celebration of life and cowboy spirit.
To see Colter Todd painting a horse on little Emily's hand, and whipping and spurring his stick horse through the poles and barrels to her delight was priceless. Emily has Down's Syndrome, but neither of them cared. Matt Sherwood hoisted Edgar onto the seat of the Mighty Broncy machine, and enlisted Bobby Mote for a few bareback riding tips. Then there was Jake Barnes and his little buddy Tyler. They make an annual get-together of that day. With Jake's help and heart, Tyler's learned to get a curl on the horns and calf head without any visual assistance
When the Challenge Rodeo arena cleared, Travis and I pulled up a seat in the front row of the cleared-out Qwest Center. In the course of our conversation, it became obvious to me that young Travis Tryan has become a man. He confirmed the tale told to me about him throwing his rope in frustration when Michael roped a leg on their first steer at Cheyenne. It wasn't the slipped leg, but tension outside the arena that caused him to lose his cool. "I let my emotions show in the arena, and I shouldn't have," he said. "I'm willing to admit I was wrong. Michael had every right to be mad at me for that. You won't get any excuses from me, and I'd like to apologize to all the people who saw me do that. That's not the example I want to set in the arena."
Travis and Michael decided to part company after their second steer at Cheyenne, on the drive to Salt Lake City. "Michael and I splitting was not in reaction to any other teams splitting," Travis explained. "It was just time for a change for both of us. When you have two humans who are great competitors, and lots of miles, there are just things that can come between you. Michael Jones is a great heeler, and he did a great job for me. I enjoyed roping with him."
Travis, Clay and Walt visited in Salt Lake, Clay and Walt in disbelief like the rest of us that the world leaders would split the sheets. Walt had just told Clay that he'd had enough and was throwing in the towel on this season and his professional team roping career. "Walt told me he was tired and worn out, and that he didn't want to hold Clay back," Travis said. "I told him, 'We're all worn out. It's been a long month.' " Then Walt asked Travis, "Do you think I quit too soon?" Travis: "Yes. We've been at it for 30 days straight, and the rodeos are about to let up a little."
With Walt's decision to head for home, Clay committed to continue on with Kory Koontz. By that point in the conversation, Walt and Travis both wondered if Walt hadn't pulled the plug prematurely. "I told him, 'Man, I need a partner to finish out this year,' " Travis said. "I told him I'd be just as happy to rope with Kory if he and Clay wanted to go on, but Clay had already committed to Kory."
So, rodeo fans, you can rest assured that the rumors of a bitter Tryan team roping triangle are false. "Roping will never come between me and my brother," Clay said. "This is our job, and we're both out here trying to make a living. I'm not a good loser, so this next month or two won't be easy. But I'm really excited about roping with Kory, and I'm looking forward to 2009." "We all talked openly there at Salt Lake, and me roping with Walt is what we came up with," Travis added.
I ran into Michael one evening in Omaha out in the cowboy parking lot before the rodeo. He was stepping out of his Jelly Belly trailer, so we talked a few minutes back behind his truck. He remembers a conversation he and Travis had at the airport in Cheyenne on the way back from Salinas. "We had some stuff going on outside the arena that we decided to go different directions on," Michael said. "From spring on, it seemed like we placed everywhere. Winning wasn't ever the problem, and we made a lot of first-place runs. It wasn't the roping. It wasn't that we'd lost any of our spark. It was a very hard decision because we had done so well. But in the end, I think it'll be best for everybody. I would like to say that when Travis and I quit roping I did not have another partner. There was no plotting there."
Michael will be roping with defending World Champion Header Chad Masters. "Chad and I have known each other since we were kids," Michael said. "We've run a lot of steers together. In the practice pen, he's the guy I've roped the most steers behind. And we're really good friends. Chad's one of my best friends. He's also got a really good track record at the Thomas and Mack.
"What happened out of all this is that neither of us (Travis or Michael) took a step up or down in our partner change. What Chad and Walt have won speaks for itself. It ended up as good as either of us could have hoped for. Travis and I are really good friends, and were a long time before we ever roped."
Chad, who since the 2006 NFR co-owns the $98,714 team roping earnings record at "The Show" with Allen, has a strong Thomas and Mack record along with the rest of the players in this story. Clay and his co-2005 World Champion Team Roper Patrick Smith set the 3.5-second NFR record, which also ties the world record, in 2005. Clay and Michael won the 2004 NFR, where they also set the then-record with a 3.7-second run and the $95,102 NFR team roping earnings record that Chad and Big Al later upgraded.
"I can't even put into words how bizarre it is that Clay won't be at the Finals this year," Travis said. "The team roping will be easier without him there, I know that. He's proven over and over how great he ropes there. He's done great in the average and the rounds. I've never been to the Finals without Clay. We've made the Finals together every year since 2001. To see a guy who ropes that good not make it is pretty strange. It shows you there are no guarantees."
Walt had absolutely no guarantees on the NFR front when he rode into Omaha. When he lost his rope on opening night, his Vegas odds looked slim if not grim. I kind of dreaded calling him that Friday afternoon, before that evening's second round, knowing the poor guy had to be puckered. I was fully prepared for him to say he simply wasn't up for a chat just then. But being the professional that he is, he wheeled up to the front of that building and picked me up.
I was sitting there looking across the front seat of that truck at Walt, air conditioning blowing full blast, in his shorts, tennis shoes and new glasses ("I can't possibly heel this bad and see. It's got to be my vision." Sure enough, even the largest letters on the test were not legible to him.) His roping hand was wrapped in a super-sized Baggie full of ice that was dripping on his leather upholstery. I was firing up my laptop over in the passenger's seat thinking to myself, "This guy's legendary career may end in two hours, and he's taking the time to talk to me-in essence to his fans through me, because I'm just the messenger. Wow."
Walt kicked off our conversation with a little remorse that he hadn't ridden off into the sunset after winning it all in 2007. "What greater thing than to go out on top-to win the world championship and walk away," he said. "I roped as good as I could possibly rope last year. Then after the NFR I felt kind of flat. I'm a goal-oriented guy, and the goals had been achieved. I wanted to see if a man over 50 could make the NFR. Then, when I won second in the world in 2006, I figured if I could beat 5,000 guys surely I could beat one more. Then the goal was to win the world championship, pass the million-dollar mark and put myself in a position to be considered for the (ProRodeo) Hall of Fame. Once I got those things marked off the list, it didn't seem like the desire was the same.
"I told Clay in April at Red Bluff that he needed to get another partner. I roped horrible in the spring in California. It wasn't like I wasn't practicing or I was missing on purpose. But I wasn't waking up at 3:30 in the morning because I was so excited that slack started at 7:30. I was showing up, but that absolute burning desire was gone."
He told Clay he wasn't sure he had it in him to turn the ship around. "What if there's nothing left in the tank?" he said. The break between Guymon the first of May and Reno in June, when Walt focuses on his schools instead of rodeos, was on the horizon. So Walt sat tight, and agreed that with a little time away he'd do better. They returned to win the BFI-Walt's first in 30 tries. They turned around and kicked off their Fourth of July run with the win at Santa Fe. "I was thinking, 'I'm back on track, and things are good,' " Walt said. "Then the Fourth of July was a disaster. I roped really bad. I roped terrible all of July."
His showing at Salinas about snapped him. "I had the best partner in the world at Salinas," Walt said. "Everyone has conceded that Clay Tryan is the best guy at Salinas. We won it the year before, Clay wins it every year, we place on our first steer and take the lead in the average on two. We drew the happy hopper for our third one, and I missed him. Not only did I miss him, but I threw it in there, pulled it out and dallied, like I had something. I feel like I should send an apology note to Salinas for showing no respect to a shrine.
"When we got to the trailer I told Clay that in professional sports either the manager cuts you or you bench yourself. Clay is loyal to a fault. So I told him that if he entered me in any more rodeos I would not show up. I told him, 'You have got to get a better partner or you're not going to make the NFR (this from the reigning champ of the world).' I've never quit anything in my life, but this is a team sport. I was not producing and losing is horrible, spiteful and sickening. We won Salt Lake the day after Salinas, but my intention was to go home. You can't heel that bad and make the NFR. I did not deserve it."
The transition from Tryan to Tryan? Besides the obvious confusion caused by tongue twisters like Travis Jay Tryan and Travis Jay Woodard (Walt and Darlene's son), and Walt Woodard and Walt Tryan (Travis's great bay horse) riding in the same rig, Walt's enjoyed the ride with both brothers. "Roping with Clay was awesome. He helped me win a world championship, the U.S. Open, the BFI. I'll be indebted to him forever. As for Travis, well, he's the most positive person I've ever been around in the rodeo business. It has been delightful. Unfortunately, my heeling hasn't been much better."
But when he stepped out of that truck and slipped into his Cowboy Superman suit right before running their second steer in Omaha, he came through in the clutch. They needed to win first or second in that round, and they split it with Speed and Michael. That run not only punched their ticket for the
final rodeo of the regular season, the November 7-9 Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championship in Dallas, but coupled with a seventh-place, 5.2-second, $433 run in San Bernardino, Calif., that Sunday, is Walt's ticket to ride at the 50th annual Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, which will run December 4-13.
"Last year was the greatest year of my life," Walt said. "This year has been absolutely the worst. The dedication it takes to win and dominate and reach the highest level would not be worth it if losing wasn't so bad."