Walt Woodard's a Western justice guy. And as a Western justice girl, I really appreciate that about him. We were both pretty happy to see another round of Western justice served at the 2008 BFI.
As content as Walt was to win his second world championship in 2007, it tore a hole in his heart to take center stage without his partner, Clay Tryan, by his side. Clay finished a scant $2,683 behind Chad Masters in the 2007 heading race. And while we were all thrilled for Chad after Matt Sherwood edged him by $848 the year before, it's tough to take a team not taking the title together. It is team roping, after all. So it was especially cool to see Clay and Walt accomplish the big, fat feat of winning the 2008 BFI together.
Walt and Darlene Woodard cried when their baby, Travis, won the BFI with Mikey Fletcher in 2003. Dennis Tryan cried when his oldest boy, Clay, won the 2005 BFI with Patrick Smith. This time, it was my sentimental side's turn. Clay and Thumper charged in first for the victory lap. Walt and Little Gray took it a little slower, and Walt made eye contact with many of his faithful fans as he waved to the crowd and soaked up the atmosphere-the screams, the buzz, the magic-that fills the Reno Livestock Events Center at BFI's end.
I sat there-Monday afternoon, June 23, 2008-wondering how many of the people yelling "Yeah Walt" from the stands at the 31st annual Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic really understood the significance of his wave. It was more than a thank you for their support over the years. He was the last of the "Big Four"-Walt, Allen Bach, Mike Beers and Denny Watkins; the only ropers never to have missed a BFI in 31 years-who hadn't taken the BFI victory lap. Walt had won about every other possible place at the BFI, but was 0-for-30 on the big check, and like he said, "This is a special win for all of us in this sport. How many of these fans have been up there rooting for me all the way? Their hair has turned gray waiting for this. We all won today."
But I doubt everyone there that day knew at the time that in addition to saying "thank you," Walt was also waving goodbye. This is Walt's farewell full-time rodeo season, and while we'll surely see him at the BFI for years to come, "This was my best chance at winning this roping. I'm giving up these first-string guys after this year, so this was my shot."
So you see, it was kind of like "last call" when it comes to being an odds-on favorite behind one of the big-dog headers. He'll return to teaching aspiring ropers full time in 2009. The Woodard Training Center is currently under construction in Stephenville, Texas. Travis will be the resident pro, and Walt will assist his son.
It's no surprise that Walt-who's been elevating other ropers for 32 years now-is the master when it comes to roping instruction. He is, after all, the ultimate student of the game. He studies it and breaks it down like no other, and he was not a natural to start with so he can relate to the challenges and frustrations all ropers face. Teaching is Walt's passion, so he's looking forward to this next chapter.
I'm so thankful that Walt, who won his first world team roping championship in 1981 with Doyle Gellerman, came back for this recent second act of his career. And I don't say that simply for the thrill it's been to see a guy who's now 52 years old flabbergast the naysayers who felt his fundamentals-based style was old hat and obsolete grab the reserve world title in 2006 and the world championship in 2007.
Sure, that was fun to watch. But the best part of the encore for me was getting a second shot at knowing this guy. For the first few decades that I merely saw him around and only rarely interviewed him, I was fooled and maybe even a bit mystified by his intensity. I must admit to sometimes mistaking his focus and lack of frivolous gab for unfriendliness.
How could I-a girl whose own dad has been misread the very same way, but is actually the coolest, smartest, most ethical and thoughtful of them all once you really get to know him-have made such a mistake? Thank you, Walt, for giving us all a second chance-at your talents and wisdom in and out of the arena. I am so happy to have had the honor of our visits these last couple years and I'll not forget your wise words. I appreciate your insight, intellect, humor and honesty. You always tell it like it is. I love that.
Clay and Walt were the third high team back in the 15-team BFI Wrangler Round. They were pressing, because they were two seconds behind Speed Williams and Allen Bach, and about a second in back of Brothers Minor, Riley and Brady. Clay and Walt rode out on their 7.46-second run knowing they'd made their run on the steer they'd drawn and thinking third sounded like a pretty decent day's work. The next team rode in, and Brady Minor slipped a leg. Wow. High five to second for Clay and Walt. Then the unthinkable happened. Clutch Williams broke the barrier, and Closer Bach slipped a leg. To use one of Walt's favorite one-liners, "Are you kidding me?!"
"What's amazing about this place is that you don't win it when you're supposed to, and you do win it when you're not," Woodard said. "We went into the short round two seconds behind Speed Williams and Allen Bach, then they had 15 seconds in penalties on their last steer. I'd have bet my house that that wouldn't have happened."
Tryan and Woodard were 8.32, 9.15, 8.1, 7.09, 7.71 and 7.46 seconds on their respective steers over the 18-foot score and out of the 19-foot BFI box. For roping six steers in 47.83 seconds, they skipped town with a record $166,000-plus in cash and prizes. The BFI champs' prize package included Running P saddles and breast collars, Gist buckles, B&W Trailer Hitches, Schneider three-piece buckles and Justin full-quill ostrich boots. The BFI, Cactus Ropes, Team Equine LLC and Wrangler again awarded the winning team a $10,000 cash bonus. New this year, 1 Bar 3 presented a $5,000 cash bonus and a Kensington luggage collection to the winners.
"If we just rope our game it seems like we're still around when it's over," Clay said. "I thought our last one was our best run of the day. It was the snappiest. Our first three runs were not great. We just had to keep fighting.
"I have a great partner and a great head horse. To have a chance is awesome. You want to seize the opportunity, because you never know when you'll have the opportunity to win it again. It's not easy to have everything in line to win this thing."
Every roper dreams of winning the BFI. But twice, Clay?
"The first one is the most surprising," Clay said. "But once you win it, it drives you harder because you've tasted it and know what it feels like. Roping with Walt has been great. I respect how hard he works at it. Roping is so tough these days, and I admire his work ethic. He's such a team player."
Back at you, baby.
"There are reasons why people are great," Walt said. "Clay being drilled by (his NFR qualifier dad) Dennis, who's a heeler, has been such an advantage. Those guys (Clay and brother Travis) have been conditioned to make it easy on their partners and to win.
"Clay is so competitive and so driven to win. He wants to make plans and strategize on every steer. He's a workhorse. He craves it. We're motivated to win the world championship this year. That's how I want to go out."
The 2008 BFI-this year's 100-team field represented 23 states, Canada and Mexico-paid out a record-rattling $700,000-plus in cash and prizes. Roper Apparel & Footwear and Fast Back Ropes sponsored Clay's entry fees, and Walt's were paid by Toyota of Glendora, Calif. Entry fees were again $5,000 a team, and in keeping with BFI tradition a mere three percent was held out in administrative fees. Nearly 90 percent of the ropers had their entry fees sponsored in 2008.
"Bob Feist has been an innovator in getting the big ropings going," said Clay, 29, who also won the 2005 world championship with Smith and is sponsored by Roper Apparel, Fast Back Ropes, Pro Equine, and Jackson Land and Cattle. Clay used a Fast Back Ultimate 4 double extra soft head rope. "The atmosphere is so exciting here, and it means so much to just compete here after being a little kid watching my dad rope here back in the day. There's so much satisfaction in winning this, because it's such a prestigious event.
"There are a lot of great ropings now, and this one started it all. Bob had a vision, and he's been great for the open roper. This roping has made our sport what it is today."
"Roping producers love gouging the open ropers," Walt's noticed. "This roping starts at 8 a.m. and at 4 they give you a check for $72,000. My God-that's amazing. This is the biggest thing you can win other than the world championship."
Darlene Woodard drove to the BFI office in Lodi, Calif., the Wednesday before BFI Monday to buy her husband a BFI tape, so he could "get in the mood." Walt wanted to get in the BFI groove before he got to Reno. "Just taking in all the sights and sounds of the BFI sitting there watching it at home made me nervous," smiled Walt, whose sponsor partners include Pete and Gaye Miller with Toyota of Glendora, Rattler Ropes, Riata Leather, NRS and Silver Lining Equine Herbs. Walt used a Rattler GT4 hard medium heel rope.
Walt remembers his late father, Sheldon, coming out of the grandstands to work the catch pen at the first-ever BFI held in 1977 in Chowchilla, Calif. Sheldon Woodard died last January, but not before seeing his son win that second world title. Audrey Woodard was in Reno to witness their son getting his BFI due. And given the outcome of the day, she was all smiles but had no intention of returning the $100 gambling seed money Walt had given her after she tripled it. Walt wasn't worried. He was thinking about his BFI saddle sitting alongside Travis's "for all time. Winning this roping is a huge honor for our family. Winning this roping is life changing."
Clay, who calls Billings, Mont. home, rode his 16-year-old black horse Thumper, and California native son Woodard won it all aboard his 15-year-old Little Gray.
"My career has changed dramatically since I started riding this horse," said Clay, who's also won his world title, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo average championship and the USTRC Open in addition to the 2005 BFI crown on Thumper (his wife, Bobbie, also rode Thumper in the Reno Rodeo Invitational Ladies Only roping a couple days later). "All my major career highlights have been on him."
"I rode my sorrel horse Dudley at the Finals last year, so Little Gray didn't get in on the world championship," Walt said. "So this is neat for him. I rode them both this week, and Little Gray outworked Dudley. Little Gray is my short-score horse, so these aren't really his conditions. I saddled them both this morning, but I rode Little Gray because he's such a winner. He does the same thing every run and never costs me."
Tryan and Woodard barely edged BFI reservists Brandon Beers and Arky Rogers, who were the fourth high team and came tight on their last steer in a rapid 7.08 seconds, by four hundredths of a second. Beers of Powell Butte, Ore., and Rogers of Lake City, Fla., earned $101,060 in addition to Coats Saddles, Bill Hill Sales Inc. custom bits, and Skyline Gold and Silversmiths buckles donated by All American Trailers, Steer Geer, Tough Enough Equine and Wells Fargo Bank.
"Walt and I haven't had a great year," Clay said, though the Fourth of July run was still in the starting blocks when he made that statement, so the summer and season are still young. "We've both taken about a month and a half off. Our goal is to win a world championship, and that's still the goal. We're fired up now."
"The BFI is just like the Indianapolis 500," Walt said. "You have to settle in and start working through the traffic. It's a grind, and when it's over I'm completely drained. We were 17 on our first two steers, when I figured the pace would be about 46 seconds on six. At that point I felt like we were behind. I had it on my mind that we couldn't be 9 again. We came here to win the BFI. I'm 52 years old. I don't want to win third anymore. I don't know how many more chances I'll get at this.
"I've won every other place at this roping, but first is the deal. I wanted to be a BFI winner. When we got the BFI program, there was a BFI emblem next to my son's name for being a BFI winner. I wanted that logo next to my name, too. Winning the BFI isn't for the rest of your life. It's for the rest of time-until the sun burns out."
The third-place team was again awarded Scott Thomas saddles by Cactus Saddlery in addition to many other awards. Tee Woolman, who won the 1980 BFI with Leo "The Lion" Camarillo, and Rich Skelton, who won the 1998, 2001 and 2002 BFIs with his fellow eight-time World Champion Team Roper Williams, had a $61,110 day. Colby Schneeman and Tommy Zuniga, who went into the 15-team Wrangler Round in the 15th position, won the round in 5.99 seconds and climbed all the way to sixth in the average. Cody Odell and J.W. Borrego finished fourth in the average, and the Minors were fifth.
Coleman Proctor and Jake Long pulled off the blazing 4.46-second run of the day in round four to set a new BFI Fast Time record and pick up the $2,000 Fast Time bonus sponsored by Justin Boots, Priefert, Silver Legacy and Coors Original. Blaine Linaweaver and Richard Durham also broke the previous 4.86-second record set by Shane Durbin and Hollis Harris in 2004 with a 4.80-second run in round four, as did Keven Daniel and Cory Petska with a 4.74-second run in round five.