Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz didn't win the number of rodeos in 2013 they've grown accustom to winning. Begay didn't catch the number of steers he would have liked to. De la Cruz didn't rope two feet nearly as often as he wanted. But, when the flag dropped on their last steer in the Century Link Center in Omaha, Neb., Saturday Sept. 28, all of that didn't matter nearly as much as it had 30 days ago.
Begay and de la Cruz made a businessman's 4.7-second run to win the final round of four in Omaha to win the rodeo for the second time in three years. The pair would take home $11,574 for the week, moving them from 11th and 12th in the world, to 9th and 8th, respectively.
"Have you ever tried carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders?" de la Cruz said as he slouched in a folding chair in the underbelly of the arena after making his victory lap. "When you finally get it off, you're just kinda?" de la Cruz closed his eyes and put his head down, and shrugged.
"Now he's sitting on top of the world," Begay chimed in, with a smirk.
Begay and de la Cruz were elated after their win, but relief was probably the most intense emotion they'd show. They had slipped into the Ak-Sar-Ben River City Rodeo and Stock Show in 12th place, and just barely, after a win at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up a week earlier put them back into contention to make the Finals (page TK.). Before the rodeo, de la Cruz said that win in Oregon was the biggest of his career. But after, he couldn't decide if Pendleton or Omaha meant more this year.
"You can't possibly say which one is your favorite. I needed both of them. They're like kids, you can't really pick them apart, you love both of them. I had to have them both to be in the position I am going into the Finals."
Begay and de la Cruz both know what it feels like to end the season winning Pendleton and Omaha, because they did the same together in 2011, when they led the regular season earnings heading into the Finals that year. But the feeling after winning these two rodeos this year was far more intense.
"Anytime you win, it's great," Begay said. "But that year we won Pendleton and Omaha, 2011, we were doing really great. Best year we ever had. This year was the total opposite. It wasn't the worst, but it was the lowest year we've ever had."
"I hate to say that this year was kind of a bad year," de la Cruz added. "But the way we finished, I feel like it's a good judge of our character as a team that we don't give up. We stuck it out through the bitter end, and we finished it off. Especially the last 30 days, we had no other choice to win. If we wanted to make the Finals, we had to win at the big rodeos. We had to win at Salinas, we had to win at Pendleton, and we had to win at Omaha. To get the W at all those was huge. Every place that we went to, we were just looking to hold our ground."
And that's just how they roped in Omaha. In the first round, they were the second team out and made a safe 5.6-second run. That held onto sixth in the round and a check for $493 a man. Nick Sartain and Rich Skelton and Riley and Brady Minor would win Round 1 with a pair of 4.6-second runs.
"I told Cesar, ?Man we just need to catch,' because he was still on the ropes (for qualifying for the NFR), so I just wanted to go and catch. The first two rounds we were just going to catch and make it back to the top eight. The first two rounds were just like a block and tackle. I just went out there and tried to block for Cesar and he came down with the tackle every night."
The second round got quick early, with Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill trying to get into the round of eight on one steer after Tryan missed in the first round. They were 4.5, the fastest time of the rodeo so far. Begay and de la Cruz roped in the middle of the round, and were 5.6 again. Riley and Brady Minor would come back last in the round to be 4.1 and win the second round and the average, too.
"I try not to get in the Ricky Bobby mode when it's all about first," de la Cruz. "When you go catch, you make a lot more money roping for a living."
But that "just go catch" plan wasn't going to do in the semifinal. Begay and de la Cruz roped after watching Kaleb Driggers and Travis Graves go 4.7 and then Dustin Bird and Paul Eaves be 3.8.
"Here in the semifinals, we kind of had to go for a little longer pass, so Cesar did a great job," Begay said.
They matched Bird's and Eaves' 3.8, and then Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith went on to do the same.
The final round was set. First out, Driggers and Graves would make a 5.9-second run. Next, Bird and Eaves would lay a smoking 3.9-second run down, but Bird broke the barrier for a plus 10.
"We really don't talk much, and we really don't break it down much. We've been roping together forever now, and there's nothing I can tell him that he don't already know," Begay said about the seconds before their run. "If we had to do like baseball players do where you have to do the sign deal, he knows. He can read my language on what we need to do. I make an eye at him or something."
"There's an unspoken bond between us," de la Cruz added. "We don't have to break it down. I can read his body language? When he rocks back in the box, and he's got that look in his eye, I know it's coming over the chutes."
But Begay didn't need to come over the chutes quite like he did in the semifinal. The flag dropped in 4.7, and the pressure was on Brazile and Smith. They'd be 4.1, but Smith roped a leg.
Of course, immediately de la Cruz's famous Comanche call echoed through the back tunnels of the arena. But it was more a cry of pure relief than excitement this time around.
"If you'd have asked me, the morning before Ellensburg, if I'd be here, I'd have told you you were crazy," de la Cruz said, shaking his head. "Maybe if we'd have went to winning at the beginning of the year, maybe we wouldn't have finished the way we did. I believe there's a lot of grit in our stomachs."
But their years on the road, and their years of partnership, gave them the experience to get through the roughest year of their career together.
"It seems like we've got control of our heads," Begay said. "We didn't try to beat ourselves. We just tried to not to beat ourselves, and give ourselves a chance this whole last month, because we didn't have too many chances left."
In the last do-or-die month of the season, the partners relied on their grit, and their horses, to get it done. Begay rode his signature horse, 14-year-old Swagger. He bought the horse years ago from a friend who lives about 30 miles from Begay on the Navajo Reservation. He rode him at about 90-percent of the rodeos this summer, and didn't have to do anything to get him ready for the short score and looming left wall in Omaha.
De la Cruz rode his up-and-comer, Zeus, who has been his big-money mount all year. The 10-year-old gelding was used for pasture ropings and ranch work prior to becoming last year's main NFR mount for de la Cruz.
"I've only had him a year, and he's won me a lot of money at the NFR, and he got me back there again this year," de la Cruz said leading Zeus back to the trailer after receiving his buckle. "I owe a lot of gratitude to this horse."
De la Cruz loaded Zeus (along with Danger Pony, his son Camillo's all-star ride) in his rig and headed back to Arizona following the buckle ceremony. Begay would follow the next morning, both heading home to do some very different practicing.
Begay will spend the next two months gathering wild cattle, enjoying his family and life in Seba Dalkai, Ariz. He'll rope with his dad and his cousins, and neighbors who happen to stop by.
"I'll just practice, and enjoy the whole reason why I do this, for the fun of it," Begay said. "That's why I'm in this whole deal. I really never spend very much time in the arena. If I do practice, it's to get my horses working good. Other than that, everybody is around the house having a good time, I think that's the best time to practice. I think it's good to have both. There's a time where you have to work on stuff and get serious about it, but there's that time that you have to enjoy it. My dad was never real serious about it, and never made me a serious roper. He never forced me to do it. All he did was give me the opportunity. And that's all somebody needs I think."
De la Cruz takes a more traditional, all-business approach to the pre-NFR routine.
"I have big plans as far as practicing. I've got some steers I have to get gathered back up and sent back to my house to do a lot of practice on. Then I'm going to the US Finals. I'm going to ride Zeus there. I'm looking forward to riding him there, I've never got to ride him at that type of situation with that type of jackpot. There's a lot of money there, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he'll do. Then I go to Brazil at the end of the month. So I'm really really looking forward to that. Those guys down there rope phenomenal. They've got some really nice horses, and they're really good people. They've got a love for roping that's unmatched. The kids rope there like kids play basketball or baseball here."
Begay and de la Cruz will rope together at the US Finals, and that's their only stop before the Finals. Begay missed the books for the Turquoise Circuit Finals.
"I'm not worried about losing our momentum," Begay said. "It's not like we're rowing a boat or something? The only thing I can say, is this year was a test, and luckily enough we got through it somehow."