Big Boots to Fill
All I ever wanted was to announce the National Finals Rodeo. If all goes as planned, I’ll soon be running it.
My first big break as a rodeo announcer was a straight-up God thing.
This was back in 1989, when I was twenty-four years old and had been announcing professional rodeos for five years. I’ve always been fiercely competitive, and about thirty seconds into my announcing career, I wanted to know what the pinnacle was. Every answer was the same: announce the National Finals Rodeo.
Instead, I was barely surviving. I couldn’t afford rent, so I lived in a 1979 Prowler fifth wheel parked in the Good Sam RV Park in San Marcos, Texas. There was a phone jack outside, and I’d pull my answering machine in through a window and sit back on my sofa and pray for calls from rodeo committees. Most were from smaller events and county fairs, including rodeos in Gerry, New York, and North Washington, Pennsylvania, though I was starting to land some bigger jobs. To make enough to go on the road, I worked side jobs—substitute teaching, selling thirty-dollar coupon books over the phone. I was seriously thinking about quitting and going to law school.
One guy looking out for me was Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association board member Jimmy Powers, the father of my college roommate. Jimmy had begun lobbying for me to be the NFR announcer at selection-committee meetings. But the others would say, He’s not ready yet.
My big break came when Jimmy let me drive with him to Las Vegas for the 1989 NFR. On the way out, Jimmy said, “Hang out with me, and I’ll introduce you to some people who can help you.”
We got there the day before the NFR started. Jimmy took me to the Grand Entry rehearsal, and we milled around on the arena floor with all the big-name contestants, stock contractors and committee members. I was like a kid at Disneyland.
Except, there was a problem. The two announcers were late, and the man in charge, who I would later learn was Shawn Davis—three-time world champion saddle bronc rider, former PRCA president and notorious taskmaster—was getting bent out of shape.
The announcers weren’t off partying or playing blackjack. The PRCA media department had called them to get their pictures taken. Still, they were late, and Shawn had one-hundred-twenty cowboys on horseback lined up state by state by state in the entry tunnel. Everybody had plenty of other stuff to do. I mean, this was the NFR. That year, you had Tuff Hedeman and Jim Sharp, Roddy Hay, Billy Etbauer. You had Troy Pruitt and Mike Johnson in the calf roping. They were all sitting on horses wondering what the holdup was. Shawn was livid.
“We’re gonna start this if I have to announce it myself,” Shawn barked.
“Hey, Shawn. This kid’s an announcer,” Jimmy said, pointing at me. “Put him up there.”
“Well, put him up there. We can’t wait any longer!”
Friends, I was scared to death.
Cindy Rosser, whose dad was doing the opening ceremony, ran over and handed me a list of states and who was leading each one. Somebody stuck a microphone in my hand. I didn’t have time for a mic check. I just dove in.
First up is Alabama, led by…
Next, it’s Arkansas…
If you’ve seen the Grand Entry, you know how fast it runs. You need both announcers alternating states to pull it off smoothly. Not only was I nervous, but I was flying solo. I had to keep looking down at the list and back up at the riders. It’s a wonder I didn’t totally screw up.
Shawn didn’t seem to notice. He was focused on making sure the lines were even and the numbers balanced out. We ran through the whole thing a second time. The announcers arrived in time for the tip of the Resistol. Shawn never said a word to me. He got up and went on with his day.
But at the selection committee for the 1990 NFR, when Jimmy once again recommended me as the NFR announcer, Shawn spoke up. “This is the kid who announced the Grand Entry rehearsal,” he said. “He can probably do the job.”
That year, I didn’t get the job I wanted. I got the NFR alternate job, the spare-tire announcer, who never speaks over the mic and doesn’t get a buckle.
But it was a boot in the door.
How did that happen? My brilliance and wise planning? No. It was a straight-up God thing.
The next year, at the age of twenty-six, my good fortune continued. I moved into the number-two slot and announced the NFR alongside the most iconic announcer in our sport’s history: Bob Tallman. As of 2017, I’ve been on the podium at the Thomas & Mack twenty-seven out of the last twenty-eight years and have announced with Bobby T. fifteen times. You couldn’t buy those memories from me if you had a hundred-million bucks.
Last year, the group that runs the NFR, Las Vegas Events, began searching for a successor to the legendary Shawn Davis. After fifty-five years with the NFR, the man who brought the ten-day Super Bowl of rodeos to Las Vegas in 1985, is retiring. When I heard the news, my very first thought was, I’d hate to be the guy who’s replacing him.
Turns out I am that guy.
To explain why I would give up announcing at the NFR to take on the headache of running the show, I need to start at the beginning.
Growing up in rural Wisconsin, becoming a rodeo fan was easy. Dad always kept horses. I followed my older siblings into Little Britches Rodeo. I remember watching the Hesston telecasts on my parents’ living room floor, cheering for Hawkeye, Roy Cooper, Roy Duvall and Don Gay. And while I enjoyed the commentary of Hadley Barrett and Bob Tallman, at age thirteen I wanted to be a contestant, the kind of champion that Ty Murray and Trevor Brazile became.
I worked my butt off trying to be the best rodeo cowboy I could be. I qualified for the National High School Finals Rodeo in six events. In 1984, Sports Illustrated put me on its “Faces in the Crowd” page for being the first ever to win Wisconsin’s High School All-Around Cowboy title three years in a row.
I landed a rodeo scholarship at Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde. That’s when the real learning began. I was a decent competitor, but not a good one. Decent throws the steer. Decent gets to the eight-second whistle. I could do that. But Good wins money and Great wins championships, and those things weren’t going to happen at a level that would feed me. In high school, I was the Big Man on Campus. In Texas, I was a Yankee who was barely okay at riding and roping.
That realization tested my faith in God. Being a rodeo champion was all I ever wanted. Back home, my prowess as a cowboy was my identity. Why would God take that away? For much of my freshman and sophomore year, I was a lost soul.
One day at the practice pen, one of my buddies, Danny Pish, said he wished Tom Hadley, a rodeo announcer from Llano, Texas, were there to announce, because Tom always bragged on Danny and that helped him ride better. So I pretended to be Tom Hadley.
“Next up is Danny Pish,” I said, projecting my voice, trying to sound like a rodeo announcer. I continued, making everybody laugh by saying things that would get me fired at a rodeo today. I was just clowning around, but the other contestants at the practice pen asked me to announce them. When my coaches heard me, they offered to pay me seventy-five dollars per performance to announce our college rodeos. I didn’t even know rodeo announcers got paid. I was like, Holy cow! I’ll do it!
I was still competing, so the coaches scheduled me in the slack for timed events and got somebody to announce for me when I was up in the rough stock.
Other coaches started asking me to announce their rodeos. Mack Altizer of Bad Company Rodeo said he’d hire me if I got my PRCA card, which I did in July of 1986.
I loved the idea that I could make a living announcing, but the real turning point for me was the realization that flipping on the mic gave me the same adrenaline rush as running my hand into a rigging or getting my horse behind the line and making sure the calf or steer was looking straight.
I found my place in rodeo, with a microphone in my hand. God showed me the way.
Learning the Business
That didn’t mean the early days were easy or that I was without doubts. I announced at every two-performance county fair that would have me, traveling in an Isuzu Pup and sleeping in a camping tent and using public showers. My bearings burned up once in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Another time, my engine blew, leaving me and two horses stranded on the way to Albuquerque.
In 1987, a rodeo producer named Bob Barnes called saying he was looking for a young rodeo announcer. I met him at a truck-stop diner in Albert Lea, Minnesota. I was desperate for work.
“If you want me to,” I told him, “I’ll jump up on this table and tell everybody here why they should attend a professional rodeo. Go ahead. Ask me, because I’ll do it!”
He didn’t ask, but I got the job.
Bob was what you call a turnkey rodeo producer. He would go to these county fairs and convince them to hire him to put on a professional rodeo. They didn’t have to worry about anything. All they had to do was have grandstands, porta-potties and an ambulance. He’d bring everything else. Once he got a contract signed, he’d send me back to town to sell bucking-chute signs to local businesses.
I may not have realized it at the time, but selling chute signs made me a better announcer. It introduced me to the business side of pro rodeo, which allows the sport side to survive. Bob taught me the importance of showmanship and entertainment value. I learned you couldn’t just put up a sign saying there was a rodeo in town and think cowboys would come and fans would clamor to attend. I became attentive to what the end product looked like. I saw bad rodeos fail and good rodeos grow and started noting the differences between the two. It nearly always boiled down to production and presentation. Every rodeo had the seven contests. Why would one fail and another succeed? It was more than the weather, the dates selected and how many cowboys attended. The good rodeos were fast-paced and fun, and the bad rodeos were slow and boring. I adjusted my announcing to try to be anything but boring.
Rodeo economics starts with the patron, because if the patron doesn’t buy the ticket and spend money in the grandstands, then you can kiss the sponsors goodbye.
It was around this time that my own personal economics were making me think about going to law school. That’s when I had my big break at the 1989 NFR Grand Entry rehearsal.
But flash forward to today, and my story has come full circle. During my twenty-seven years announcing the National Finals Rodeo, I kept learning about the business of rodeo from the king of production—Shawn Davis.
Shawn is a very disciplined man. He’s been successful in everything he’s ever done, whether riding bucking horses, training race horses or producing rodeo events. Shawn believes there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. The right way is usually harder and takes more time and effort, and Shawn willingly gives it. Over the years, Shawn’s intensity and attention to detail rubbed off on me.
If you’ve only seen me as a rodeo announcer and never sat in a production meeting with me prior to an event, let me just say that not one of my committees hires me for my charming personality. God didn’t make me like Bob or Hadley. They are genuinely nice men—nearly all the time. I am not. I am a perfectionist, and if you cause us to be less than perfect, I will tell you and your mom you messed up and not care one bit how you feel about it.
I said I was a perfectionist. I did not say I was perfect. I have screwed up big time and made plenty of mistakes. I’ll get the stats wrong during a live performance or mention so-and-so is married to so-and-so when they’re really divorced. There are times when I’ll be the straight man for a clown doing jokes, and then I get beat up when the jokes turn political.
I made an off-the-cuff comment about a bareback rider that I still regret. This guy almost made the NFR several years in a row, but every year he got hurt and missed making it. Last year, he was sitting in the chute at a rodeo I was announcing, and I said, “He’s number seven in the world right now, but don’t count on him making the NFR, because this guy’s made out of glass.”
That burned his ass, as it should have. It was a poor choice or words. There was nothing uplifting or even informational about it. I could have said, This guy has been close to making the NFR on multiple occasions but each time an injury kept him from going. But what I said was crappy. It was a mistake. It haunts me to this day.
As I mentioned, when I heard that Shawn Davis was retiring, my very first thought was, I’d hate to be the guy who’s replacing him. People suggested I could do the job, and that was flattering. But these people had no clue what all Shawn does to make the NFR run so smoothly. After watching him for twenty-seven years, I only know a fraction of what he knows.
Running down the list of possible candidates, I realized I could do as good a job as anyone. Should I? Just considering the possibility left me uneasy. My announcing career is in a great place, I thought. Why add this huge headache to it.
Back in 1984, Shawn cast the tie-breaking vote to move the NFR to Las Vegas from Oklahoma City. He felt personally responsible to make the Las Vegas NFR a success. He has run the show from day one. He doesn’t just know where the stalling tents go, he knows why they go there—because one year it rained and a bunch of water ran downhill into the tents where they used to stand.
My wife Sandee and I prayed about it. Here’s what we came up with: If it’s God’s Will, you’ll get it. If it’s not, you won’t, but give God a chance. That helped ease the stress, but it still scared me to think that I might get the job. So much so that after the interview, when they initially offered me the position, I turned it down. But the next day, we negotiated an agreement. I’m still plenty scared but really excited.
Luckily, we agreed on a three-year transition period. After last year’s NFR, I started shadowing Shawn and will produce the 2018 NFR as Shawn’s first lieutenant. In 2019, I will produce the NFR with Shawn acting as my personal consultant. In 2020, if all goes as planned, I will fly solo.
What’s my approach? One thing I know is I’m not going to be a Phil Bengston. Never heard of him? There’s a reason. Bengston was Vince Lombardi’s successor as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. He had all these great players—Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler—but never finished with a winning season. Why? He tried to be the anti-Lombardi. Not me. I’m not going to be the anti-Shawn Davis. I want to be the next generation Shawn Davis. That means everyone will be held to account. I’m going to be the strict disciplinarian. Schedules will be kept. If you mess up, you will explain why, and if you continue to mess up, you will be replaced.
My default position on every decision made will be this: Is it good for the fan? Is it more entertaining for the fan? Is it more engaging for the fan? The business of Professional Rodeo really starts with the ticket buyer. Bore them, ignore them, exclude them, cause them hardship, and you are on a downhill path that leads to failure. Without them, no one sponsors an event or a cowboy. Without them, no one stays in a hotel, gambles at a table or attends a Vegas show. Without them, there are no autographs at Cowboy Christmas and there is certainly no shopping.
Fans provide ALL the seed capital that eventually ends up as revenue for every entity that attempts to prosper in the rodeo business. They have no seat at the table to air their grievances. Instead, they vote with their dollars, so you better create a product they will vote for.
The current NFR does a great job of that. Every segment of Shawn’s productions snaps off like a football play. The fan never has to wait on what’s next. With fifteen contestants in every event and a two-hour mandate in the contract between the PRCA and Las Vegas Events, there are not a lot of extra minutes of play.
However, the new technologies arriving everyday offer us new ways to engage the fans and increase the entertainment value they get by attending the NFR. As an announcer, I always tried to pull the audience into the show. In my new role, I want to find innovative ways to pull the fan into the NFR, to increase engagement between the fan and the athlete—through stories, video, a personal scoring system. It’s my desire for the fan to know the players in a more intimate way and find ways we can do that even within the tight two-hour window.
My end goal is to make the NFR more than a championship event the fan watches. The fan should be involved. The end result would mean more fans, a higher profile for the contestants and more profit for everyone in the rodeo business.
End of an Era
During all my years announcing the NFR, when I joined my fellow announcers on the podium before the Grand Entry, we often gathered for a prayer. We’d thank God and ask that whatever came out of our mouths during the event is what He wanted us to say. Last year, I huddled up with Wayne Brooks and Randy Corley. I put an arm around their shoulders and, when I looked at them, my voice started quavering.
“All I ever wanted in my life was to announce the NFR,” I said, tears welling. “If I’m successful as Shawn’s successor, this is going to be the last year I ever do it, and I’m telling you guys, it’s breaking my heart.”
“I know, Poly,” Randy said. Wayne just nodded his head.
At the end of Round 10, after Tuf Cooper proposed to his girlfriend and I finished announcing to the contestant family members where they could meet up with their champions, I remember setting the microphone down and looking around the Thomas & Mack and realizing it was over.
Back when my dream changed course from rodeo cowboy to rodeo announcer, I decided I wanted to be Bob Tallman. Of course, there will never be another Bob Tallman. That’s like saying there’s another Elvis. But I got to enjoy some of the successes that Bob Tallman enjoyed. That’s all I ever really wanted.
I’ve never burned with desire to be the General Manager of the NFR. But I’m excited for the challenge. I’m a huge football fan, but I’ve never coached a team. My new job is as much about coaching as anything. This is what excites me—the chance to lead people at the highest level of rodeo, helping people be the best they can be. Shawn has done that. He’s gotten the NFR running at an incredibly high rate of speed and intelligence and detail. I still have the same two hours, but I’m going to step up the game to another level. That’s the challenge that excites me—to lead the team that puts together the premier championship event in all of rodeo.
It’s scary, too. These days, when somebody congratulates me, I tell them, Don’t congratulate me. Pray for me.