One Last Fight
If there’s one thing I don’t have words for, it’s the knowing that this was my last National Finals Rodeo ever.
It was Round One, the first night of the 2018 National Finals Rodeo. I backed into the box and sat there, waiting. My calf wouldn’t get right in the chute. The announcers were talking about this being my last NFR, about everything that was on the line, this and that. I sat there for forty seconds looking straight ahead. Finally, they said I’d either have to take the calf laying down, which is a terrible choice, or rope what they call the “extra.”
They were right. A lot was on the line. It had been a difficult regular season, with a lot of ups and downs, and I was trailing Tuf Cooper in the race for All-Around World Champion.
In the first go-round, you want something you can build on all week. I’d prepared for this moment, but all the information I had on my calf was suddenly worthless, and I had to switch gears and take a calf I knew nothing about.
I left the box, got off my horse and started trying to figure out what I could about the extra calf. Over the years, I’ve competed in more than five-hundred go-rounds at the NFR, and I’ve never had to take the extra calf. I figured if it had to happen to somebody, it might as well be me. I could imagine how rattled I’d be if this were my first NFR. But it was still a calf, and I still had to go rope him and tie him down no matter what. I didn’t have long to prepare, only as long as it took the five ropers ahead of me to go.
One positive that came from it was that they moved me to the end of the round, so I knew exactly what had to be done. I had to be 8.5 or better to win money and start this NFR off on the right foot.
I don’t know if I bought into what the reporters were saying about me retiring and how old I was and how I was competing against younger guys, but I came out of the box more aggressive than I probably ever have at the NFR. That bit me, because I didn’t take the highest percentage shot, and I missed.
If you miss in the tie-down, you can’t rebuild your first loop, but you can carry an extra rope. So, I two-looped him and was 20.2.
I’m not using any of this as an excuse, just to say that there was a lot of stuff going on the very first night of my very last NFR. I left the arena thinking, It can’t start off much worse than that.
The Clock Is Ticking
My advice to any future retirees: Don’t announce before your last NFR. There comes a burden like no other, knowing it’s your last. It does make it sweet, but the finality really sets in. And for me, it wasn’t about just making the National Finals. It was about winning. Period. Anything less wouldn’t have been a success.
Early in my career, if I made a mistake, I thought how much smarter I’d be the next year. You know there will be time for redemption. But you don’t get a mulligan during your last one. When it’s your last NFR, you don’t look at mistakes the same. You don’t say, Well, I’m gonna fix that the next time I come out here. It had to be fixed immediately.
In Round Two, I had the calf down to win the round and missed the front leg with my string, which is uncharacteristic. Usually once I get to that point I just do my job and try to make a businessman run, but I just didn’t get it done. I ended up 9.7 and not placing.
In Round Three, I was 11.3.
Everybody’s gonna have ups and downs out there. There are ten days in a row. You see people get on rolls, and you see the opposite, people getting on a downward spiral. The second of those two scenarios you’ve got to fix immediately or it just gets worse and worse. Come the fourth round, you’re getting close to the halfway point. The clock is ticking. I was ready to win something.
In Round Four, I had a good calf and went an extra swing and everything just set up great. I put a wrap and a hooey on and won the round with a 6.8, the first six-second run of the week. It was pretty good confidence-wise.
I came back the next night, the fifth go-round, and was 7.5 to split first, second and third. That felt great. The momentum had shifted.
On Tuesday night, Round Six, I had my loop on the calf faster than I did any other calf all week. I was thinking, This is going to be three go-round wins in a row, when the calf went off his feet a little and took a little extra time getting up. That cost me. I was 8.3 and placed fifth in the round. Even though things didn’t go exactly the way I wanted them to, it didn’t seem like any momentum changed, because it was kind of a freak deal. It really didn’t bother me.
It was in the next round that I got bothered.
A Sobering Decision
In Round Seven, I should have taken another swing. I had my loop on the calf so fast in Round Six, and it felt so good, that I tried to do that same thing again. But in Round Seven, the timing wasn’t right. I should have stayed fluid and adjusted to the situation, but I didn’t, and I missed and had to two-loop another one. I was thinking, Surely, I didn’t do that again.
At that point, you half hit the panic button. I went from thinking that I really liked my chances through the sixth round—everything had turned around and I had placed in three rounds in a row and had won two of them—to getting kicked in the gut by missing another calf.
This was really starting to affect the world race.
I was finally ahead of Tuf, but could I hold the lead? And then there was Rhen Richard, who was competing in two events—the tie-down and the team-roping. I’ve been that guy at the NFR in two events. Stuff can change fast when you’re going at double that kind of money every night. Rhen was always a threat because of the position he’d put himself in during the regular season. That’s a feat in itself. But now he was working two events at the NFR, and he was higher in the average in both of them than I was in one.
In Round Eight, I drew the best calf I’d drawn all week. I roped him fast, too—faster than the one in Round Four, when I was 6.8. I turned him around, flanked him and strung him good. But when I went to cross the calf, he kicked. That was such a shocker, because he was not supposed to kick. I was supposed to tie him and go get money.
I looked up, and my horse, Deputy, wasn’t doing his job. He didn’t have the rope tight, which caused the calf to raise his head and strain. That was a real bummer for me, because I had so much confidence in that horse. He’s just so fast, so good at scoring. In every aspect of the run he was giving me chances to win rounds. When stuff went right, I didn’t win second. He was letting me win rounds. Now, I had to make a big decision: stay on Deputy or switch horses.
If I stayed on him, I’d need to go tune him up and make sure he got his mind on it a little better. But you do that and sometimes their intensity goes from a six past a ten to maybe a fourteen, and you can’t win money like that, either. I just needed to make good runs.
I had another horse out there called Ears that was real solid. I’d borrowed him all year as a backup to Deputy. He’d been awesome. I won the Canadian regular season in six rodeos riding only him. He’s a winner.
I had a real sobering decision to make. My camp was pretty divided. They tried not to say anything, because they didn’t want to sway me one way or another. If they chose different from me they didn’t want that doubt in the back of my mind.
I decided to switch horses.
On the night of Round Nine, the NFR producers had planned a retirement tribute for me. Round Ten would be for the champions, they said, but after my run during the ninth go-round, I would get to say goodbye to the fans. I’d known about it since before the NFR started. Now, the time had come.
That night, I was with Boyd Polhamus, the new production manager of the NFR, and he was going through the spiel of how, when I was done and my six seconds had elapsed and they were untying my calf, I was supposed to take a lap and say goodbye. He was like, You’ll probably be right here when you tie your calf and throw up your hands, but if, by chance, you have to two-loop one, and you’re all the way down there, we’ll do it from there.
I thought to myself, I ain’t two-looping another one. I knew my calf to a T, but I was riding a different horse. Like I said, he’s a winner. He’s got his strengths, but he doesn’t have Deputy’s speed. We backed in the box, and I nodded and right away I felt the timing was different. I was expecting an easy two- or three-swing catch, but I wasn’t closing the gap like I needed to, and I had to expose myself by, once again, taking a lower percentage shot. I didn’t make it work and, sure enough, I had to reach for my second rope. I two-looped him and was 18 seconds flat.
This was by far most the most cattle I’d ever missed in the Thomas & Mack.
They were fixing to announce that the King of the Cowboys was retiring, and I had just made a run that looked like it was my first rodeo. There were just so many thoughts and emotions going through me right then. I knew it wasn’t the fans’ fault that I had a terrible night. It wasn’t anybody’s fault other than mine. After fighting back from a terrible NFR start and getting things exactly where I wanted them, I was going to have to fight again.
Getting My Head Right
Being completely honest, I probably didn’t have as good an attitude as I should have after the ninth go-round. If I had only executed when it was my time to say goodbye, I was thinking. If I’d done my job the first night. If my horse had only kept his head in Round Eight. I caught myself spending too much time going over the wrong stuff.
I’ve learned to take stock, to be real with myself and not let excuses in like a virus. Now, it was time to work. It was time to be real. I didn’t get my mind right until an hour before the start of Round Ten. Yeah, all that stuff happened, I thought. That was the key word, that it happened. Past tense. None of it has any bearing on what tonight has in store.
Instead of dwelling on the past, I started planning for the last round of my last NFR.
During the early rounds of the NFR, I have a general feel of where everybody is in the average and what pace I need to keep to hold a lead or gain ground. Once I get into the later rounds, I want to know all the details. Otherwise, it would be like Coach Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl not knowing the score when he was deciding to kick the extra point or go for two.
It comes down to percentages. You need to know as much as you can about your calf, your horse, the arena. You need to weigh your options and decide where to take risks. Is it how close you are to the barrier? Is it with your rope? Does a calf call for a more aggressive loop because he’s not as good on the ground? There are just so many different scenarios.
And then there are your competitors. By Round Ten, I had done the math. If I won the round and Tuf won second, it wasn’t enough for me to win the gold buckle. If I won the round and Tuf won third, it was enough. If I won fourth in the round and Tuf won nothing, it was enough. I just needed to stay two places ahead.
I knew what calf Tuf had. They’d had a lot of success on him. It fit him good. I had enough respect for Tuf’s roping and for him as a competitor to know that I better win the round, because they couldn’t keep Tuf from winning money. In my mind, I had to win the round and hope that he won third, because the probability of him winning anything less wasn’t good. Tuf didn’t have a big average check to protect. It was a given that the guy was going to come out swinging and win money. So I put my eggs in that basket. My goal was to win the round. Period.
I was up maybe sixth from the end. Tuf was last.
My wife, Shada, has been with me from the beginning, before I ever won any world titles. But, as the sister of the guy I’m trying to beat, she has also been with him from the beginning. Hell, she’s changed his diapers. I can’t even imagine this story from her perspective, what she was feeling. But on that last difficult day, when I was struggling to get my head right, she told me, “I know it doesn’t look as good as it did five days ago, but it doesn’t matter how it looks. I know you’re gonna win it.”
That night, I didn’t draw the calf I wanted. Her tag number was fifteen, and she was a runner. Luckily speed was my good horse’s strong suit. So it wasn’t any question as to what horse I was going to ride that night. I’ve been to more NFRs on Deputy than any other horse I’ve owned. It was only fitting that I bet on him.
By the time I backed into the box, my head was right. You can’t nod your head with negative thoughts swirling around in there. You’ve got to cast those thoughts out and focus on what needs to be done. I didn’t get the calf I wanted, but the calf I drew was a carbon copy of the calf I set the arena record on in 2015, when I was 6.5. So far, 7.4 was winning the round, so I needed to be faster than 7.4. In one way, drawing him made my job easier. I needed to be super aggressive at the barrier and near flawless at every turn. There was no other way to rope that calf.
When the chute opened, I got one of the best starts I’ve ever gotten at the Thomas & Mack—with one exception: the neck rope on the calf that triggers the barrier came off and hung on my left leg. It pushed my leg back, and my spur hit Deputy near the back cinch. That spooked him a little bit and messed up his timing. If the neck rope fouls you up like that, you’re allowed a rerun if you don’t throw your rope, but I got such a good start that it was almost impossible to keep from throwing my rope. It’s too late to pull up now, I thought. It was straight survival. Get the job done!
Deputy was a freer in my get-off than he had been previously, and that shot me down the rope. Number Fifteen was supposed to be a bit wild on the end of it. She started to take a step. I was kind of out of position to flank her, but if I took the time to get into better position, I would have less chance of winning the round. So I flanked her out of position and put a wrap and a hooey on her. I looked up and saw that I was 7.2 and leading the round.
The only thing I could hope for was that everybody was 7.3 or slower. I just sat and waited.
When Tuf was up, I was still in the lead, but now there were two guys tied for second with 7.4. That changed the math. If Tuf was 7.4 or longer, I won it.
Tuf backed into the box and nodded his head. When he threw up his hands, I looked at the clock and knew I’d won. It read 7.6. Right after that, the judges flagged him out for a jerk-down. That cost him some money, but luckily for me, being a Tuf Cooper fan, it didn’t cost him a world championship. And I know he’ll have another shot.
As for me, it doesn’t get any better than that right there—winning top honors at the last championship of your career. If there’s one thing that I don’t have the words for, it’s the feeling of knowing that this was my last National Finals Rodeo ever.
Why I’m Retiring
I’d like to clear up a few things about my decision to retire. First, it was never about feeling like I don’t think I can compete anymore. I hope 2018 proved that. I always said that when the kids started school, I wasn’t going to be rodeoing full time. That’s all there was to it.
Honestly, I thought I was going to be retiring a lot sooner than I did. I thought the kids would be in school by kindergarten or first grade. But Shada really wanted to homeschool them, which bought me more time. I’ve rodeoed long enough to have good friends and places to stay everywhere we go. From Day One, we brought the kids with us everywhere we went. That was a gift, having extra time to do what I love, being able to stay on the road even longer than I had expected.
But last year, Treston and Style entered school for the first time—in fifth grade and third grade—and all of a sudden the kids were into their own stuff. In August, around the time of the Northwest run, they had to go home to start school. I thought, Well, they’ll leave, and I will rodeo the last month and come home. But it just wasn’t the same for me. This was first time I ever had to say goodbye to them, and it was hard. I told Shada then that I wasn’t going again.
What exactly does that mean? That’s the other bit of confusion I’d like to clear up. I love being on a horse. I love roping and competing. I just got back from the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. It’s thirty-five miles from my house and it pays ridiculously good. If I have an opportunity to win big money and have a big stage for my sponsors or my brand, I’m gonna be there, but you won’t catch me doing it full time.
In December, after I won the All-Around World Championship, my twenty-fourth, people were like, You cant quit now! You’ve got to defend your title. I felt the opposite. I was like, No, now I can. It’s actually really relaxing to go sit and watch a rodeo. People around me are like, Man, I bet you can’t stand it! You’d love to be down there, wouldn’t you? I’m like, No, I’m really okay.
I feel at peace with my decision. I just won the most coveted buckle in Pro Rodeo, and I’m fine with being done. That was the really fulfilling part, that I could be okay with letting go and not having to defend a title. Retiring after the kind of career I’ve had was sweet. Going out on top was the icing on the cake.
So don’t be surprised if you see me back into the box at another PRCA rodeo. There’s no vaccine for rodeo. But don’t look for me at another National Finals. And, don’t worry. I’ll be just fine.
Here at the Brazile Ranch, I keep a small herd of calves that hold special meaning for me. There’s one I tied in 6.7 seconds at the 2008 National Finals, probably the fastest calf I’ve ever seen. There’s the one I was 6.5 on at the 2015 NFR to tie the arena record. The latest addition to the herd is Number Fifteen, my last NFR calf ever. I kept her on full feed at first and turned her out just last week. She’s doing good. In a couple years, she’ll have babies, and every time I feed her and her babies, I’ll think of my last National Finals Rodeo and what it meant to go out on top.