Clay Smith and Paul Eaves. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Phil Doyle
By Lane Karney
Special to Ropers Sports News
The biggest surprise of the team roping at the 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo may have been the lack of surprises. The two most dominant teams of the regular season—Clay Smith and Paul Eaves, and Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira—also left Las Vegas as the two most dominant teams at the NFR.
With the $10 million NFR playing such a vital role in crowning the world champions due to the large lump sum of money available at Rodeo’s Super Bowl relative to that in the regular season, virtually any team in the field has a shot at winning the world based on a stellar NFR performance. But this year’s race was as full of integrity as any I’ve ever personally seen. I can’t recall a better, more exciting and anticipated race between arguably the two best teams in the world today. It was a knock-down, drag-out knife fight that went the full 10 rounds.
When the dust settled, Clay Smith and Paul Eaves claimed their first world championships. They did so by a margin of less than what it pays to win second in a round at the NFR, with Smith edging Driggers by $17,457, and Eaves narrowing Nogueira’s year-end earnings by just $16,473.
Smith and Eaves racked up $174,577 a man at the NFR (which is just shy of Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler’s NFR earnings record of $186,000 a man in 2016, when the Canadians came from behind to win the world), on their way to setting a new single-season team roping earnings record in 2018 of $289,921 apiece on the year (that previous record was set by Erich Rogers and Cory Petska with their $265,417 per man 2017 world title campaign).
“It’s been an unbelievable year—the big wins, the new baby (Jade O’Brien Smith—whose namesakes are Jade Corkill and Clay O’Brien Cooper—was born April 23, 2018). It’s been awesome. I know it can always get better, but I’m really not sure how it gets any better than this. We’ve been blessed so much,” said Smith, who with his wife, Taylor, and baby Jade calls Broken Bow, Oklahoma, home.
While the money is great, the gratification of a lifelong dream and the fruition of all the hard work means even more to Smith.
“I would trade all that money for this gold buckle,” Smith said. “The money is just a side bonus. Being a world champion is #1. I’m really happy to have that. Winning one (world championship) is not my goal, but you have to win one before you can win more. And one is super special.”
For Eaves, who also was surrounded by family and friends, taking team roping’s center stage is something he’ll never forget.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Eaves said. “There are so many people who have done good here that we look up to. To have any record is special. What all has happened here hasn’t really sunk in yet, but probably the neatest thing right now is to reach a goal I’ve had since I was young, and to have the people who’ve been there for me and helped me since I was little be here today. That’s the neatest thing about it all so far.”
Besides one miss each (Clay missed the first steer and Paul missed the seventh), they were nearly perfect on the others, finishing third in the average with a time of 34.50 seconds on eight steers. They won or placed on seven of 10 steers, winning Rounds 2 and 5.
“It (the NFR) was how you always dream for it to go. This is my seventh time to be here, and it’s been good, but has never gone how you picture it going before it starts. This year—besides missing a couple, and not placing on one steer—went exactly how we planned it,” said Eaves, a native of Lonedell, Missouri, who currently lives in Millsap, Texas, with his wife, Amanda, and their little girl, LoElla, who is a year and a half old. (Paul and Amanda have a baby boy due April 23, the same day in 2019 as Clay and Taylor’s baby boy was born in 2018.)
While there was plenty of under-the-breath chatter amongst team roping enthusiasts following Smith’s Round-1 hiccup on a night that Driggers and Nogueira won the round with a time of 4.2 seconds, it didn’t shake their confidence. Most of us remember Speed Williams going out of the average on the first one at the NFR several times on the way to his and Rich Skelton’s unprecedented eight consecutive team roping gold buckles from 1997-2004.
“I missed the very first steer out here. But we had a game plan to go try to win as much as we could every round—on every steer. I missed the first one, and was kind of bummed out. But at the same time, I thought, ‘Going 10 times as fast as we can possibly go, I’m maybe going to miss one.’ I went ahead and got it out of the way, and thought, ‘I can get nine now,’” said Smith, who roped at his fourth consecutive NFR in 2018.
“I had a lot of friends in my ear telling me it was OK. Jake Long told me they (he and Luke Brown) went out on their first one last year (in 2017), and had a chance to win it all coming into Round 10. At the end of the day, you’re going to miss. I hated it. But it was almost a blessing to do it in the first round.”
Going into this year’s Round 10, the race was far from over. There are so many variables in play—some of which are beyond one’s own control—like which teams would hold their spots in the average, how tough the final round would be to get a check in, etc.
With Driggers and Nogueira—who also won or placed in seven out of 10 rounds— turning in a time of 4.10 seconds on their last steer for second in the round on their way to second in the average with a time of 45.50 seconds on nine, and NFR earnings of $157,513 apiece, Clay and Paul answered—just like they had all week long. And all year long, for that matter. It was so close going into the Finals that Clay led the heading pack, and Junior led the heelers.
“It went perfect,” Clay said. “It went just right. We executed all week pretty good. We had a few ups and downs. The 10th Round was sure enough good watching for people. It came right down to it. Kaleb and Junior are a great team, and we knew they were going to put the heat on. They were 4.1, and my thinking—and I think Paul was thinking the same thing—was that we’d been making pretty good runs, and being short- to mid-4s.
“When we roped (they were the last team of the rodeo), 4.9 was winning third, so we were thinking, ‘Why not go ahead and try to get another $10,000-$15,000 out of here (which they did; that third-place check in Round 10 was worth $15,654 apiece)?’ When we were 4.4, we knew for a fact we won it. There wasn’t any question then. That did it.”
For Eaves, the road to the top isn’t a journey he has taken for granted. Alas, he is a world champion.
“You kind of know how you stack up along the way,” he said. “From the time I got into the PRCA, I knew I was a top-50 guy—maybe. When I got a little better, I knew I was top 20. Then I made the Finals, and knew I was a top-15 guy. But even then I knew I wasn’t a top-five guy. I’m realistic with myself. There are a few guys who win most of the money—the guys everybody has to beat. And I finally feel like I’ve worked my way up to being one of those guys.”
On the road to the gold buckles, horsepower certainly played a role, as it always does.
Smith was aboard his trusty gray mount, 11-year-old Marty, while Eaves rode his 11-year-old bay, Guapo.
“I rode him every round here, and there aren’t many horses you can ride all year long—at Cheyenne and the NFR,” Smith said. “That doesn’t happen very often. I’m blessed to get to ride a lot of nice horses, but he’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse. I bought him as a 4-year-old, and have been roping on him ever since. He’ll die on my place. He’s part of the family.”
Certainly the biggest surprise that came from the 2018 world champion team is that they won’t be roping together in 2019. Smith will head for Jake Long.
“I couldn’t have picked a better person to win this with,” said Smith, 27. “Next to my brothers, Paul is my best friend. It means the world to win it with him. Paul is awesome. It’s a tough deal. This is why team roping sucks. We just felt like it was time to try something different. We had to make a decision before the Finals. We’ve entered four rodeos since we’ve been out here (Odessa, Denver, the circuit finals, and the $1 million World Champions Rodeo Alliance rodeo in Chicago on January 11). We talked about it, and we made a decision. Paul and me are as close as ever.”
Eaves, who’s 28 now, will heel for three-time NFR average champ Luke Brown, who’s originally from Rock Hill, South Carolina, but now lives in Lipan, Texas.
“Clay’s like family to me, and he’s great at all of it—going fast, catching. He’s unbelievable,” Eaves said. “This (world championship) is something we’ve been trying to do, and until now we hadn’t gotten it done. I know God has a plan for everything, and it’s all for the good.
“I’m really excited about roping with Luke. He’s the full package. He can go catch, or he can go fast. He’s gritty. He is not going to take no for an answer. However he’s got to get the job done, he’s going to do it. He’s proven that. And he lives 20 minutes from me, so we can rope a lot.”
Anything But Average
Back to the lack of surprises, the lone team to catch 10 steers at the Finals in 2018 was 2015 World Champion Header Aaron Tsinigine and NFR rookie Trey Yates, with a time of 69.60 seconds. Again, no real shocker there to see Tsinigine turn all 10 steers at the NFR.
In three trips to the NFR (2014-15, 2018), Tsinigine has never finished lower than fourth in the average, turning 28 of 30 steers he’s run in the Thomas & Mack Center. In 2014 with Clay O’Brien Cooper, they won or placed in the last five rounds (won Round 6) en route to third in the average (Tsinigine also finished third in the world).
In 2015, Tsinigine and Ryan Motes won or placed in four rounds (they won Rounds 1, 3, and 10, and split Round 6), and won fourth in the average in Tsinigine’s gold-buckle year. In 2018, Tsinigine and Yates placed in seven of 10 rounds, and pocketed $128,462 a man at the NFR, both finishing third in the world standings.
“Going into it, it was always cool when those guys would make their victory lap after the 10th round, and get off and get their average saddles and buckles,” said Tsinigine, 32, who calls Tuba City, Arizona, home. “There was a mental block there, and I started thinking about it lately. I started really working hard on catching 10 head, and I really practiced for that with guys at home. I really wanted to catch 10. It was cool when everyone from home called me and said, ‘You did it. You did what we practiced.’”
For Yates, going 10-for-10 is pretty good odds for his first trip to Cowboy Town.
“It felt great to obtain my goal of doing my job and catching my steers. To be in a position to win the average at the NFR and seize that opportunity is a dream come true. I couldn’t have done it without my partner in crime, Dude (his 9-year-old bay gelding)—he got better every night,” said 23-year-old Yates, who calls Pueblo, Colorado, home, and comes from a family of NFR superstars that also include Grandpa Dick, Dad J.D., and Aunt Kelly.
Brazile Exits On Top
Another nail-biting race that resulted in one of the most emotional victories of 2018 was Trevor Brazile winning his 14th world all-around title, and 24th world championship overall to cap off his historic full-time professional rodeo career.
There’s no way you can talk about the 2018 NFR without mention of Brazile’s world championship, and no way you can sum up the last two decades of professional rodeo without mention of the most dominant force professional rodeo has ever seen. Trevor’s been the ultimate icon in his sport, and has served as the face of an industry with distinct class and grace. There’s no better ambassador for any sport than Trevor Brazile has been and will continue to be for rodeo.
Since announcing his retirement from full-time professional rodeo prior to this year’s Finals, I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the Thomas & Mack Center when Brazile took center stage to collect his 24th gold buckle.
In typical Trevor fashion, he won Round 10 in the tie-down roping, to take his unmatched total to 71 National Finals go-round wins. Since his first trip to the National Finals Steer Roping in 1997, and heeling (for J.P. Wickett) at his first NFR in 1998, the King of the Cowboys goes out with 52 total National Finals qualifications, five NFR average titles (team roping, 2008; tie-down roping, 2010; steer roping, 2012, 2014-15), nearly $7 million in career earnings, and two separate Triple Crown seasons (three world titles in the same season) in 2007 and 2010 with two separate combinations (tie-down roping, steer roping, and the all-around in 2007; and team roping, tie-down roping, and the all-around in 2010).
Trevor has qualified for the NFR in four different disciplines—team roping heading (2003-04, 2006-2015), team roping heeling (1998), tie-down roping (1999-2011, 2013-2015, 2017-18), and steer roping (1997-2015, 2017-18). Trevor won his 11th NFR all-around title in 2018. You could list off Trevor Brazile stats for days, and not get done. The rodeo record book is basically Brazile’s biography.
While this isn’t goodbye, this is a “We’ll see you around” to Trevor, as he will spend more time being as good to his family as he has been to our sport since his rookie year in 1996. This is a “Thank you, Trevor,” for all you’ve done for this industry, for being a hero and role model to so many of us, and for being a legendary champion whose second-to-none legacy will live forever.
Team roping average: 1. Aaron Tsinigine/Trey Yates, 69.6 seconds on 10 head, $67,269 each; 2. Kaleb Driggers/Junior Nogueira, 45.5, $54,577; 3. Clay Smith/Paul Eaves, 34.5 on eight, $43,154; 4. Cody Snow/Wesley Thorp, 58.2, $31,731; 5. Derrick Begay/Cory Petska, 60, $22,846; 6. Rhen Richard/Quinn Kesler, 73.6, $16,500; 7. Erich Rogers/Clint Summers, 50.9 on seven, $11,423; 8. Chad Masters/Joseph Harrison, 80.1, $6,346. World Champions (headers): 1. Clay Smith, $289,921; 2. Kaleb Driggers, $272,464; 3. Aaron Tsinigine, $212,506; 4. Cody Snow, $196,773; 5. Bubba Buckaloo, $194,836; 6. Derrick Begay, $193,626; 7. Luke Brown, $154,237; 8. Dustin Egusquiza, $145,518; 9. Riley Minor, $143,592; 10. Chad Masters, $142,304; 11. Tyler Wade, $135,607; 12. Clay Tryan, $122,785; 13. Lane Ivy, $118,919; 14. Erich Rogers, $116,643; 15. Rhen Richard, $113,520. World Champions (heelers): 1. Paul Eaves, $289,921; 2. Junior Nogueira, $273,448; 3. Trey Yates, $226,900; 4. Cory Petska, $200,082; 5. Wesley Thorp, $193,084; 6. Chase Tryan, $174,252; 7. Joseph Harrison, $161,477; 8. Jake Long, $154,237; 9. Kory Koontz, $145,518; 10. Brady Minor, $142,400; 11. Cole Davison, $128,713; 12. Clint Summers, $127,755; 13. Travis Graves, $118,928; 14. Buddy Hawkins II, $115,913; 15. Quinn Kesler, $109,637.
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