Lane Karney • 28, Creston, Calif.

Wesley Thorp, the 2019 world champion and NFR average champion, enters the NFR as the No. 1 heeler in the world. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Phil Doyle

By Lane Karney

  The lights are set to shine a little bit brighter at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge, which will run December 7-16 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. In addition to the guaranteed $10,000 shelled out to every contestant upon arrival, they will also be vying for their share of a record-breaking, shiny, new $11.5 million payoff.

Driggers and Nogueira set a new single-season earnings record in 2022 with $340,708 a man. They also finished second in the NFR average with 71.4 seconds on nine steers, for a $112,830 Finals per man. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Phil Doyle

By Lane Karney

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association team roping record book received a facelift in 2022. Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira notably shattered the regular-season earnings record clear back in July, just 39 official rodeos into their year. Heading into the 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge, they had won $227,878 a man on the year, with nearly a $100,000 lead over the field. Combine that with their $112,830 a man in NFR earnings, and you have a new single-season earnings record of $340,708 apiece en route to their second consecutive team roping world championship.

By Lane Karney

Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira left Las Vegas a year ago as the 2021 world champion team ropers, and will return to the 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge as the leaders of the pack. While the Top 15 teams will compete December 1-10 for their share of the record $14 million payoff at Rodeo’s Super Bowl—which is up from $13.3 million in 2021—the NFR payoff isn’t the only money record making headlines. Driggers and Nogueira didn’t just win the regular season—they dominated, shattering the previous regular-season team roping earnings records.
Of course, an up-tick in money won by contestants coming into the NFR is always a good thing, and usually means increased payoffs throughout the season. But this was a jaw-dropping, record-shattering display of team roping. Driggers and Nogueira’s regular-season earnings of $227,878 a man bested the previous records of $150,512 (set by header Clay Smith in 2019), and Travis Graves’ 2010 heeling record of $147,653.
Driggers will ride into the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus with an $83,214 lead over the #2 header, Clay Tryan, while Nogueira has won nearly $100 grand ($97,546) more than Jake Long, who comes in second among heelers. For the sake of perspective, Driggers and Nogueira won the 2021 world championships with $263,226 and $277,611 in the final world standings, respectively.
Though the storyline throughout 2022 has been primarily Kaleb and Junior, this year’s Finals field guarantees that we’re all in for great watching during the NFR’s 10-day run. Not only was I able to catch up with Driggers and Nogueira about their dream season to get their thoughts going into the NFR, but also last year’s record-setting NFR average champs, Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins.
Another team that jumps off the page is two-time World Champion Heeler Patrick Smith, who will heel at his first Finals since 2015. He’ll rope with NFR-rookie Tanner Tomlinson. Other NFR-rookie headers include Lightning Aguilera and Jake Orman. On the heeling side of things, Brye Crites and Jonathan Torres will make their debuts at this year’s Super Bowl of Rodeo.
Here are highlights from conversations with some of the top team ropers in the world, as they get ready to ride into the 2022 National Finals Rodeo.

Kaleb Driggers

NFRs: 10 (2011-14, 2016-19, 2021-22)
Hometown: Hoboken, Georgia
Partner: Junior Nogueira
Lane Karney: You won the world last year, and obviously set out to do it again. But tell me about this record regular season.
Kaleb Driggers: Winning the regular season has always been important to me, because it’s the guys that do the best that year in every situation. Long scores, short scores, coming from the right side (like Oakdale, California and Prescott, Arizona), and coming from the left side (like Salinas, California). I have won the regular season before and not won the world, because we get to rope for so much money in Vegas. That’s great for us, but being the guys that do the best all year is important to me.
This year, we had a really good winter, which we’ve never really had. We had maybe $80,000 going into Reno. I’ve never had more than like $30,000 going there before. We normally have really good summers. In 2016, Junior and I won $125,000 in three months. We had an even better summer than usual this year, but the biggest difference was our winter.
LK: Ideally, earnings records are routinely broken, which would mean the money is getting better for you guys everywhere. But you and Junior’s win percentage amazed me more than the money. I have heard you guys won money at over 70% of the rodeos you entered. What all contributed to that rate of success?
KD: We have a really good set of horses on both sides of our team. That gives us a lot of confidence when we can play them for their strengths in different situations. It is super special to us, but records are made to be broken and hopefully ours will be, too.
LK: Does this kind of lead do anything for your mindset going into the Finals? You looked so in control at last year’s NFR. How similar is your approach to last year, when you came in just behind the leaders?
KD: I’m going to try to keep the same mindset as last year. It’s easy to get down there and want to blast when they’re going 3 (seconds) in the rounds. But I want to rope every steer for what he is, and not get caught up in what’s going on around me. We have a pretty good lead, but that can go away in about three go-rounds. We’re just going to do our jobs, and win as much as we can.
LK: What are you planning to ride at the NFR?
KD: My plans are to ride the bay, Cuervo (who’s 15), that I rode last year. After Salt Lake at the end of July, I brought him home and he stays with Danita Walker in Lipan. She keeps him on the hot walker and her machines year-round when I’m not using him. He doesn’t need tuning up, and Danita will go to Vegas with us, so hopefully we can keep him sound and ride him for 10 rounds. She’s gone out there with me and taken care of my horses since about 2013, and has been a lifesaver to me. She gives me that peace of mind you get when you’re doing the best you can by your horses. I’ll also take my sorrel, Oliver (7), that I jackpotted on and rode at all the long scores this year. I did good on him at Northside the other day at Charly Crawford’s roping, so that’s my back-up plan.

Junior Nogueira

NFRs: 9 (2014-2022)
Hometown: Presidente Prudente, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Partner: Kaleb Driggers
LK: You’ve won two world titles—the 2016 world all-around championship and last year’s heeling gold buckle. But I know how much it means to you to win the regular season. This is your sixth time to do that, and you and Kaleb shattered the regular-season earnings record. Describe your season.
Junior Nogueira: We had a really good winter, which helped a lot. We never had a great winter in the past, but have done really well in the summer. This year, we won Fort Worth in the winter, which was a blessing, and caught a lot of steers. We were more consistent this year. Kaleb roped great and turned a lot of steers, and our horses were great. It wasn’t perfect, but it was amazing. We are blessed to do what we love, see this beautiful country and make friends for the rest of our lives, plus make a living. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s a great life. I want to thank God, my family, my sponsors and my whole team for another great year.
LK: You’ll show up in Las Vegas as the reigning world champion heeler. What’s your mindset going in?
JN: I’m not going to change the game plan. I’ll prepare and try to do my best every single time. I know my partner is trying 100% and is going to do his job, so I’m going to ride in focused on my job. Nothing has changed. We had a great season, and we feel the same as going in last year. I’m looking forward to doing the best I can, and seeing what God has prepared for us.
LK: What are you going to ride at the Finals?
JN: I’m planning to ride my buckskin, Timon (who’s 12). He’s super comfortable in that set-up, and has done good for me there before. It’s hard to find the perfect horse out there. You see guys who make the NFR and switch horses just for there. During the year, the shapes of the arenas change, the scores change, and I can ride him everywhere. But Timon’s done really good in the short set-ups. I’ll take Hali (his gray mare) as a backup.

Andrew Ward

NFRs: 3 (2020-22)
Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma
Partner: Buddy Hawkins
LK: You and Buddy had a great season, both rodeoing and jackpotting. Break down your year for me.
Andrew Ward: It seemed like an incredible year. We won a lot of stuff you dream about winning. We started it all off really with winning the NFR average last year, and setting the record on 10 (Andrew and Buddy’s new NFR average record of 54.7 seconds eclipsed Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper’s mark of 59.1 on 10 steers set way back in 1994), then we won the Lone Star Shootout, The American, and won the BFI (Resistol Reno Open) in Reno. It was cool to check off a lot of big wins.
At the rodeos, we won money at most of them throughout the season. Together as a team, we caught a ton of cows. We had a really effective year, so we’ll try to build on it. We do go to some smaller rodeos than other guys, and do it a little different with a big focus on our (Prairie) Circuit Finals—sort of like rodeoing like professional weekend warriors starting on Thursday and finishing on Sunday. We didn’t have to drive very much this year, and had days to rest. We didn’t have but maybe one or two all-nighters, and were able to catch over and over. I know there’s room for improvement to execute at the bigger rodeos, but we caught a lot of cows and won a lot of checks.
LK: You guys obviously had a great year, and it seems like you won just about everywhere you went. Can you put Kaleb and Junior’s incredible year into perspective from your front-row seat to the earnings record?
AW: That was incredible to watch. Everywhere we were up the same, it seemed like they were winning on runners, on lopers—it didn’t matter. I was so impressed watching them. They’ve both got a list of horses that any one of them could be another guy’s best one. Driggers probably rode five different head horses at the rodeos this year, and you can’t hardly tell when he switches.
At this level, Kaleb and Junior can catch with anybody. They can go as fast as anybody. They caught a lot of steers going really fast. Because they’ve got so many great horses, they didn’t skip anywhere, and they had great horses everywhere. I don’t know what Speed and Rich or Jake and Clay looked like when they were dominating, but I’ve never seen a team as elite as Kaleb and Junior this year, no matter the set-up. Clay (Tryan) beat us in the regular-season, too. They’ve got good horses, and I think him and Jade (Corkill) rodeoed similar to us, not flying as much and going to what made sense. They’re dominant, too. If I could duplicate our year, I’d do it every year. So hats off to those guys for the year they had, and the lead they racked up.
LK: After setting the new NFR average record last year, you said there were a few things you were focused on for next time. What are those, and what’s your NFR game plan this year?
AW: There aren’t big changes coming. I want to catch, because that’s my identity. There were two little things that I did kind of wrong. I thought I was swinging too hard and tight, trying to catch up to the cows. The cows were running so hard, and because I was tight, I’d have to ride through where I could have been throwing last year. That made us a little longer on some runs. If I can come up with a smoother, slower first swing, then a little more aggressive second swing and a good, open third one with my horse on good lines, I think that’ll help.
The other thing is I’d never experienced the speed of the steers out there in that set-up before. In the steer break-in, I thought the steers were better, and I anticipated with the barrier at 4’ under that I would overcome the cows on Biscuit. The first night, I tried to see something and felt like by the time I got going, I saw shoulder or first rib out the end of the gate, because he left so sharp. I was just hoping to catch up by the end of the arena. The second night, I came behind him, but he was sharp and I felt late again.
Later in the week, I felt like I got better starts. But I don’t want to be scared of a 10-second barrier out there this time. Last year, I was stressed about beating the (average) record, and I think that backed me off. It’s like we were in a contest with Jake and Clay’s record, and couldn’t afford a barrier at the end. Even though breaking the record didn’t add money to our pockets, those are our heroes. Hopefully, I can block out the noise a little better this year. My plan is to get going at the start, read the cow through the box, react with my left hand, relax my swing and send it when I believe I can catch. If I can get great starts, I think we can be a little faster without taking riskier throws.
LK: Your great brown horse, Biscuit (11), was voted this year’s reserve Nutrena Head Horse of the Year presented by AQHA. You’ve ridden him at the last two NFRs. Will you ride him again in Vegas, and how much did it mean to you for him to be recognized by your peers this year?
AW: Yes, I feel like you get chemistry the more you rope on a horse in there. I know what Biscuit is going to feel like. The building is small, but the barrier is so short and the cows run so hard. He’s my best horse in that arena with that set-up, but I’ve got a gray I call Henry (who’s also 11) who I’ll have out there, too. I was kind of nervous to miss the deadline to nominate Biscuit for that award for his sake, because he went from little indoors to big outdoors to the BFI. He’s done it the last four or five years now, and just keeps getting better, because I’m riding him better. Horses like Biscuit are life-changing for guys like me. I wouldn’t put my horse’s name down for that award unless I thought he was a special horse. I was thrilled other people thought that about him, too.

Buddy Hawkins

NFRs: 5 (2013, 2018, 2020-22)
Hometown: Stephenville, Texas
Partner: Andrew Ward
LK: Describe your season and some of the highlights along the way.
Buddy Hawkins: This sport is a lot like every other thing in life I’ve experienced. Your distance between sowing, reaping and the productivity of your crop, if you will, is unique. You can plant the exact same amount of corn, get the same exact amount of moisture and get a slightly different yield. There are a lot of factors in there. There’s the bamboo analogy, that everybody is probably bored with, but it goes like this: When you plant a bamboo tree, nothing noticeable happens for five years. The improvement process is often discouraging, but it’s growing underground and creates a base or foundation for later growth. In the fifth year, the bamboo tree grows up to 90 feet in six weeks.
So, I can’t talk about my season without bringing it back to my faith. I finished 16th (in the world standings) in 2017. In 2018, I divorced from my best friend, then completely reset and quit rodeoing for part of 2019. Since I started roping in 2000, I’ve worked for this. I don’t deserve it more than the next guy, and not everyone gets what they deserve out of this sport. But that makes this sport beautiful, because people do it for the love of it. To look at what made this fairytale possible, where every big check they gave away in a four-month period they gave to us (last year’s NFR average through The American in March), you can’t summarize that appropriately. It takes a whole lot of little things—my whole family, my sponsors, my partner, his family, people throughout this industry—to have big wins.
LK: You and Andrew set the NFR record last year on 10 steers. How are you using that experience going into this year?
BH: For me, a lot of my perspective is the same as it has been at every NFR. Perspective always acquires previous experience, so you can’t have the exact same perspective after you’ve had an experience. More recently, I try to be the best follower I can be to my partner and his horse. On paper, I’m the team leader in terms of strategy and navigating that. But when it comes to the actual event, I’m playing on the team.
I very much try to follow my partner’s start, and his pursuit of the cow. This is my first repeat NFR in this building with the same partner. Right now, we are planning on riding the same horses and using the same ropes in the same building, and the steers look similar. It’s a shot for me to actually show up on the same court with the same team and see if we can improve on it.
LK: What are you planning to ride at the Finals?
BH: I plan on riding X (15), which is the horse I rode last year. He’s the best horse in the box that I’ve ever had. He scores really well also. Now that we have futurities, that means more to more people. He’ll stand in there motionless on a tight bridle for as long as I want, then explode off the bridle reins when I drop. I was watching an old video from the NFR in Arlington (in 2020), when Andrew had to reset a couple times. We stood motionless for, like, 47 seconds, then got our start.
I think that’s the #1 thing that makes X special there. He follows the steer really well, and if we are in a really good spot, there’s really not much I have to do. I can tell him how I want to leave the box, and when. Some of my horses maybe score better, but leave 10 different ways. This horse will leave one of three ways that I dictate. If anything, he’s going to leave harder than I want, which is a good thing there. In my experience, I’ve ran 30 steers there, 20 on X. And 20 in a row, I left and never had to touch the reins again. I may have because of a bad habit, but I never had to.

Tanner Tomlinson

NFRs: 1 (2022)
Hometown: Angleton, Texas
Partner: Patrick Smith
LK: You were the 2020 Resistol Heading Rookie of the Year, and turned 22 this year. Has making your first Finals sunk in yet?
Tanner Tomlinson: I tell you what, it hadn’t hit me since being home until early November. I’ve dreamed about this my whole life, and it’s a dream come true. With it almost here, practicing and watching all the NFR reruns, it’s finally just hit me here lately.
LK: How are you preparing for your NFR debut?
TT: Patrick has the NFR arena built into his arena, so it’s the same measurements and dimensions. I’ve been running about 60-70 steers in there every day. Patrick tweaked his back, so he’s been running about 15 and I’ve had other guys coming to heel. But we’re about to get after it pretty hard.
We are trying to get a run lined out, and are working on not having too much rope out if I reach. We are working on a run together that’s not too kamikaze, because I’ve always tried to go so fast. Some people have told me you don’t want to go so fast there that it makes it hard to get a run going all week. So we are finding that happy medium. Trevor (Brazile) has come over to help me a little bit, and get a run down.
LK: Trevor and Patrick had some years at the NFR where they had arguably one of the best runs ever inside that building night after night. What’s it mean to be in this position with Patrick?
TT: Being around Patrick has taken my heading to another level. He’s helped me with my horsemanship and how to keep a horse under me all year. We’ve really worked at getting a run together, and to build consistency together. Andrew and Buddy have a run together better than anybody, and they’re so consistent. Same with Kaleb and Junior. We got a run down mid-season that let us get on a roll and make the Finals. Patrick has been a blessing to me as a mentor the last two years.
LK: What are you planning on riding at the NFR?
TT: I don’t know for sure what I’m going to start on, but I do know I’m taking Coy’s (Rahlmann) horse Blue, that he rode out there last year. I’m also taking Wishbone, which is a horse Trevor rode out there last time he was there. Trevor just got him back, and I’m going to take him. My gray I rode all year doesn’t come up the wall very good in little arenas, and is a little more elevated leaving the box than them. Coy’s horse leaves super flat, and stays in the bridle leaving the box across the line. Everyone feels like the head horse being flat and easy is the main key there, so you can have a good first swing. The go is so important, so that’s why I’m taking those two horses.

Patrick Smith

NFRs: 13 (2003, 2005-2015, 2022)
Hometown: Lipan, Texas
Partner: Tanner Tomlinson
LK: This is your first NFR qualification since 2015. Was this a resurgence?
Patrick Smith: In 2016, I didn’t rodeo when we did the ERA (Elite Rodeo Association). I’d like to say I didn’t rodeo those other years since then, but I just didn’t get off to great starts, and came home early. As much as anything, I’ve got really good heel horses and a good partner now. All of that creates a resurgence. A good partner, good head horse and good heel horse are the three things that set you up for success. Winning is a motivator, and makes you hungry to get back in the circle.
LK: You heeled at your first Finals in 2003 for Matt Tyler, who was at his 18th NFR that year (Matt and Patrick won the average, with 62.3 seconds on 10 head). What’s it feel like to be on the other end of that, and to be taking Tanner to his first NFR?
PS: It’s almost a mirror image. My first year I roped with a guy who had been there so many times, and I was the first-timer. I’ve been telling Tanner about those feelings I felt, that I’m sure he’ll feel, too. I was so nervous that year, but then you ride in the box and see the chute with a steer in it, and it’s the same thing we do all year. There’s so much pressure out there, but it’s horns and feet, and making your run. I’m excited to have the knowledge I do have, and hopefully it’s an advantage to be able to share that with him.
LK: You’ve got the 2022 Nutrena Heel Horse of the Year presented by AQHA, Turbo (12). How much are you looking forward to riding him at the Finals?
PS: I’m really excited. Turbo’s so fast and has such an amazing finish, so that set-up fits him really well. He’s so good everywhere, but he has all the things you look for in a horse for that building, especially roping with someone like Tanner, who is so fast. Hopefully, I can show everybody what Turbo’s all about. We haven’t gotten to compete in there (the Thomas & Mack Center) together yet, so I’m very excited.

By Lane Karney
Special To Ropers Sports News

The 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo will run on Texas time this year at Globe Life Field in Arlington. The starting line-up is set, with the Top 15 headers and heelers in the world scheduled to take the field from December 3-12 at the home of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers. The 2020 World Series also played out at Globe Life Field.

The top rodeo athletes in the world are on the marquee for Rodeo’s Super Bowl, and the squad is packed with world champions and first-timers alike. The 2019 world champion team ropers, Clay Smith (who’ll head for three-time Champ of the World Jade Corkill) and Wesley Thorp (who’ll heel for Chad Masters), return to stake their claims on back-to-back gold buckles.

For Smith, it’s an attempt to take home a third-consecutive world heading championship. Smith also will enter the NFR ranked fourth behind Tuf Cooper, Trevor Brazile and Stetson Wright, but within striking distance in the world all-around race.
On the heading side, world champions include Smith, Clay Tryan, Masters, Erich Rogers and Levi Simpson. Past NFR average champs include Luke Brown— who is a three-time NFR average winner and also this year’s regular-season heading leader— Cody Snow, Tryan, Masters and Simpson. First-time NFR headers are Andrew Ward, Nelson Wyatt and Jeff Flenniken.

Corkill, Paul Eaves and Thorp are the world champion heeling headliners at the 2020 Finals. Junior Nogueira etched his name on an all-around gold buckle in 2016. And Corkill, Travis Graves, Eaves and Thorp have all collected NFR average titles along the way. Finals first-timers on the heeling side include Logan Medlin, Paden Bray and Levi Lord.

Tryan leads this year’s team roping pack in back numbers, as he returns for his 18th NFR qualification, while Brown and Masters are tied at the top with three NFR average titles apiece. Brown—who is making his 13th-straight NFR appearance, enters this year’s Finals as the regular-season leader for the first time in his career and will head for Joseph Harrison in Arlington—is the eldest of the veterans in this year’s team roping pack at 46. Charly Crawford, 42, is next in line and has announced that this will likely be the last year of full-time rodeo competition for him. Brenten Hall is the youngster of the group, making his second-straight NFR at the age of 21.

The youth movement amongst the heelers is led by Paden Bray (who will heel for Rogers), 22, and Hunter Koch, 23, who will heel for Kolton Schmidt at his second-straight Finals. At 36, Graves and Long carry the most seniority onto Globe Life Field of this year’s heelers.

I had the chance to talk with a few of this year’s NFR qualifiers, from front-runners to first-timers, as they prepare to do battle at the 2020 National Finals Rodeo.

Clay Smith

Clay Smith

Hometown: Broken Bow, Oklahoma
Age: 29
World Titles: 2 (2018-19)
NFR Qualifications: 6 (2015-20)
Partner: Jade Corkill

Lane Karney: What horse are you planning to start out on?

Clay Smith: I’m going to ride my gray, Marty (13). I rode him over the Fourth of July, but after that he hasn’t done much. He’s pretty much been on vacation all summer. He’s fast-footed and snappy, and I’ve had a lot of success on him. I’m going to stick with that.

LK: What’s your plan to put your name on a third-consecutive gold buckle?

CS: I’m going to try to do the same thing I’ve been doing the last couple of times. I’m trying to stay busy before, and not to think about putting a lot of pressure on it. Just go into it like another jackpot or rodeo all year long. This year is going to be kind of like everybody’s rookie year at the Finals, because of the location change. Everybody is still unsure of what it’s going to be like. I’m going to find out what the barrier is going to be set at (at press time, the team roping scoreline was tentatively set to be two feet longer than it is at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas), what the steers are and back in there and turn steers. My plan is to stick with what we’ve done all year.

LK: You’re still a young guy, but all of a sudden you’re more on the veteran side of the field. Six NFRs in, do you still have the same excitement as you did at your first Finals?

CS: Sometimes you take making the NFR for granted, but I am really thankful. I’m thankful for having the opportunity to win the kind of money we can win at Globe Life (which at press time was $6 million, though world championship points will be awarded at the same $10 million rate the NFR pays in Vegas) and the opportunity for a gold buckle. We obviously do this wanting to win a gold buckle, but whether it’s that or they gave a pocket knife, I want to win it.

Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison

Hometown: Marietta, Oklahoma
Age: 33
NFR Qualifications: 4 (2017-20)
Partner: Luke Brown

LK: What are you going to ride?

Joseph Harrison: I’m planning to start on my old horse Mainstreet (16). He’s a trusty ol’ booger, and doesn’t mess up a whole lot. You need one that doesn’t mess up a whole lot there. I’ve ridden him at the Finals the other times, and won The American (with Brown) on him this year.

LK: This is your fourth-straight NFR. What’s the journey been from then to now?

JH: My wife and I had talked about it then. I was going to rodeo the one time to see if I could prove to myself I could get an NFR jacket. When I was a kid, everybody told you that you couldn’t make a living rodeoing. Honestly, I had it in my mind you couldn’t make enough to take care of everything. If you win, you can. Especially if you throw in everything else that goes along with it in the industry. Showing horses, selling horses—there is a lot more money to be made than people give the industry credit for. I’m trying to feed my family and make a living, and this is allowing me to do that. Everybody told me when I was a young boy I didn’t have enough money to play this game. That first year I tried to make it I had a good friend, Mike Lane, who gave me $10,000 to put in my rodeo account. At the end of that year, I paid him back his money and haven’t had to take any more.

LK: How much are you looking forward to heeling for Luke at the Finals?

JH: Everybody talks about how he’s always so great in Vegas and in that set-up. But I think he’s so great in any set-up, any place, anywhere. If the set-up is different— like they’re talking about making the barrier longer—it’ll change it up obviously, but at the same time all it’s going to do is make it a little more challenging. I like challenging. Challenging is fun.

Cody Snow

Cody Snow

Hometown: Los Olivos, California
Age: 24
NFR Qualifications: 5 (2016-20)
Partner: Junior Nogueira

LK: What horse are you planning to ride?

Cody Snow: I’m going to ride my buckskin, Annie (12). It’s going to be different than Vegas, and the barrier will be different. But she’s really easy to catch and turn steers on. I rode her all year long, and I’m not going to change now.
LK: What’s your game plan going into the Finals this year?

CS: I want to go in and rope the steers for what they are. I want to stay on the aggressive side, but do my best to turn every steer. Really, just treat it like the rest of the rodeos all year long. It’s still going to be a 10-head average, and they’re going to pay you to get them caught. You’ll have steers that you should place on, and some you get by. Junior and I are both on the aggressive side naturally, so I think that part will take care of itself.

LK: What does winning the NFR average last year (with Thorp) do for you heading into the Finals this year?

CS: Really, it just gives me confidence in what I did to prepare, and that it works. Last year, I showed up at the Finals confident in catching steers. I want to do that again.

LK: This will be your first NFR heading for Junior. What’s that been like?

CS: Junior ropes great. I have so much confidence in him catching every time. That takes some pressure off of me, because I’m not worried about having to take care of him or set things up too much. Obviously, I try the best I can. But Junior can handle things getting wild, and I like that.

Wesley Thorp

Wesley Thorp

Hometown: Throckmorton, Texas
Age: 25
World Titles: 1 (2019)
NFR Qualifications: 5 (2016-2020)
Partner: Chad Masters

LK: What are you planning to ride at the Finals?

Wesley Thorp: Good question. I’m going to play it by ear. I’m thinking my black, Ray J (11, who finished third for the Purina Heel Horse of the Year), that I rode all this year. I was going to last year, but then last minute I decided to ride my brown, Lex (15). I think it’ll come down to the feel as we get closer and know exactly what the set-up is going to be.

LK: What’s your take on the NFR moving to Globe Life Field this year?

WT: I think it’s pretty cool, just because it was best-case scenario for all that went on. We didn’t really have an option to go to Vegas this year, so I’m glad we get to have the Finals somewhere. I think it’ll be good for us.

LK: What’s your game plan for this year’s Finals, and what, if any, added confidence do you have from winning the world and NFR average titles last year?

WT: I would like to have a run down leaving home that we feel comfortable sticking to. I want to stay aggressive, but have a comfortable run we can take with us to the rodeo. The confidence I gained comes in knowing that last year’s game plan worked. That is reassuring to know that if we can execute and we are firing on all cylinders, we should be good.

LK: I talked to you for an NFR bubble story toward the end of the season, and you pulled it off and made it. Talk about the trials of rodeoing in 2020 compared to previous seasons.

WT: It was definitely a tricky year, with a lot of ups and downs. It was the hardest year in terms of winning by making good runs. Roping good didn’t win you much on its own. You had to draw great and blast them. We made a lot of good runs that didn’t win anything. We went to lots of rodeos we hadn’t been to before—smaller rodeos with more teams. It was a knife fight. Normally, you make a good run on a good steer and win money. This year, you had to make a great run on a great steer to win OK money. It was hard leaving the house knowing a good run might not be good enough this year.

Andrew Ward

Andrew Ward

Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma
Age: 30
NFRs: 1 (2020)
Partner: Buddy Hawkins

LK: What’s it mean to realize your dream of being an NFR header?

Andrew Ward: It’s awesome. I don’t think it’s hit me yet, but I think I’ll look back and it will be incredible. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m just excited to get there and run ’em. Rodeoing is what we do, because we want to make a living with our ropes, and this is a great opportunity.

LK: What are you planning to ride?

AW: My brown horse, Biscuit (9). My gray I got from (Kaleb) Driggers got hurt at The Capitalist roping, but Biscuit is my best horse. If it was going to be in Vegas, I probably would have tried to hunt something else down, because of the left wall being so close. With way more room at Globe Life, and a lot of people thinking the start will be more than at the Thomas & Mack, I’m going to start on Biscuit.

LK: What will you do to feel most prepared for your first Finals?

AW: I am planning to go down to Texas and rope with Luke and Chad, then maybe come back and set up similar dimensions and rope to get a feel for it. We’ll be jackpotting and roping a lot. We don’t really prepare for any specific deal all year, we just rope. I could see if it was going to be at the Thomas & Mack I’d try to get in a barn and set up the left wall and all that. But with the left opened up, I can ride the same horse and make the same runs we made all year long.

LK: What’s roping with (Ward’s brother-in-law) Buddy this year done to contribute to your success?

AW: He brought a veteran-type attitude to the team. We had a plan, and stuck with that plan. I haven’t been able to do that before. Buddy and I had a run that worked all year long. We just kept trying to catch, and kept getting faster sticking to that. Our run just got faster as we progressed and worked on catching steers.

Paden Bray

Paden Bray

Hometown: Stephenville, Texas
Age: 22
NFRs: 1 (2020)
Partner: Erich Rogers

LK: What’s it feel like to make the Finals, after coming so close your rookie year last season (Bray finished 17th in 2019)?

Paden Bray: It’s a big reliever. I got close last year, and honestly maybe the best thing for me was not making it. Cody Snow told me he came close and missed it his first year, and I didn’t understand how that could be good at the time. But this year, I made every steer count and held myself more accountable. After I made it, I slept for two days I was so relieved.

LK: What are you planning to ride at the Finals?

PB: I’m going to ride my sorrel, Slider (12). We’ve had him since he was a weanling, and my family and I halter broke him. I rode him the majority of the year.

LK: What’s your NFR game plan going into the Finals?

PB: I want to go 10-for-10. I’m so excited to get a chance at it. I want to keep doing the same thing we did all year. Erich is great in all set-ups, but he’s so awesome at the Finals every year. We will keep it pretty simple.

LK: How has roping with Erich shaped your young career?

PB: If it wasn’t for Erich, I wouldn’t have a career with these accolades. He’s arguably one of the best headers in the world. I’m nothing without him. A huge part of the success we’ve had this year comes from him being so consistent and handling steers amazing. He sets them up, and I understand where to be and where the next hop is going to be. As a heeler, that lets me throw fast, because I have a feel for the run behind him. Erich hardly ever messes up, and he gives me the same go all the time. That helps my consistency.