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.
Hometown: Broken Bow, Oklahoma
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.
Hometown: Marietta, Oklahoma
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.
Hometown: Los Olivos, California
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.
Hometown: Throckmorton, Texas
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.
Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma
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.
Hometown: Stephenville, Texas
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.