I think it's pretty obvious who authored the out-come of the 2007 world team roping race. This one had Western Justice's name written all over it.
Last year, when guys from two different teams grabbed the gold for the first time in professional rodeo history, I felt guilty and sad about interviewing champs Matt Sherwood and Allen Bach while their respective partners, Chad Masters and Walt Woodard, were out at the barn putting the horses up.
I had a quick minute with Chad in the tunnel right after he received his 2006 NFR average saddle with Al out in the arena, and after a little 10th-round bobble all Chad cared about was making sure he hadn't blown the gold buckle for Bach. He'd just put a wrap on an NFR team roping record-$98,714 apiece in 10 days-and he never one time asked me if he'd won the championship. He was white as a ghost with worry that he'd hurt his partner. That's Chad.
Don't get me wrong about my guilt and sadness, by the way. I was thrilled for Matt and Al. It's just that I knew Chad and Walt had worked every bit as hard, only to catch the bridesmaid's bouquet while their partners grabbed the brass (make that gold) rings. Second in the world is a feat in itself, mind you, but when you fall a scant $848.72 short, like Chad did, or even come up $17,809 from first at the finish line, which was the case with Walt, it's tough to take.
Had I been handed a blank script for the $5.5 million 2007 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which lit up the Thomas and Mack Center December 6-15, my sentimental, righter of wrongs side would have reveled in filling in the pages with storylines like Chad and Walt getting their due.
And if that wasn't enough, how about bringing back Jake Barnes to the Thomas and Mack for the first time since he cut his thumb off in the heat of world championship battle in 2005 and having him win the NFR average with his fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer and seven-time World Champion Team Roper Clay O'Brien Cooper? Honestly, it all unfolded as if I wrote it myself.
I had the honor of sitting down with Chad and Walt, one at a time, after round 10. As always, the herd of NFR reporters stampeded onto the University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball court, where we interview the champs, then retreated to the press room to make deadlines. Also per usual, I was the last media nerd on the court (Yes, Tee, it's true…the Finals press frenzy never ends until I-the fat lady-hits the high notes). I apologized to Chad and Walt for never quite having mastered my short game. Let's just say that if I roped for a living, I'd have to rely on Salinas, Cheyenne and the BFI. Telling the tale in three graphs (team roping translation: trying to be 3 at the Thomas and Mack) just isn't me.
My first memory of Chad Masters is from five years ago, when I picked him and Tee Woolman up at the Oakland Airport and drove them across the San Francisco Bay Bridge to run their last steer of the 2002 rodeo season at the Cow Palace. We stopped for lunch, and they filled me in on all their 11th-hour travels. Chad didn't say much. He was shy and quiet-extra nice-and apparently a bit blown away by the look on his face in my rear-view mirror. He was just a kid, and not quite sure how to take Tee's sparring with me.
Chad endeared himself to me forever that day with his manners and his graciousness. There he was doing battle with Tee for the last hole in the Top 15-his first real shot at the Finals-and he let his fiercest rival ride his gray horse Handsome. Tee made it; Chad loaded up Handsome for the long, dreary drive back to Tennessee. But not without shaking Tee's hand and sincerely congratulating him.
It was obvious then that Chad Masters had that something special about him that goes way beyond anything that happens in the arena. In subsequent years, Chad spent some time out here where I live on California's Central Coast with Dugan Kelly. I saw more of that heart of his through his actions around my cracker-butted little boys, who quickly grew to idolize him-especially Lane, who heads.
In Omaha this last September, I ran into Chad out at the barn. He asked me to please pass on a message to Lane and Taylor telling them to go to college. Still the humble one, he said he figured I'd probably forget to do it. But he wanted to pass along the message that if he had it to do over again, he'd have stayed in school and started his career after first getting that scholastic foundation and enjoying a little extra growing-up time. If you've known me for five minutes, you know how passionate I am about the value of a good education. The message made it home loud and clear, and packed twice the punch coming from Chad as if I'd said it myself.
Always one to take the time for his admiring young friends and fans, Chad used my cell phone to leave Lane a message a few weeks later when we were in Dallas. Lane happened to return the call when I was interviewing Jake and Clay after they won the first round. Jake picked off the call. They talked a minute before Jake asked Lane, "Do you know who this is?" Lane guessed over the noisy press-room buzz, "Mr. Masters?" Jake just smiled and jokingly replied, "No, this is THE master." Lane was red in the face for a week over that deal.
It took an army of horses and men to pull off Chad's first championship in 2007. He rode his bay horse Cody, 9, all winter and into the spring, when he pulled a suspensory ligament around Logandale (Nev.). Cody was out until a week before Dallas in November. So Chad brought in another 9-year-old he raised and trained in Stranger (the black horse). His third-stringer was a sorrel horse, Lucky, who's 17 now and in Chad's string for the third time. His good friend Cory Smothers sold him back to Chad in his time of need.
His herd of heelers included Bach from January 1 to July 5, then Britt Bockius until Omaha, where Chad roped with Big Al again. Boogie Ray, Tom Bourne and Brad Culpepper also stepped up when called to duty.
"It took every one of those guys to get me here," said Chad, 26, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., who's currently living with South Carolina team roper Luke Brown in Morgan Mill, Texas (A huge Thank You from Chad for all your help and support, Luke.). "Al and Britt are two of the best partners a guy could ask for, and those other guys helped me when I needed it, too. I can say my horse worked good, and I scored good and whatever else, but what it really boils down to is I had two heelers who had great attitudes and roped a lot of steers by two feet."
After placing in the first four rounds, Allen slipped a leg in round five at the Finals. They struck again for a third/fourth split in round six, then Al rebuilt-fast-in 12.7. Bach roped another leg in the 10th round, which dropped them to second in the average. Masters was flawless minus one broken barrier in the ninth round, and handled steers on half the rope of most of the other headers night after night. He served up steer after steer on a silver platter.
The way Masters had it figured, he rode out of the arena thinking Woodard's main man had edged him this time around.
"According to my math, Clay (Tryan) won it," said Masters, who's now a four-time NFR header. "I thought that was just how it was meant to be. Next thing I knew, somebody grabbed me off my horse and told me to go to the media. I argued with them all the way there, because I really didn't think I'd won it.
"The Tryans (Clay, who finished $2,682.16 behind Chad in second, and joined Masters in breaking Speed Williams' 2003 annual team roping earnings record of $180,305; and little brother, Travis, who ended up eighth) are both confident ropers who've been at the top of their game the last several years. As hard as I've worked at roping my whole life, they've always been a step ahead of me. That makes me realize how much they've worked at it."
The Masters Plan for 2008 is to head for 2006 PRCA Rookie of the Year Jade Corkill. He's sweet on my goddaughter, but that's another story.
"I'm really excited about roping with Jade," Chad told me. "He always gives himself a chance to rope two feet, and he always rides good horses and works at it."
His NFR game plan was based on similar fundamental principles.
"I tried to disregard all the talk," he said. "Al told me to block it all out and go in feeling like the underdog. That way, you don't let the bright lights get to you."
In trying to describe his gratitude and good fortune, Chad named a few of his friends who've roped good enough to be golden over the years, but for one reason or another just haven't gotten that one last break just yet.
"I feel very, very fortunate to be someone who did get a world title," he said. "A lot of guys-like Charles Pogue, Daniel Green, Kory Koontz, David Key and
Britt have deserved one, but haven't gotten one. I've worked hard and put in as much effort as anyone. But those other guys have worked as hard as me, and for more years."
After last year's close call, Allen made a point to attend the World Champions Breakfast this time around to applaud his partner.
"Chad is a genuine, All-American guy, and his work ethic is awesome," said the four-time champ, whose title years span from 1979 to 2006. "And every time I turn around, he's coming back from Tennessee with another load of horses. I'm really happy and proud for him."
Another icon who's taken Chad in in a special way is eight-time Champ of the World Speed Williams.
"I want to thank Speed for being such an idol and role model," said Chad, who often stops in and stays with Williams and his wife, Jennifer. "To be able to watch and learn from his roping has made it easier. Speed and Jake have changed team roping for everybody."
When Williams won Dallas, he texted Masters with the friendly newsflash, "I almost got you." This time, Masters shot him a grateful "Thanks for everything." Speed-who texted Chad right before round 10 at NFR '06 to tell him, "I know you can do this. I saw it from the first time you roped at my house"-called to tell Chad he deserved the title right after round 10 this year.
Before I head over to the heeling box and Walt, I'd like to say something similar to Chad's parents. Thank you, Debbie and Bobby, for raising such a stellar human being. I'm proud to see my boys looking up to your son.
Walt Woodard is not only legendary for his roping prowess, but for his ability to assist others in achieving their personal best through his in-depth analysis and thoughtful teachings. If I had to describe this competitor in a word, it would be "intense."
I honestly can't say I've known Walt well all my life, but I can say I've watched him come tight on a thousand steers over the years, and that the more I talk to him, the more I appreciate his tunnel-vision dedication.
Walt's roped at 15 NFRs now, and only that many because he took about a decade off to devote his attentions to his students. If only he could find the guy who walked up to him one day during that long sabbatical and declared that he should apologize to everyone he'd ever taught because his style was so outdated.
"That hurt my feelings," Walt admits, though I'd like to shake the guy's hand and thank him for bringing Walt back for this encore.
"When I came back and started roping again, I had three goals," stated Woodard, 52 (He's the same age as the Tryans' dad, Dennis, who heeled for Rusty Wright at the 1984 NFR; and yes, Walt was there, too.). "One was to reach the million-dollar mark (after a $177,152 year in 2007, he's now won $957,981); two was to see if a 50-year-old man could qualify for the NFR (check); and three was to be elected to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame."
Winning a second world championship 26 years after he co-owned the first one with Doyle Gellerman in 1981 gives this guy a great start on that one once his competitive days are done. When they won it all in 1981, Gellerman and Woodard won $48,818 a man. As Woodard scanned the NFR stats sheets, his eyes lit up with amazement.
"I won $94,000 ($94,487, to be exact) this week-here," he noted in awe. "I won about twice as much as it took to win the world at this one rodeo. Wow. You're kidding me."
Walt lives in Stockton, Calif., with his wife, Darlene, and son, 2003 BFI Champ Travis. Travis is the one who convinced his dad he should come back and rope for a living again. Darlene, who does more than her fair share of driving when they're on the road, and keeps the horses sharp and in shape when she's home and Walt's not, anchors it all. On the family ties front, Aunt Darlene's brother Virgil is Rickey Green's dad, and her brother Vernon is Daniel and Chris Green's dad.
Walt was quick to right an old wrong straight out of the world championship gate this time around. When he received the gold buckle and saddle that went with the 1981 world title, he thanked his partner, his parents, his sponsors and even his neighbor.
"I didn't realize it (that he'd basically blown off his better half) until we sat down to breakfast the next day," he recalled quite clearly. "I said, 'Pass the salt.' She said, 'No.' I knew we had a problem. Darlene gets up in the morning here at the Finals and goes and feeds, so I can sleep. She drives at night all the time, so I can sleep and be rested in the morning. She ropes on the horses when I'm gone to keep them in shape.
"I'm not about to make the same mistake twice. Darlene Woodard, Thank You."
He's not much of a mistake man in the arena, either. Woodard was perfect less one leg on a Clay rebuild at the back end in round seven. They won a round and placed in five others en route to a third-place finish in the 10-steer average.
"My strategy is to stick to the fundamentals, and think fundamentally and not emotionally," Walt said. "You need to get a great start and good position, then react to the shot. If you think about being at the NFR, all the money and the packed house, it's too much and you'll go into overload."
Walt described his team as "workhorses," and will assure anyone that "no one will outwork us. We work too hard at this to lose."
Woodard roped 49 of 50 steers-run at NFR speed-during their last practice session before leaving for the Finals. When he got there and the Top 15 ran the steers through two days before opening night, he caught a dismal three of eight. One loop landed behind the steer and never hit hair.
"Not good," he grinned. "I was perspiring." He debated with himself over which horse to ride. Little Gray, who's 13, is his "rock," and typically gets the nod in small indoor setups. But his sorrel horse, Dudley, 9, is faster, and some of the steers were a little wild and strong in the early going. Dudley got the go-ahead, and did Walt right.
"I got on him on opening night, and told him out loud, 'This is your chance to be a hero. One mistake and Gray's getting the call.' He was flawless."
He was also quick to credit his cowboy counterpart.
"Clay's a phenomenal partner (and will also be his 2008 teammate)," Walt said. "He has a tremendous amount of energy, a great work ethic and great ethics. He has a wonderful, supportive family, and a great wife in Bobbi."
Clay and Walt joined forces last February after Walt and Matt Sherwood's partnership ended in the parking lot at San Antonio. Three hours later, Walt's phone rang. It was Clay.
"Clay asked me if I want to win world titles, or just try to make the Finals, because he wants to win championships," Walt remembers. "Winning the world wasn't my goal last year (in 2006). But after I got beat by only one guy (Big Al), I thought if I can beat all the other thousands of people who rope, surely I can beat one more guy. So in 2007, it was my goal to win the world championship. Right after the 2006 NFR, I wrote down the goal of being the 2007 and 2008 world champion team roper on a 3 X 5 card, and put it in my wallet. I look at it every day.
"This NFR was awesome. I'd never really roped up to my ability at the NFR-until now. That's always been a little bit of a bur for me. It had haunted me a little."
Let there be peace.
"Walt's roping like he's 24," Clay Tryan said. "That's a testament to how hard he works at it. I'm 28, and he's out there with me every day."
Darlene sat on Walt's left at the World Championship Breakfast the morning after the dust settled on his golden repeat feat. On his right was the first guy he roped with when he came back around for the second act of his career in 2004, Florida's Nelson Linares. Part of Walt's early-going vision-quest regimen was to jog carrying a boulder. Nelson asked, "What are you doing?" Walt said, "I've got to do it for the sacrifice."
Nelson called him crazy, but learned that that's part of Walt's unwavering dedication. "With Walt, it's always the hard way," Linares smiled.
Walt jogs every morning now, and gallops his horses to a precise pattern.
"When I first started this comeback, I made it 200 yards to the mailbox and weighed 235 pounds," he said (Walt's 5' 10"). "Now I run two miles every morning, and weigh 215."
The champ always has the bull's-eye on his back, and Walt will be no exception riding into 2008. The young guns are all taking aim. But he's looking over his shoulder at the veterans.
"I have a friend I went to kindergarten with who told me not to come back, because I couldn't beat the young guys," Walt said. "Coming here this year I told him, 'You were wrong. I can beat the younger guys. It's the old guys I have trouble beating.' Allen, Clay and Mike Beers are so mentally tough and strong. Allen beat me last year, and I had to beat him tonight to win this thing. Clay O. won the NFR. It took me three months to catch Mike, and he was in a wheelchair (after breaking his pelvis in a horse wreck this summer).
"I practice so much, and there's no stone unturned. I gallop my horse 200 strides a night before I rope, because that equals half a mile. I figured that out at the track at Albuquerque three years ago. On Little Gray, 200 strides is three-quarters of a mile. On Dudley, it's half a mile. The guys I rope with know I count, so nobody talks to me when I'm warming up my horses."
The personal-sacrifice price tag has been great, but the reward: Priceless. Walt does plan to wear the old buckle, however, because "I'm an old-school guy."
"I feel like I'm going to have a peaceful rest of my life," he said just before heading for home. "I rope for the love of the game. Nobody loves this game more than I do."