Las Vegas, Nevada, Dec. 16, 2001 -- I left my gold fox head earrings and Gucci scarf at home when I packed for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Everyone's a cowgirl or cowboy here, even if they've never run a barrel or ridden a bronc. So just like the athletes, the fans wear a uniform of faded jeans, boots and 10-gallon hat for this sold-out, edge-of-the-seat spectacular. Maybe that's one of the many reasons it's been so easy to get deeply involved in what went on at the Thomas & Mack Center for the past 10 days.
The action, like its neon equivalent on the famed Las Vegas Strip, never stopped. Each session started with the classic Elvis recording, "Viva Las Vegas," ran through spectacular laser and fireworks shows, and didn't let up until the last bull bucked. In between, the gung-ho crowd shared the triumphs and tragedies of fearless competitors by cheering, groaning or booing at appropriate moments.
Maybe that's why I suffered sympathy pains for the legions of bandaged, limping cowboys, who seemed to be in the majority. They took a lot of punishment over the NFR's run, which wrapped up this afternoon as eight records fell, with Texans taking the lion's share of the top awards. But no injury was more high-profile than the knee damage suffered by Cody Ohl of Stephenville, Texas, who secured both the All-Around and calf roping titles. And that was despite having to sit out today's last go-round with a cast from ankle to thigh on his right leg.
"Stop, stop," I screamed Saturday night, as Cody twisted his knee while dismounting from his horse, after his calf ran through the loop of his rope and he finally got the critter on his second try.
But Cody didn't stop, and that became the most unforgettable image of the 2001 NFR. He limped and then crawled as he chased the calf, which dragged him before he finished tying it in an uncharacteristic 40.9 seconds. That seemed like an hour--especially compared to former All-Around Cowboy Fred Whitfield's winning 7.5-second effort.
The instant Cody wrapped up the calf, he collapsed in the dirt.
"I thought it was over," he recalled. The medics carried him out on a body board, as the 17,400 heartsick spectators contributed a standing ovation and shouted, "We love you, Cody."
Why, I wondered, didn't Cody quit the moment his ligaments tore? Here's the short answer: Quitting ain't the cowboy way.
Joe Beaver, last year's All-Around champ, explained the essence of a winner earlier in the week, after his $2,064,070 total made the record books for career earnings.
"When we die, if you cut us open, you'll find a heart three times the size of a normal person's," Joe contended. He might be right.
Cody's urgency stemmed from the instinct of needing to make sure he finished. The All-Around honors (for competitors who participated in more than one event during the year) were still in question until Saturday evening's last event, the bull riding, where Jesse Bail could have overtaken Cody's lead. But as doctors worked on the injured man, Jesse took a header off a terror named Passport, losing his title shot and winding up fourth in the All-Around behind Cody, Scott Johnson and Trevor Brazile.
The championships were presented with typical NFR dramatic flourishes, as a ring of steel outfitted with first-prize saddles was lowered from the ceiling in a blaze of fireworks. Cody got the biggest hand, and he was in tears as he spoke of almost quitting last year, but being encouraged by his parents and girlfriend, Jenny Rainwater, to keep on going.
"It's all about giving 110 percent, and having the Lord on your side, and digging down deep where your heart's at," Cody told me, as he balanced on his crutches, seemingly a little overwhelmed by what he had wrought. He'll be taking a six-month rest after an operation to fix his wrecked knee.
The calf ropers saluted Cody today during their competition by emblazoning "Ohl #1" on their mounts' rumps with Twinkle horse glitter.
On Friday night, all the barrel racers did the same with the name "Mike." That was for calf roper Mike Cervi, who was married to barrel racer Sherry Cervi and was killed in a plane crash earlier this year.
Sherry bravely competed here, but wound up a distant 12th. The event's championship went to 47-year-old Janet Stover of Rusk, Texas, for the first time. And she did it on a borrowed horse, Hotshot, who was loaned to her after her own mount, Bo, was injured in July.
"I hate to leave the little horse. I just love him," said Janet of Hotshot, who noted the buckskin had been sold by his owner to an 11-year-old girl.
While Janet had long dreamed of a gold buckle, the prize for the championship, she knew her age was against her.
"I had wondered this year a few times if I had the grit that I needed," Janet confessed. "It's still there. When you're older, sometimes you're not quite as aggressive. I knew on Hotshot I had to be agressive," she said of the horse, who has tipped over a barrel or two in his day.
"This is what I felt like I always wanted to accomplish. I thought if I could get that gold buckle, maybe I could relax," Janet confided, when I asked if she might retire from competition. She certainly has the money to take a break--her total earnings for the NFR were $126,934, which beat Sherry's 1999 record of $114,373.
An NFR title always seemed to be in the cards for the Myers family of Texas. After all, the children were named Rope, Tigh and Cash, after roping a calf, tying him and collecting the cash. Tigh, the daughter, was the best rodeoer in the family, according to her brothers, but she retired to become a mother. So it was up to the boys, and Rope did the trick yesterday. The Van, Texas, resident also broke a record, earning $117,774 for steer wrestling during the NFR, more than $30,000 ahead of the previous mark.
"We knew we would have a world champion," Rope's mother, Fanchone, assured me. "Cash roped his first calf off a horse at the age of 2, and I have the videotape to prove it. Rope would spend the summers tying goats in the front yard. They worked really hard for what they got."
Cash had to settle for sixth this time, but he was as happy about his big brother's victory as if he had won it himself.
"It's great. I've seen him work and make the sacrifices and dedicate his life to this sport. It's a dream come true, making a goal, staying committed to it and winning," Cash said.
The other champions were Tom Reeves in saddle bronc riding, Speed Williams and Rich Skelton in team roping, Blue Stone in bull riding and Lan Lajeunesse in bareback riding, repeating his 1999 championship.
The tingle of the NFR extends beyond the arena, to the country music acts featured in the casinos and the dueling cowboy gift shows, Cowboy Christmas and Country Christmas. Want to buy a steel chandelier of a round-up scene for a mere $740? This is the place to come. Ditto if you want a carved moose antler ($1,500 per pair) depicting Indians chasing a buffalo herd.
The whole 10 days is special, making this ticket the hardest in town to get. And it's an uplifting experience, too. There's always a feeling of pride in our American heritage at the NFR, and in the wake of Sept. 11, it was even more so this year.
As I think back on my time here, I can only echo the name of the song they played as they ran the highlights of the last 10 days on the big arena screen--"Wish You Were Here."