December 15, 2002 -- The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is hot -- a hot ticket and a hot number. There were 174,444 people who showed up for 10 standing-room-only sessions, each of which had folks begging for seats that were not to be had. And when the curtain went up every night, the prelude was always fireworks and lasers, with a boost from flames that shot up in the air and had me worrying about singed eyebrows.
From there on, it was hold-your-breath time as the broncs and bulls tossed cowboys (the printout of the injury report ran four pages) and everyone hustled in the timed events for a share of the record $4.8 million in prize money. When it was over, modest Trevor Brazile of Anson, Texas, wound up as All-Around titleist, rodeo's version of a grand champion. Trevor first thanked the Lord for gaining his life's ambition.
"He's a man of God," Trevor's wife, Shada, said about her spouse, who also knows how to bring home the bacon. He won a total of $273,997.80 for the season. Part of Trevor's edge came from riding 2002 American Quarter Horse Association calf roping horse of the year Tinys Clipso, better known as "Tweeter." He also competes in steer roping and team roping (as both a header and a heeler), in case you were wondering what all-around means.
Trevor, who came into the NFR in third place in the calf roping standings, was all inspiration for those who were asking for his autograph and snapping his photo. Asked what advice he'd give others on the basis of his success today, he said, "Keep your heart right, keep on keeping on and don't ever give up. You can do anything you set your mind to."
He followed in the bootsteps of his father-in-law, Roy Cooper, a big, big-time calf roper who also was an all-around champion. Roy was just beaming.
"He's my best friend," he said of Trevor, whom he helps in practice. In contrast to Trevor's humble demeanor was Sid Steiner, the flamboyant steer wrestling champ. He's the Dennis Rodman of rodeo, with his tattoos, tie-dyed jeans, corn row-braided blond hair, a pierced left eyebrow and a big diamond in his left earlobe.
Sid, who comes from a well-known rodeo family (his dad, Bobby, was world champion bull rider in 1973), is a total character. When I asked him what he might do next, he didn't seem set on trying for another gold buckle.
"Maybe I'll try acting," he suggested. "I thought you were already doing that," I said, and he gave me a sly look as he laughed.
But you have to admire his ability. He was seventh for the world title coming into the Thomas & Mack Arena here, but he did what he had to do this afternoon, downing his steer in 3.3 seconds, 0.3 less than second-place Ivon Nelson for the go-round. In the process, he wound up first in the WNFR average with $162,516.17 as well as taking the saddle for the world prize, which he was dragging down the hall the last time I saw him. Even those who know nothing about barrel racing know Charmayne James and her great Scamper, the world's top barrel racer for 10 years in a row. After 1993, Charmayne's streak ended, and she wasn't sure she'd ever see another gold buckle.
But Cruiser, her current mount, arranged a comeback. Although she didn't win a go-round here, she was consistent and kept all the barrels standing. She ended her season with $186,403.31 in winnings. Someone wondered whether Charmayne thought this was the start of another 10-year streak.
"I don't have nine more in me," she said firmly, adding she hasn't picked a retirement date.
"I don't make hasty decisions," she explained. She is, however, planning to get married to the sports marketer who represents her, so she'll have other things to do.
Anyway, she doesn't need another nine buckles; this win was special enough.
"This is like winning the first time all over again," she enthused. "I knew the horse had it in him."
The NFR is a refreshing experience for many reasons, not the least of which is the genuineness of its competitors, many of whom are down-home folks who put God and country first.
As the announcer put it, "The most patriotic people in the world are cowboys, because they live the American dream."
It's obvious there's a lot to like about rodeo, but steer wrestler Joey Bell has as theory about why so many people like the sport.
"Every kid growing up at one point in their life probably wanted to be a cowboy," he said. "This is just a way for them to go back to their childhood and live a little bit of it through us," he said. An adjunct to the NFR and part of the whole experience is Cowboy Christmas, a humongous gift show a few miles from the arena. If you need a margarita glass rimmed with cattle brands, steer horns to go above your fireplace or cowhide seats for your dining room chairs, you're in luck at this trade fair.
I saw some amazing things, the weirdest of which was the cowpie clock booth. Kristin Murdock, owner of the business, went walking in the Utah desert one day and was intrigued by the dried out cowpies she found there. She started covering them with plastic and putting clocks in them (would that occur to you?) Friends who received them as gifts marveled at them, and thus was a business born. It's not in the best of taste -- you can get plaques on the clocks that say things like, "have a Merry Christmas and a crappy new year" but as Kristin said, "I'm laughing all the way to the bank." They were $20 apiece at Cowboy Christmas, $40 on the Internet.
Then there's Del Johnson, a calf roper who invented "The Lazy Cowboy," billed as being, "Handier than pockets on a shirt." It's a hook that you hang on the saddle and it extends telescopically, so you can pick up your hat, your rope or whatever without dismounting. I love finding stuff like that.
I hope I've convinced you that the WNFR is great. If you ever get a chance to go, do. Or failing that, try to make the show jumping World Cup finals in April at the same venue, with the same style that added real polish to the event's debut at Thomas & Mack in 2000.
Now on a completely different and sad note, I'm sorry to report that Melanie Smith Taylor's 1984 Olympic team gold medal partner, Calypso, died this weekend at the age of 29.
He's had a wonderful 14 years of retirement on the farm where Melanie and her husband, Lee, live in Tennessee. We should all be treated as well as Calypso was when we get old.
Melanie really loved this horse, who also took her to the 1982 World Cup title and many other honors.
She made one last visit to see him after he was gone, she told me.
"I stroked his soft, fuzzy forehead and told him what a important part of my life he had been," she said. "I noticed his ears were forward, no doubt galloping toward that next fence in horse heaven. It made me think of all the special times and jumps I approached looking between those wise little ears."
We'll remember you fondly, Lyps.