Ready for the big show
December 5, 2014
If a cowboy can skip past even a few rookie mistakes at the Wrangler National Finals, they may just be in for a heck of a 10-day freshman ride in Las Vegas.
Shay Carroll, a 23-year-old heeler from La Junta, Colo., hopes to do just that this December with the help of his 36-year-old roping partner, Charly Crawford.
"I'm so fortunate to get to rope with Charly," Carroll said Dec. 4, hours before the first round performance of the 10-day rodeo championship. "For a rookie going out there, there are so many things I don't know. If I were roping with another rookie, to think of all the mistakes we might make… well, it's a long learning curve. I'm just lucky that I got to skip some of that learning curve because he's been there."
Indeed, the Prineville, Ore., heading veteran has been to the big show seven times before he and Carroll clinched their spot together in 2014. Crawford was in his junior heeler's shoes once, too – the 1998 Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association Rookie of the Year, however, took six years to make the jump from that coveted first-year award to his string of trips to Las Vegas.
The path to Vegas
Wheatland, Wyo., steer wrestler Seth Brockman paid similar dues.
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The 2005 Resistol Rookie of the Year worked six years after his freshman season to qualify for his first WNFR in 2011. 2014 was his time to turn it on and shine again. He came into Las Vegas placed 14th in a season kick-started with a big final round and average win in Fort Worth this February. A couple western wins followed in Spanish Fork, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho, but coasted through mid-summer without making big waves. "So I had to get caught back up at the end of the season – I didn't really have much of a choice if I wanted to be here," he said.
Two checks in Omaha in late September pushed Brockman over the edge and into the qualifying category.
"The biggest deal, to me, this year is just to get back here again," Brockman said. "Getting here once doesn't mean that you get an invitation again. I've been anxious for a long time, since 2011, to get back here."
For Carroll and Crawford, the turning point in their season that pointed them to Las Vegas came in early August, when they clinched the final round win in Dodge City, Kan., and grabbed second in the average.
"That's when we got in the top 16. At that point, we knew, we actually have a chance to make the finals. Then things started rolling our way," Carroll said. They went on to win in Hermiston, Ore., and Ellensburg, Wash., this fall, plus picking up checks at four more in a hot string of wins.
"Those were six big wins to put us on our way here," he said.
Readying for a championship
They may have changed their tune as the grand entry of the first round got closer, but that afternoon, both Carroll and Brockman said it was business as usual.
"Just because it pays $60,000 doesn't mean I need to be any more tired or take any more naps," Brockman laughed. "Just keep things normal. It's a typical rodeo – get here early, then hurry up and wait. So I'm just trying to not make too much of a big deal of out it. I'm just looking forward to running that first one tonight."
The Wheatland cowboy will be sliding off of his traveling partner, Wade Sumpter's horse "Two Guns" at the WNFR. He's spent the last three weeks with daily workouts with his buddy and Two Guns.
"He'll be a big part of what I do this week," Brockman said, giving the 2013 PRCA/AQHA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year a nod. "I just got along good with him, and have since the first time I got on him. His track record speaks for him – horse of the year – so you really don't need to say much more about him."
While Brockman focuses on his riding partner, Carroll is focused on absorbing all the advice his roping partner has to offer. They've been working with their horses intensely over the past two months to prepare, Carroll said, with Crawford leading the charge.
"It's really been great – as a first-time competitor myself, Charly's been there, done that – so he's really quarterbacked the team," Carroll said. "One thing I've learned from him is, we just want to make our run."
A typical rookie mistake, he said, is practicing too fast.
"Instead of trying to be a 3, 4 second run, we practice for a five flat. We've tried to figure out how to make a run and catch in every scenario," he said. "Then, if we can do it faster, we have that confidence. But we want to at least be a 4.9, 5 flat, every single time, be consistent, and make some money."
Riding on hometown support
With ranching and rodeo roots in their rural hometowns, each in the southeastern corner of their respective states, Brockman and Carroll each said they enjoy great local support and cheering section at home in in Vegas. That means a lot when they look to go into the biggest rodeo of the year.
"My family is so supportive – they've been supportive since I was super little, so I'm just grateful that they're here for me," Carroll said.
With family and friends around him, Brockman said his NFR experience has extra buoyancy with the support of his entire home state, too. Wyoming Tourism sponsors their local cowboys, and hosts events and supports their efforts along the way. An added bonus is the local support of the Johnson family's Scissors Ranch in his hometown.
"It's pretty neat to have your home state and a ranch from your hometown that is generous enough to believe in you, to help you out. That really means a lot," Brockman said.
With that, he said, he's going about business as usual in the final hours before the first performance.
"No routines, rituals … you just work at it all year to get here. Since I've been here before, I'm just ready for it to get started. That year just gave me a taste of it the first time, and I'm ready to get back," he said. "All I want to do is my best to throw 'em all down fast … and the rest should play out."
For Carroll, his focus will remain on the common goals of his roping partnership and staying the course they've prepared for the next ten days.
"We've agreed – we want to work extremely hard, but at the end of the day, roping doesn't define us," he said. "Whether we or lose, we have to figure out how to enjoy life outside the arena and just have fun with it."