2004 NFR

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What a wild week of team roping we just had at the 2004 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Five teams-Speed Williams and Rich Skelton, David Key and Clay O'Brien Cooper, Jake Barnes and Allen Bach, Clay Tryan and Michael Jones, and Steve Purcella and Britt Bockius-duked it out until the last speck of dust settled for the gold buckles.

Speed and Rich came out on top-again-to become the first eight-time world champs this event has ever known. They jumped out and won the first round, then Speed waved it off their second steer, two-looped him and Rich missed. The champs bounced back and won round five, placed in rounds six and eight, and split round nine three ways with a 3.8-second sizzler. They entered round 10 sitting fourth in the average, and even after Rich two-looped that steer in 20.3 seconds miraculously maintained that position.

In the end, Speed edged Clay Tryan by $5,981.37 for the heading title, and Rich rolled by reservist heeler Britt Bockius by $13,380.46. In other words, had things gone slightly differently, we could have had mix-and-match world champs who weren't on the same team.

Clay and Michael Jones handily won the average by a 15.5-second margin, and broke Speed and Rich's 1999 NFR team roping earnings record of $94,109 each with $95,102 a man. Michael barely squeaked into the 2004 Finals, less than $500 ahead of Boogie Ray in the 15th position, and he jumped to fourth in the world 10 days later. He and Clay also erased the existing 3.8-second NFR record with a 3.7-second blur in round seven. All told, they won two rounds and placed in four others. What a week.

Here's a look at how rodeo's $5.1 million, December 3-12 Super Bowl unfolded, round by round, at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. I swooped in for a visit with the champs every night, right after they got off the air from their TV interview. Look for full features on world champs Speed and Rich, and NFR titlists Clay and Michael in the February issue.

Round 1, 12/3/04:

Yes!: Speed Williams on Viper and Rich Skelton on Chili Dog. Does it get any better? Not when they make that trademark run they're so famous for, where Speed spins one as the neck rope pops and Rich closes the deal right around the corner. It's controlled speed at its finest. The first round has historically been money or mud for these two, and tonight was money-$14,778 a man, to be exact. The owners of the last seven straight world titles took the opening-night victory lap with a 4.2-second run.

No!: It made me sick to see our main men, Jake and Clay, exit from the average on opening night. Jake stuck his steer as quick as you can get it on one, but lost his rope. Clay headed his steer after David's horse got a little short and he missed the right horn. The steer took a wild jump to the left right as David turned loose of his heel loop. Bummer. But look out go-rounds.

Winning Words:

"We let it roll tonight, but when I threw my rope I wasn't sure it was going to work," said Speed, who got his main mount Viper over an abscess just in time to bring him here. "We've had a year where we've followed and trailed the leaders. We were $40,000 behind at one time. We've always had the Finals made by Reno. We didn't even have $10,000 won by June this year. I accepted the fact that our eighth gold buckle probably wasn't happening this year when we were in Reno. It's good to get off to a good start here, but I don't want to have to do that 10 times. That was an extreme reach right there."

"We have a lot of confidence when Speed's on Viper," Rich added. "And that was (2004 PRCA/AQHA Heel Horse of the Year) Chili Dog's first run ever at the Finals. It was good to prove to myself that I can win on another horse here (besides his four-time Horse of the Year Roany). Speed reached a ways for that steer, but the steer handled good so I had a good shot at him. I just want to rope two feet every time Speed gives me a good shot and not press and take any stupid shots."

Round 2, 12/4/04:

Yes!: After splitting second in the round last night, Blaine Linaweaver and B.J. Campbell struck again tonight to take the victory lap in 4 flat and grab the early lead in the average. They split second with Tee Woolman and Cory Petska last night, and edged Tee and Cory by half a second tonight. Tee and Cory split second in the round again tonight, this time with Clay Tryan and Michael Jones.

No!: After getting the money last night, it was mud for Speed and Rich tonight. Speed waved off his first loop, then Rich missed. Matt Tyler missed twice tonight, too, so he and Kory Koontz are history in the average. Ditto on Turtle Powell and Monty Joe Petska after both of Turtle's loops ate dirt. Allen roped a leg for Jake and turned loose of his rope. Given all the mishaps in the early going, I hope that lack of a dally doesn't come back to bite them in the end. I debated on whether to file Shain Sproul and Kinney Harrell's run under "high" or "low." Kinney headed the steer after Shain waved off his first loop. But the rimfiring branding shot Shain pulled off to heel that steer was nothing short of spectacular. To help you with a visual on this one, Shain had to turn and ride hard in the opposite direction to get that steer stretched.

Winning Words:

"We had a good steer and I got a good start," said Blaine, who rode his 18-year-old Palomino horse Ole Yeller, aka B.J.'s backup heel horse who tried to buck Blaine off during a run at Belle Fourche over the Fourth this summer. "But with the company we're in at this rodeo you can get beat at any given time. This is what I grew up doing. Short scores are the way it is in Kansas. It's good to be back here, and my horse is awesome for this setup. I won the second round last time I was here (in 2001 with Jory Levy), too, so I guess you could say I like the second round at the Wrangler NFR."

"This is a dream come true for me," said B.J., who rode his 8-year-old roan mare Honey Pot. "I didn't win anything last time I came here (in 2001 with Richard Eiguren). I've had three years with that in my mind, so it was good to change it tonight. If Blaine does what he always does here, it's going to get good."

Round 3, 12/5/04:

Yes!: Jake thrilled me and the rest of the crowd with some rope tricks on the victory lap tonight. After uncharacteristically failing to stop the clock in either of the first two rounds, he and Allen struck with a 5.5-second run on a runner.

No!: I scooted down to the end of media row right before the team roping tonight, to get a better view around a tall camera that was stuck on the fence in front of my face. The guy on the fan side of the gold-buckle seats said to his son, "We should have brought our horses tonight." That might be a stretch, but it did get a little ugly tonight. There were three clean runs, and 7.2 was third. Two teams placed with legs, and Shain and Kinney were sixth with three loops. Three more teams-Trevor Brazile and Wayne Folmer, Travis Tryan and Kirt Jones, and Blaine and B.J. -went out of the average tonight. Trevor waved it off then missed, Travis figure-eighted a front leg and lost his rope, and Blaine stuck another one but lost his rope. I just happened to pack a few Kleenex with me to the perf tonight because it was Memorial Night and my friend June Ivory died the other day. Good thing I had one left when the team roping rolled around.

Winning Words:

"Everybody wants the Cinderella Story-to come out here and win every round," said Jake, who rode his gray bomber Barney, 15. "But that's not realistic. We got off to a slow start, but the champs know how to shake off the failures and come back and win. It was just one of those go-rounds where things get a little ugly, but it was our turn to win."

"It's been tough, even though it's only been two rounds before tonight," added Al, who rode his 11-year-old sorrel horse Hollywood. "It's hard to understand how we could practice so good and start the week with two no-times. But I guess experience makes you suck it up. Jake and I ran a few steers in the rain and cold today. Sometimes you just have to keep on keeping on. I will say this is my 26th NFR and I've never seen it come undone like it did tonight. This is the easiest round I've seen in my life. But this is the toughest bunch of steers to make runs on that I've ever seen. Some people will start panicking now, and these steers aren't going to get easier to rope. I'm not sure the rest of the week is going to be a whole lot better. You've seen the best guys in the world look like fools out here on these steers. If we can get another good one behind us, we'll be off and rolling."Round 4, 12/6/04:

Yes!: They saved the best for last tonight. After going down in the average a couple nights ago, Matt and Kory swooped in and won the round tonight with a snappy 4.5-second run. It was fun to see David and Clay O. strike for their first check of the week after three straight rounds of torture, and Jake and Allen split third in the round with Clay T. and Michael tonight in 4.7. No legs or buildups placed tonight, so that was kind of cool for the crowd and the cowboys.

No!: Travis and Kirt's cold streak continued tonight, when Travis missed twice. Another team, Shain and Kinney, ate it in the average tonight. Shain figure-eighted the nose on the Bodacious of the timed-event end. Only six teams have four steers caught so far. The average is going to get very interesting here this year.

Winning Words:

"The way the steers are here this year there are already several no-times," Matt said. "Having one of those ourselves definitely changed our approach. But we're riding really good horses. If we just make our run we should be fine. We're still (eighth) in the average. I'm riding a horse here who's brand new to me. He's a super horse that belongs to (former NFR steer wrestler) Terry Thompson. (Peppy Doc is sorrel and 9.) He's the horse Jake rode in the match against Speed and Rich in Reno. This horse does things so right and so fast. The score's so short here that if you're on the barrier you aren't reaching. A good start and a strong head horse are big keys here this year."

"These bigger steers in the smaller arena make the conditions tougher," added Kory, who's riding his 10-year-old bay horse Switchblade. (Michael is riding his dun horse Jackyl.) "We just have to stay focused and keep going at 'em every night. I kind of enjoy a bigger target to throw at, if the head horse can hop 'em out of there. It helps now that we're doubling back on the steers and we know them. I felt like coming here we had an excellent chance of winning the average. (Going out of the average on) Our second steer changed our game plan. We have to be more aggressive now. I changed the position I was riding. I didn't want to overhaze and get Matt in a jam on the left fence. But we don't have any choice now. I need to get a really good start, so he can go at 'em."

2004 Wrangler NFR Team Roping Earnings

1. Clay Tryan and Michael Jones, $95,102 a man

2. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton, $70,393

3. Jake Barnes and Allen Bach, $60,779

4. Chad Masters and Dugan Kelly, $59,786

5. Tee Woolman and Cory Petska, $57,760

6. Wade Wheatley and Matt Zancanella, $44,095

7. Steve Purcella and Britt Bockius, $42,903

8. David Key and Clay O'Brien Cooper, $40,400

9. Blaine Linaweaver and B.J. Campbell, $35,514

10. Matt Tyler and Kory Koontz, $27,410

11. Trevor Brazile and Wayne Folmer, $23,120

12. Travis Tryan and Kirt Jones, $17,042

13. Turtle Powell and Monty Joe Petska, $16,923

14. Shain Sproul and Kinney Harrell, $16,208

15. Frank Graves and Brad Culpepper, $12,275

Round 5, 12/7/04:

Yes!: Speed and Rich struck again tonight with a 4.4-second run. Trevor and Wayne got the close-but-no-cigar award-4.2 plus 10. David and Clay placed second for the second night in a row tonight with a 4.5-second run. But after last night's money loop at David's end it was great to see David stick one with authority, like he can.

No!: I was sickened to see what happened to Shain and Kinney tonight. Shain caught his rope mid-swing on the TV camera coming out of the box, pulled up and declared himself. But half a minute into the discussion with the line judges, who were doing their best three-blind-mice impersonation, he realized he was out of options. So he shook out a loop while heading for the other end of the arena, and they got the steer caught. They were 45.1 and are now 13th in the average. If it'd happened at the roughstock end of the arena, they'd have gotten a reride. Hitting a non-stationary item like that pivoting camera should have been a rerun at this end. They are moving the camera back a foot and a half for round six, and he did get an apology from the cameraman. But at this rodeo, "sorry" isn't all that soothing.

Winning Words:

"We had the steer Blaine and B.J. were 4 flat on in the second round tonight," Speed commented. "He was really good. I didn't really go at him like I had the last couple rounds, because the rounds haven't been tough. The steers have been winning the battle. I tried to make sure I took care of my partner to get his confidence back."

"The way I figure it, it's a five-header now," Rich said of the world championship race. "Nobody's really run off with it yet. Whoever ropes the best the last five rounds is going to be the champs. It's almost like nothing's changed in the first five rounds. Everybody's just been trading dollars so far. And somebody's probably going to place in the average on nine. It's hard to figure at this point. Basically, it's a go-round roping now."

Round 6, 12/8/04:

Yes!: Clay and Michael jumped up to third in the average tonight with a flashy 3.9-second round-winner. It's been cool to see Travis and Clay ride in for the grand entry on either side of their mom, barrel racer Terri Kaye Kirkland.

No!: There were three broken barriers tonight, including 10 on Travis and Kirt's 3.6-second run, which would have eclipsed the 3.8-second NFR record. Ouch. After last night's big bummer, Shain and Kinney were 4.2 plus five plus 30. If you're scratching your head about the 30, there's a new NFR ground rule this year that tacks on 30 instead of a no-time for crossfire.

Winning Words:

"I'm riding my wife's (Bobbi) horse and he's been free all week," Clay said. "Ten days here might shorten him up a little, but he frees right back up in one run. My partner's roped awesome. I made a mental mistake last night and missed a good one. I broke a barrier in the third round, too. But this makes our week good. If we can keep it up we can have a huge week. Our plan all along was to stay in the average but stay aggressive. This 3 will help us inch back up there in the average (they're third behind Wade Wheatley and Matt Zancanella, and Chad Masters and Dugan Kelly right now)."

"I'm just lucky to be here," Michael added. "I haven't had the Cinderella year I had last year. I've just been battling it out all year. There's no other place you want to be in December but here."

Round 7, 12/9/04:

Yes!: Clay and Michael struck again tonight, this time with a shiny new 3.7-second NFR record. The 3.8-second mark set in 1995 by Doyle Gellerman and Britt, and matched by Speed and Rich in 1998, Wade and Kyle Lockett, and Frank Graves and Allen in 2002, and Daniel Green and Kory in 2003, was eclipsed by half a blink.Wow. Way cool.

No!: Bullfighter Joe Baumgartner barfs in the trash barrel at the end of the tunnel right before the bull riding every night out here. This is his 13th straight year here, and he told me tonight was the 126th straight perf of ditching his dinner. I felt like joining him after watching the steers go tonight. Chad and Dugan, and Matt and Kory's steers stopped. Some of the others were complete and total hogs to handle. When contender types like Speed and Frank can't get one handled, something is terribly wrong. I doubt I'm alone in wanting to watch a roping contest as opposed to a drawing contest. The term "eliminators" is supposed to be reserved for the roughies. The black steer Jake and Allen ran tonight is now three-for-three in taking top teams out of the average. And that pen of steers is due out on Sunday, when all the chips will be on the table and the TV cameras will be rolling live.

On an even sadder note, I ran into Monty Joe Petska in the hall before the rodeo tonight. I was sorry to hear that his dad, Joe Paul, died Sunday. So Monty Joe lost his dad and Cory lost his grandpa right before round three. Joe Paul did get to watch the first couple rounds on TV, and he did get to talk to his loved ones by phone Sunday morning. Forty-five minutes after he spoke to Monty Joe for the last time, he died, right in the middle of the round of "Amazing Grace" he requested the nurses to sing. Monty Joe will leave his horses here this coming Sunday, and fly back to Carlsbad, N.M., for his dad's final farewell. Joe Paul Petska was 80 years old. What a legacy he leaves behind.

Winning Words:

"This steer handled faster than our steer last night," Clay said. "Everything happened so fast. After you nod your head it's all reaction after that. This is awesome. We work all year to get here. To have the record is pretty cool. This year I feel like I'm finally doing what I can do out here. I'm pumped. This is great, especially being 3 two nights in a row. We're on a roll. I just want to ride it out as much as we can."

"That steer was supposed to try to the right a little," Michael added. "Clay did an outstanding job and exposed himself a little bit. The steer was fast enough to be snappy on. If there's a place you want to have a record it's the NFR, with guys like Jake and Clay, and Speed and Rich. I'm riding a great horse. Jackyl is outstanding. He's given me good throw after good throw after good throw. It's all about the header here. He has to get out and get it on 'em fast. Clay's been amazing."

Jack Daniel's Year-End Team Roping World Standings

Headers:
1.
Speed Williams, $150,427

2. Clay Tryan, $144,445

3. Steve Purcella, $137,441

4. David Key, $136,136

5. Jake Barnes, $134,685

6. Tee Woolman, $110,637

7. Frank Graves, $108,264

8. Chad Masters, $104,720

9. Blaine Linaweaver, $94,568

10. Wade Wheatley, $93,141

11. Shain Sproul, $79,766

12. Matt Tyler, $76,803

13. Turtle Powell, $72,993

14. Trevor Brazile, $65,989

15. Travis Tryan, $64,399

Heelers:

1. Rich Skelton, $150,426

2. Britt Bockius, $137,046

3. Allen Bach, $136,976

4. Michael Jones, $136,725

5. Clay O'Brien Cooper, $136,136

6. Brad Culpepper, $108,264

7. Dugan Kelly, $108,245

8. Cory Petska, $105,011

9. B.J. Campbell, $91,660

10. Matt Zancanella, $91,452

11. Kinney Harrell, $82,038

12. Kory Koontz, $78,629

13. Monty Joe Petska, $72,993

14. Wayne Folmer, $65,196

15. Kirt Jones, $60,427

Round 8, 12/10/04:

Yes!: Tryan and Jones struck again tonight, only it was the other Tryan and Jones. Travis and Kirt had a torturous week until last night, when they slid in there for fifth. They were 4 flat tonight, to share the victory lap with David and Clay. How Clay managed to dig that down-in-the-back steer out of the dirt I will never know. Only Clay O. That other Tryan and Jones team placed sixth tonight with a 4.5-second run and took command of the average by a little over eight seconds. Those two have won almost $50,000 here this week. They're sixth in the world, and making more of a move every night.

No!: I always enjoy watching Jim Wheatley watch the team roping here at the Finals when Wade's roping. He sits straight over the headers' left shoulder, and he loves it. I felt his pain tonight, when Wade missed twice and slipped from a commanding lead in the average to fourth. Frank missed twice tonight, too, so there are now only three teams left who've roped every steer.

Winning Words:

"Wow. That's all you can say about a run like that," David smiled. "All I can say is my partner is awesome and Hallelujah. Thank you, Lord. We had heck on our first three steers, but after the third round I got in a groove and started doing what I wanted to do. It took me a couple steers to get in a groove with the Yellow horse. (He got on Yellow, 8, after roping the first one on his sorrel horse, P.D.) He was a greenhorn when I cracked him out this fall, but it seems like I've won on him everywhere. P.D. got quick on our very first steer and I lost my rope. I knew the palomino horse wouldn't get quick on me. He's getting better and calmer in the box as the week goes on. I have confidence in him now."

"Wow. (Apparently, great minds think alike.) This was just such a tough round and we were last," Clay chimed in. "We just had to bow up and do something fast. I threw my rope and saw him go down, and all of a sudden he was in it. I floated my horse's (Scout's sorrel and 10) teeth, fell back and started whooping and hollering."

"It was a big relief to finally win a substantial amount of money," said Travis, who's riding his bay bomber Walt, 14. It was just a matter of putting together a run without mistakes, and it finally came together tonight. Most of the week's been kind of a nightmare, but we got on the same page tonight."

"By the sixth round I figured the haze out and started bringing the steers to my partner, and here we are," said Kirt, who's riding his 11-year-old palomino horse Charlie here this week. "Early on, I thought these stronger steers would handle better in the middle of the arena. I was wrong. Hazing them over there really helps. Travis' horse gets those steers switched over into their left lead, and smooths out the corner for me. I don't have to read the corner as much when they fall to the left, because I'm just following them."

Round 9, 12/11/04:

Yes!: The team roping victory lap looked like a parade tonight, and before a couple nights ago, the three 3.8s we saw tonight would have tied the NFR record. Speed and Rich, Chad and Dugan, and Tee and Cory circled the wagons under the spotlight this go-round. If you're wondering why Speed and Rich keep coming out king, tonight was just another example of how they never say die.

No!: Regular-season leaders Frank and Brad can't buy a break around here this week. They've managed two miserable sixth-place checks, and those were in the rounds where legs placed. They've won $4,767, and are the only team in jeopardy of cashing a supplemental check from the PRCA if things don't turn around tomorrow. The PRCA guarantees every qualifier a minimum of the equivalent of fourth-place cash, which is $6,197. If you don't win that much, they make up the difference.

Winning Words:

"We'll just have to see how it plays out tomorrow," Speed said. "It's darn sure getting interesting. The average plays into it big time, but I don't want to be forced to win the day money tomorrow to win the title. I'd rather let it roll now and let it roll twice than that. A man can draw his way out of the world title tomorrow. There are stoppers and wild handlers in there, and somebody has to rope them. I like our odds a lot better than I did yesterday, but just to have a shot tomorrow after the year we've had is a great feeling. The way I see it, five of us-Jake, Steve, David, Clay Tryan and I-still have a chance."

"That was one tough round," Rich said. "We all have to rope tomorrow and see how it all comes out. If we can maintain our spot in the average (they're fourth now), we'll have a good shot. You get nervous before you rope out here, but when you're roping there's no time to be nervous. It's more a reaction than anything."

"The only other NFR round I've ever won was the 10th round last year (with Michael Jones), and we split it three ways, too," noted Chad, who's riding his gray horse Handsome, 13. "This is the fastest I've ever been. I was 3.9 in Gladewater, Texas one time, but this is my first 3 here. The week started out just OK. We were only winning because the rounds were easy. That's the first run we felt like we really made."

"I'm just happy to finally catch one by two feet," chuckled Dugan, who's riding a 5-year-old mare, Bitty. "This is only my third two-footer of the week. This is the first time I've ever been 3. I was like, 'Please don't get me.' You can't celebrate 'til it's over here, because anybody can beat you and everybody's trying to beat you."

"The last time I was 3 was when I set the world record," said Tee, who's riding Larry Irvin's Blue, 11, in reference to the 3.7-second record he and Bobby Harris set in 1986 in Spanish Fork, Utah, which was matched by Speed and Rich in San Angelo in 2001, and broken at San Angelo that same year by Blaine and Jory Levy. "Our week has just been so-so. We haven't had the worst ones, but we haven't had the best ones, either. We had an exceptional steer tonight, and we didn't have much to lose."

"I've never been 3 before," added Cory, who's riding Uncle Monty Joe's horse Frank, 15, here this week. "We had a really good steer, Tee got it on him fast and I took a swing over him. I was surprised we were 3."

Round 10, 12/12/04:

Yes!: Great to see Jake and Allen, and Chad and Dugan end the week on a high note. Impressive to see Clay and Michael split third in the round when they had a commanding 10.3-second lead in the average coming into today. Clay climbed from 11th in the world coming in to the reserve championship, and Michael moved up to fourth after barely sliding in in the 15th hole.

No!: I love all these guys, so while I'm happy for the winners I hate to see anyone lose. Travis and Kirt had today's only no-time. Kirt missed, and with no shot at the average chips he didn't bother to rebuild. David and Clay had the world lead coming into today, but David had to rebuild. Britt roped a leg today to place in the round. He's the

reserve world champ heeler, and Cheese finished third behind Speed and Clay T. I about lost my lunch when Rich missed that steer and had to rebuild. What a barn-burning nail-biter this race was. Only three teams managed to catch all 10 steers here this year, and Tee and Cory were third with 147 flat on 10. I'm guessing 30 volunteer steer screeners will step forward before next year's NFR.

Winning Words:

"Winning this round has me leaving here pumped," Jake said. "My last three steers had been placed on, so I felt like I had a chance when I backed in there. I wish we'd have broken the 4-second barrier, but overall-other than losing my rope on our first steer-I was really happy with my performance."

"It is special to be able to go out with a bang," Allen said. "This may be the last steer I ever rope here. If it is, that'd be a great way to go out. I hate to use the word 'retirement.' All the young guys are telling me I can't retire. But I'll be roping with (his sons) Joel and Tyler this next year; not Jake or Tee. I may go to a few of the bigger ropings and rodeos, but otherwise I'll be laying low."

"I love the ninth and 10th rounds," Chad said. "They've been really good to me. Last year (in 2003, roping with Michael), I won second in the ninth round and split round 10. This year, we split both rounds. I guess I just relax by the end of the week."

"It feels good to head home with a win," Dugan added. "We sure finished the week better than it started. Now that things have turned around I wish there were 10 more rounds."