Prior to the 2008 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Cody Wright hadn't exactly earned a reputation for performing under pressure.
For most of his six NFR qualifications, he was in contention for the gold buckle at some point during the 10-day rodeo. In fact, last year, a qualified ride in the 10th round would have clinched it, but he missed the horse out, resulting in a no score.
"It came down to the last round last year and I missed that horse out," he said. "It was nobody's fault but mine. It came right down to the last day last year, and I didn't want a knot in my stomach like I did all last year."
So from the outset of 2008, his only motivation was to remove that knot, and the only cure was a gold buckle.
From the get-go, it was obvious that it wouldn't be easy. Five-time world champion Billy Etbauer won the $50,000 jackpot at RodeoHouston and so Wright had an immediate hill to climb.
"It makes you ride a little bit better," he said. "You're way behind. I've always been shooting for a world title, and I just try to ride every horse I could and ride good. I never counted myself out. I just kept trying to ride good and go to the good rodeos and the tour finales. It made it exciting. Chasing Billy, I guess that's what I've been doing my whole career anyway, so it wasn't any different."
His biggest strides were made during Cowboy Christmas. He won $24,288 at Fourth of July rodeos, including big wins at the Greeley (Colo.) Independence Stampede and the St. Paul (Ore.) Rodeo.
By the time the Finals rolled around, Wright passed Etbauer and led him by $5,000.
"With Billy, $5,000 is like a nickel," Wright said. And Etbauer got off to a fast start. "I never expected any different when I got here. I knew he was going to do good. I was just trying to ride every horse and do good. Some of them I didn't ride as good as I wanted to, but I just tried to do better."
After the first round, he passed Wright and appeared destined to win his record-tying sixth world title. Meanwhile, Wright was fading fast. History seemed to be repeating itself when Wright scored a 74.5 on his first-round horse and bucked off his third.
"I guess I kind of started out slow and my first horse wasn't that great," he said. "Billy was just doing what he does all the time and I was just doing what I needed to do."
But then Shawn Davis, general manager of the Wrangler NFR, former saddle bronc riding world champ and Wright's college coach, sat down with the Milford, Utah, cowboy. In the industry, Davis's words aren't to be taken lightly.
"I'd been talking with Shawn Davis and he came down after the second or third round and said, 'Make them take it away from you, don't give it to them.' I knew right then I wasn't riding the way I ought to. I knew it was time to have some fun. You had all these bareback riders, Chad Ferley, they're all hurt and I'm healthy so I was just going to try to do what I did all year. It seemed like things just kind of calmed down a little bit."
Surrounded by family and friends (he's got seven brothers and four children with one on the way) wearing custom-made sweatshirts saying "The Wright Way," Cody's trajectory suddenly changed.
He won the fourth, seventh and ninth go-rounds (clinching the title after the ninth) and placed in two others-going to the lead in the average race. Etbauer, meanwhile, bucked off his last four broncs. Wright also bucked off his final-round bronc, bumping him down to third in the average.
"You get floating too high and, in this game, they stuff your head right back down in the dirt," he said.
But after the rodeo, as his family, media and PRCA officials buzzed around him, he stopped, looked down at the gold buckle he'd been awarded just moments earlier, and in his brief, quiet style, uttered the only thoughts he could to sum up the roller coaster ride.
"Holding this here is definitely a great honor."