Chad Masters and Clay O'Brien Cooper are 2012 NFR Average Champions

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According to the big dogs, winning the 10-steer average at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is a feat second only to winning the world.

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"That is definitely true," said Chad Masters, the heading half of the top 2012 NFR team roping tandem. "It's the biggest rodeo we go to, and it's something you look forward to getting to practice for. It's the funnest practice you'll ever have. The fun doesn't wear off of practicing for the NFR for me."

Masters and Clay O'Brien Cooper were the only team at the $6.125 million 2012 NFR to stop the clock 10 times. They roped 10 steers in 73.4 seconds. To take it round by round, their 5.1-second run placed fourth in round one; they were 9.6 in round two (including a leg); 14.7 in round three (including a barrier); 4.9 in round four (they placed third); 4.9 in round five (split fifth and sixth); 4.7 in round six; 6.2 in round seven; 5.3 in round eight (fifth); 12.8 in round nine (leg); and 5.2 in round 10 (fifth). Subtract those 20 seconds in penalties, and their 53.4 on 10 would have erased the 59.1-second 10-steer record set at the 1994 NFR by Clay and his fellow seven-time World Champion Team Roper and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jake Barnes.

"That's always a goal going there?to get the record on 10," Chad said. "Clay roped a leg (in 1994), so that means Jake Barnes turned 10 steers in an average of 5.4 seconds. That's a big challenge in its own, trying to turn 10 steers under 5.4. That's hard to do. Any one little thing and Clay wins it (the world). Me not breaking the barrier; the two legs; me handling the ninth one better. We were really close to placing in a lot of rounds, and didn't."

It was Chad's second NFR average title. He also won the Finals in 2006, the year he helped Allen Bach win the world but just missed his first world championship before closing the gold buckle deal in 2007. Clay's won the Finals four times now. He and Jake won it the same year as their first world title, in 1985, and again in their last world title season, in 1994. They struck again in 2007?when Chad won his first (and last until now) world championship.

The gold-buckle margins in 2012 were so minimal they deserve immediate mention. Chad edged 2012 World Champion Heeler Jade Corkill's partner, Kaleb Driggers, by a mere $1,211, and Jade won just $1,131 more than Clay over the course of the entire 2012 season.

"I won the average and the world, so no one wants to hear me complain," Chad said. "But there were lots of mistakes I made that would have made the difference for Clay. I had a goal to go catch all my steers, and did that. Everybody goes there to do that, but so many things happen that you're not really in control of, even when your goal is to go catch 10 steers.

"The ninth round is a perfect example. My goal was to catch that steer, we had a great opportunity in an easy round, we had a great steer, I missed the barrier, and before you know it, I've missed my slack and about missed my dally. If there was one run I'd like to change it'd be the barrier on that one. As bad as I wanted Clay to win, all the stuff that had to happen for things to turn out like they did proves it's just how it was supposed to be."

Chad knows all about the short end of the stick in a tight race. Let's not forget that he watched his partner, Allen, get the gold in 2006, and showed complete grace when Matt Sherwood took center stage on the heading side, after slipping past Chad by $848. Chad's been oh so close more than once in the last few years, and was sincere in his happiness for those who pushed past him to the ultimate podium.

"As happy as I am for Jade and as bad as I feel for Clay and Kaleb, it is nice to have won it this time," said Masters, 31, of Cedar Hill, Tenn. "I've had a chance on the last one a few times in recent years and it didn't go my way. So it's nice for it to go the other way. Several other guys headed to win the world. I'd have been happy for any of them if they'd won it, because they roped really good. I didn't do anything spectacular. I just caught all my steers. Things just went my way this time."

If you're going into a 10-steer war, there's no more consistent warrior to have on your side than Clay Cooper. "You know going into it that as long as you worry about yourself and do your job, Clay's going to give you a chance to win the average," Chad said. "He's one of the greatest catchers ever alive. He knows where he's going to catch from. It's just instinct for Clay to catch.

"Everyone wants to win the average. My goal was to come here and give Clay Cooper a chance to win a gold buckle. It's weird to be sitting here, because without Clay I wouldn't have this one. Clay was the first one to shake my hand. The only thing he was worried about when we rode out of the arena was whether or not I won it."

Chad is 20 years Clay's junior, and talks to and about Champ with sincere respect. Chad roped at his first of nine NFRs in 2003, and says, "It was such a huge deal to get to rope at the same NFR as Clay. I think the world of Clay. Words aren't enough when people ask me what it's like to rope with Clay Cooper. His attitude toward life and everyone he meets?he's so nice. He won't say a bad word about anybody, no matter what. Anything bad or negative is not coming out of his mouth. You can't tell in the arena, on the way to the truck and trailer, or in the truck and trailer if he just won or lost."

Chad's cheering section always includes his dad and stepmom, Bob and Randee Masters; his mom and stepdad, and Debbie and Fred Head; his girlfriend (and Jade's little sister), Bailey; and the entire Masters and Corkill clans. Clay's cheerleaders include his wife, Alisa, and their daughters, Bailey, Quinn and Jessica. With his gamer girls by his side, Champ has, at 51, taken up snow skiing since the NFR.

"I've been skiing, and it is so much fun," said Clay, who now calls Gardnerville, Nev., home. "It's 40 minutes from my house to getting on that chairlift in Heavenly Valley. I started with a three-hour lesson, and learned how to turn and stop. It is so much fun. It's so beautiful up there. They named it right. Heavenly Valley is what I think Heaven is going to look like, and it's so accessible for me."

Chad started the 2012 season heading for Jake Long. Clay kicked off his 2012 campaign with Charly Crawford. Chad and Clay first joined forces at the spring rodeo in Pocatello, Idaho. The head horse plays a huge hand in the success of any team, and it's somewhat ironic the way this story played out, in part because Corkill's the one who brought the black horse into the picture. Jade bought Warthog from Britt Williams, and let Chad ride him at the 2011 NFR. Chad loaded him up at that week's end, and rode him at all but about 10 rodeos in 2012, including every round at this NFR.

"He's hard to beat when it comes to riding one at every setup," Chad said. "I don't know that I'd have won the NFR without him. I dang sure wouldn't have had a chance to win a world title. I felt really focused and confident in my horse this time. It was only between me and the steer. The crowd and nerves weren't involved as much."

When they set sail for what was Clay's 26th NFR, which ties him for second on the all-time team roping NFR qualifications list with Tee Woolman?second only behind Allen Bach at 30?Clay had a clear plan.

"I was thinking that if a guy could win the average and place four, five, six times, you'd have a good chance to win it (the world?and they did place in five rounds along the way to the NFR win)," Clay said. "And at the very last you'd have a good week. Everybody who goes to the Finals is looking to win some good money for the week, so you've got to be able to put together at least seven or eight good runs. You can either go wide-open fast and try to win it that way, or you can try to make as good a run as you can make without messing up, place in the easy rounds and then be there to win first or second in the average when it's over."

Clay noticed early on that his mindset seemed to be a minority among game plans. "It looked like everybody but us, and Keven (Daniel) and Chase (Tryan, who finished second in the average with 65.2 on nine steers?Keven missed their ninth steer) were going wide open," Clay said. "I was surprised they missed a steer, because it looked like Keven was trying to rope the same kind of roping as Chad. But even going at it that way, things can happen along the way that aren't foreseeable. I didn't really know what Chad's thinking was going in. I just figured I would adapt to whatever he wanted to do. Wherever he decided to turn them, I was going to try to heel every steer.

"A lot of teams were going at 'em so strong that the odds of getting through 10 of them coming over the chute every single time are against you. But there are different ways to go about it. Just like Erich (Rogers) and Kory (Koontz, the winningest team at the Finals?they won the third round, and placed in six others). They went at 'em strong every night and won third in the average (with 46.4 on eight for a $91,875 per man week). They did a lot of winning and put together a lot of money. The average ended up wide open, so that turned out to be a pretty good strategy."

Clay played wide receiver for Chad and Warthog aboard LB, the little bay horse he recently bought from Kory. "I was a little bit concerned about LB, just from the standpoint that I hadn't ridden him a lot yet in competition, which is different than practicing on one," he said. "When we got in there to rope the steers (the team ropers run the steers in the Thomas & Mack Center a couple days before the rodeo starts), LB showed me what he was wanting to do and where he was wanting to go. It gave me an idea of how to ride him.

"Once I started riding him like that, from the first steer I was OK and comfortable with him. He was very consistent all week, and he was easy to ride. I was proud of him. I thought he did a good job, and I got more confidence on him as the week went on. My concerns going in went away. As a result, I've got a lot more confidence in him now than I did going in."

Like Chad, Clay praised Warthog for being a pivotal part of their team all year long. "Chad has a couple horses he thought he could be faster on at the Finals, but he knew what the black was going to do," Clay said. "We just roped steer after steer. After the fifth or sixth round, he came to me and asked if I wanted him to switch horses. I told him it was his decision to make?that I didn't care what he did. I was going to try to heel them wherever he turned them. He said, ?Thanks a lot.' I told him to go with his gut, and that I didn't think we needed to panic about the rounds. We were trying to make a 4.4- to 4.5-second run doing what we were doing, and kept being just a little longer than that, just because we weren't getting very good finishes.

"As a result, we just couldn't get it to 4.4 or 4.5. We kept talking about it and telling each other to go make that run, place in the round if we could and stay in the average. We didn't want to panic unless we really felt we needed to there at the end. We scratched and clawed our way all the way to the last one."

Regular-season leaders Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith, who had a $50,649 per man Finals and finished third in the world, were right in the middle of the race start to finish.

"After the sixth round, every night I expected Trevor and Patrick to blitz one," Clay said. "They're so great at their run and their run is 3.8. For some reason, it stopped working for them. We just kept doing what we were doing. Chad's projected average money was going to put him over the top. We still kept thinking if we could be 4.4 or 4.5 that was going to place somewhere along the line. And that strategy worked. It worked out perfectly for Chad, and we never really had to expose ourselves. We utilized that head horse, and he worked outstanding all week long. We stayed with our game plan and the strategy worked."

I saw and heard Clay's reaction to the news that Chad and Jade won the world by a photo-finish margin with my own eyes and ears. Right there in that tunnel, after stepping outside the arena gate from getting their average saddles and buckles and without pause, he said, "That's awesome!"

"The way it all worked out was the way it was supposed to be?it was perfect," Clay said. "The guy who headed the best was Chad, and he won. The guy who heeled the best was Jade, and he won. That's exactly how it's supposed to work out. I thought it was awesome. I was really happy for Chad, because winning the championship was something he really wanted to do.

"During Ellensburg and Walla Walla (Wash.) weekend, we had a decision to make about going to Filer (Idaho). It was going to be all day down there and all night back, and we were up the next morning back at Ellensburg. We were up in the first perf at Filer, which was not a good run on the cattle, and I didn't really want to go. So I left it up to Chad. I told him I'd do whatever he wanted to do. He said, ?I don't want to go either, but this is one of my only chances to rope with the Champ and to win the championship.

"Right then, I knew he was all-in 'til the bitter end to give himself?and me, too?the all-in effort to try and get the job done. So I said, ?OK, I'm in.' We went down there and placed, won a couple thousand, and that was more than the margin that got him over the top?making that one decision. It also told me what it all meant to him. Chad wanted to win it, and he wanted to win it with me. So when he won it, it was the greatest gift for me to be a part of it. I'll always cherish that."

My son Lane pointed out an interesting thought that struck him deja-vu style when the dust settled on the 2012 race. Clay just missing what looked to be his eighth gold buckle reminded him of the 2005 NFR, when it looked like Jake had a lock on his eighth world championship, roping with Kory. Against every odd in the book, Jake cut his thumb off in the heat of world championship battle. It was heart-breaking and bizarre, and only explainable to most of us by the hands of fate. For whatever reason, it just wasn't meant to be.

"Chad and I had a pretty special year," Clay said philosophically. "We did not start out good. I was struggling terribly. We finally we got to clicking over the Fourth, then we were like a steamroller fighting our way all the way to the end. The last mountain to climb was to try to win more than Trevor and Patrick. They made the best runs all year long, and made believers out of everybody.

"To Chad and my credit, after we got the ball rolling our catch-rate percentage as a team was extremely high. We placed a lot, did good at the right places and somehow or another we got 'er done for Mr. Chad. On the other side of it was Jade. Everybody who's rodeoed the last several years understands what a special talent he is, and that winning a championship was all but inevitable?with more to come. Chad and I buddied with Kaleb and Jade all year long, so we were two teams against the whole world. It was our tandem against the rest of the field, and we pulled for one another all year long."

Leo Camarillo, who's won the NFR team roping average six times, owns that record. He's followed by Tee Woolman at five, and now a four-way tie between Clay, Jim Rodriguez Jr., David Motes and Leo's cousin Reg with four NFR average championships apiece.

"Like my hero Leo says, the NFR is the best of the best, it's a 10-head contest and they give away the biggest check to the guy who wins the average," Clay said. "They call you the NFR champion, and they give you a saddle and a buckle. Only the average champs and the world champions get those things. I grew up that it was a big deal to win the National Finals. It means you beat the best of the best on 10 steers.

"I've gone into every NFR wanting to win the average. That's the first goal out of the box and it's not easy to do. A lot of things can happen. If you go out on one steer, you're toast and your whole game plan changes. In the end, even going in with a lead, no average money is what happened to Trevor and Patrick. The average is always part of the equation if you're going for the championship. That's the easy money. It's easier than trying to be 3.7. The average is always in play."

Trevor and Patrick roped such a memorable 2012 season, including the mega-wins in Salinas (Calif.) and Cheyenne (Wyo.). "Those guys are special as a team and as individuals, obviously," Clay said. "I really respect the fact that they've stuck together through tough times and good times. They work hard at it?as hard as anybody in the game. As a team?and it is team roping?they have the best run in my book. They can go win Salinas and Cheyenne in one week, then turn around and be 3 four or five times in a row and rack up about $30,000 in about 10 days.

"Their run is the best run right now, and it's a result of their hard work. They've figured out what they want to do in their run, and they can do it over and over again. Look out, because they will be back and they will be right back at the top, ready to blast off and get another championship. The week (at the Finals) just didn't go their way, and that can happen to anybody, as they well know. They've experienced both extremes at that rodeo. But they aren't going away. I still think they're the best team out there. I'm excited to see what Chad and Jade will do with Chad on this black horse, because that could be really special. Those two teams will be fun to watch in 2013. I would bet a lot of money on those two teams being a good race to watch."

Clay is ringing in the new year with Justin Davis from Madisonville, Texas. "He's been down there rodeoing for a while," Clay said. "He's a young guy who's built like an athlete. He's strong, he rides his horse good, likes to score and get a lot of run out of his horse, and has a real sharp, tight loop. He makes things happen fast. He's going to be a really good partner, and he's got some good horses. He's never really gone out there and said, ?I'm going to make it,' but he's been out there enough that he knows the deal and it's not new to him. He's a great kid. I've known him awhile and he's got the best attitude."

No one out-attitudes Champ. And one of the coolest things about the true legends in any game is that they have the rare confidence it takes to sincerely applaud whomever deserves something most?even when it's not them. May the best man win. They live that.

"In today's game, there are just a few guys who really just go all out, 9-0, 100 percent to try and achieve what they're after," Clay said. "At all levels of the game in every area, Chad's the ultimate professional. He's non-stop trying to get better at every part of it?horses, technique, practice, you name it. As the winter ended and the spring started, I had a decision to make. I figured if I could somehow rope with that guy?a guy like that takes you where you want to go. He had the horse equation figured out.

"Chad and that black horse were a special combination this year (2012). They were wow, and that's what it takes. It takes a guy who's a fanatic about what he does. Then put a great horse under him and watch the fireworks, because something's about to happen."

No one could blame Clay or Kaleb for any disappointments they might have felt that last night at the Finals, when the news came down that tunnel that they basically lost the year-long battle that might as well have been decided by a coin toss.

"I'm kind of glad that I'm not eaten up with it and really bummed," Clay said. "If I was then my priorities are wrong. I'm truly happy for those kids. I had the best time rodeoing with them this year. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know them and rodeo with them and to have a successful year. They all encouraged me all year long. I have a lot of friends out there who are young guys. I enjoy bragging on them and telling them how good they are. They're talented kids with dreams and goals, just like I had when I was young. Not very many 50-something guys get to go back and live things like when I was a young man.

"Being part of Chad and Jade's success makes me feel better than if I'd won it. I'm OK not having eight. I'm perfectly fine with Rich Skelton being the all-time best heeler until somebody comes and gets him. Because in my book, he's the greatest. I love the way he ropes, and I totally admire him as a person. I have a good time every time I'm around him.

"All I can do is the best I can do and enjoy what I'm doing. I'm having a ball. It's all good for me. What I feel like is that I should be grateful just to have the opportunity to do what I've done. I don't want to be a person wishing for what I don't have. I want to be totally thankful to my God for being healthy, having a great family and friends, and getting to do what I love to do. Gold buckles are great, but they aren't the No. 1 meaning of life. Being content with what we have is where fun and peace are. That's where enjoyment of life is. People who are eaten up with the stuff they don't have aren't happy people."