The Greenhorn and the Old Hand

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Team roping champions Kaleb Driggers and Brad Culpepper will definitely echo those sentiments. Not only did they win the short round with a 4.2-second run, they came out of San Antonio $16,593 richer-and they missed as many steers as they caught. How is that possible?

San Antonio-unwilling to rest on its laurels-is constantly tweaking things to improve their product for the fans. The 2009 rodeo marked a significant change in format. This year, they divided the contestants into five brackets, 12 contestants in each. Contestants were able to compete in back-to-back-to-back performances. Then, the top money earners advance to two semifinal rounds. Additionally, there is a consolation bracket. The finals then hosts contestants with the most money won and awards the championship to the cowboy who wins the most money. The short-round winner is almost guaranteed that prize because the payoff in the short round was $12,495. This approach, they feel, gives their fans a winner to cheer for each night and spreads the wealth among the contestants.

So, then, here's how the Driggers and Culpepper journey went down.

In the first round, they set an arena record of 4.0 seconds and won the round, earning $2,074. In rounds two and three, they turned in no times. However, their money won total advanced them to the semifinal round. There, they missed again. However, they still had enough money relative to the rest of the competition to qualify for the wild card round. The fact they were able to advance as far as they did on one round win is due to the ultra-competitive nature of team roping. So many people won some money, that very few teams could amass more than $2,000 heading into the semi-final round.
So, the Georgia cowboys stayed alive. In the wild card, or consolation round, they came out on top with a 5.1-second run and added another $2,074. They actually entered the final round tied for the fourth-high call based on money won. At that point, they had actually missed more steers than they caught.

"After we set the arena record, I missed the next two steers," Driggers said. "We skimmed in, then I missed in the semifinals. It wasn't looking the best, but it turned out great."

The real credit for that success in this format is due to Culpepper. As a veteran, he understood the strengths of his team and the format of the roping, so he advised his rookie header accordingly.

"On our first one here, we were 4.0 and Kaleb wanted to safety-up and rope like all the other guys," he said.

"I kind of got him talked back into believing in himself and coming with it at the line and that's what he does. That's his lick."

Culpepper realized that after winning a round, it was worth the risk to keep his header roping in his game. Often, when a roper tries to change his style, he won't have the success he's accustomed to and begins to struggle mentally.

"I kind of thought it had to do with knocking them down to get back to the final round, but he told me to go ahead and speed it up a little bit," Driggers admitted.
Traditionally, headers quarterback the run, determine strategy and set the pace. For Culpepper to take over those roles would be like Hines Ward calling the plays for Ben Roethlisberger. But it worked. The veteran kept the team alive.

"He knows where to go and when and how fast we need to go," Driggers said. "He just helps me with my roping and everything."

In the final round, the strategy became more obvious. The championship team would be determined by most money won, and with $12,445 for first, and $9,333 for second the fastest time was all but guaranteed the win.

After the first seven teams, a 4.9 from Shane Philipp and Arky Rogers was winning it. The steers were uneven-some of them checking off-and a couple broken barriers and no times left the field wide open.

"The very same steer we had tonight, I missed him in the semifinals. I tried to safety up and back off the barrier a little bit and he went off to the left and I hit him in the back of the head," Driggers said of their first attempt at the red steer. "So I took a little more aggressive start tonight and when I roped him he actually checked off, but I had roped him good."

When the steer stopped, it looked as if it might throw the whole run off kilter, but Culpepper was unfazed and drew a flag in 4.2 seconds.

"Kaleb got it on that one tonight probably faster than he got it on the first one and he got in on faster last night than he did the first night," he said. "The steers were checking off tonight so I was just happy to catch two feet. He's so fast that it makes my job easy. If I can just be the anchor and make sure I catch every time-I can't catch every time-but I like him to go fast, I don't want him to back off any."

The rest of the field couldn't come close. Nick Sartain and Kollin Von Ahn were 5.1, as were Luke Brown and Ryan Motes, to tie for the third spot.

"It feels awesome," Culpepper said. "Nobody's happier to win this rodeo than me, I promise you. It makes me feel like we can go rodeo all year and try to make the Finals. With us, from the Southeast, we have to get off to a good start and keep going, or if we don't, we just need to go home and rodeo in the Southeast. This was a good start. We've got $20,000 won-a little bit more-so we'll be up there near the lead, so I think we can do good."

But he must have had the feeling going into the 2009 season. He and Driggers won the 2008 International ProRodeo Association year-end and Finals titles. Not only that, they won the Professional Cowboys Association-a Southeast rodeo organization-year-end crown.

"Kaleb's pretty awesome," Culpepper added. "Most people think you need to be big and tall to reach, and he's what, 5'9" maybe, but he can throw it as far as anybody on the dummy or anything. He's been roping since he's been walking, so he's got a lot of confidence in himself."

Culpepper also has confidence in his mount, the flashy yellow and white paint he's been riding with success for the past few years.

"My dad bought that horse as a four-year-old just out of an old country pasture from a preacher man," Culpepper said. "We called him Preacher, trained him, castrated him and didn't know how he'd be, but he turned out awesome. My dad told me when we started hauling him, 'If you start making money with him, we're going to call him Evangelist.' He's still Preacher."

With a $20,000 start to the season, Culpepper's plans for 2009 are shaping up nicely. Meanwhile, Driggers is still reeling from his abrupt entrance into the spotlight.
"It's awesome," he said. "I've been dreaming since I was a little kid about this, but I never dreamed it would be this early that I would have success."

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Barrel Racing
While Driggers and Culpepper said they were excited and surprised, Mattie Little, who won the barrel racing, showed it.

She and her horse, Bugs, completed the cloverleaf pattern in 13.90 seconds in the short round to win $16,593. Bugs, whose registered name is Buggin to Kill, is by Flit to Kill and out of a Bugs Alive mare.

Somewhere between fainting from the shock of it all and giggling uncontrollably, she took her victory lap in the back of a GMC truck. Her elation was genuine and she couldn't control her excitement.

"It's so surreal, I don't know," she said trying to explain her feelings.
What's more surreal is that we haven't seen Little much prior to San Antonio. Especially considering her father is the renowned barrel and rope horse breeder, Jud Little. Instead of letting his daughter hit the rodeo trail, he insisted she complete her degree.

"I just got my degree in hotel administration, nothing to do with this, but my dad said I could take a year and rodeo, so hopefully I'm making the best of it," she said. "I love my horse, so I'm just going to hang on and spend his money until he realizes I'm on his budget."

And obviously she has seized her opportunity. She qualified for San Antonio based on her performance at the Women's Professional Rodeo Association Finals in Tulsa last November where she finished second in the average.

Once there, however, she didn't have a smooth run to the final round. Like Driggers and Culpepper, she took a penalty in both a preliminary round and in the semifinals, and had to qualify for the finals from the wild card round.

Once in the finals, though, she wasn't about to let her chance slip away.
"I knew if you win it, you pretty much win it," she said.

With $4,148 in earnings coming in to the finals, the $12,445 top spot easily distanced her from Danyelle Campbell and Megan McLeod for the title-which also included an $8,000 fuel card donated by Ocean Spray for all the event winners.
With the big San Antonio win, the Ardmore, Okla., cowgirl might just be able to start bankrolling her own rodeo career.

Tie-Down Roping
Since he won the world title in 2004, Monty Lewis finished third in the world, 14th in the world and missed the finals the last two years. The slow decline from prominence is directly related to the aging of his great horse, Ned.

Ned, or IR Still Dry, won the horse of the year title in 2004 as a 12-year-old. By the time he was 15, he was unable to take the steady road time that rodeo requires and Lewis had a hard time replacing him.

However, after working with Gregg Veneklasen, rodeo's most famous veterinarian, Ned has found new life.

"I've been roping really good," he said. "I hadn't been on my old horse in a couple years, but I've been riding him this winter a lot. He's great at rodeos like this, he's a winner. I'll ride him at Houston and Austin and hopefully he gets off until the Finals."
By his own admission, however, Lewis's seasons have come undone over the summer the past two years.

Nevertheless, the San Antonio win showed that he and Ned still have plenty in the tank and can compete with the best in rodeo.

After seeing young guns Timber Moore and Adam Gray put up 8.1 and 8.2 runs, respectively, Lewis stepped up with a 7.9 gem. Then, he only had to sweat out Tuf Cooper, Fred Whitfield and Cade Swor.

"It's great. I've come close to winning this thing twice," he said. "I won second and I won third, it's a big deal. That Fred, he's an all-timer and Cade, he's got me a couple times, so I felt very fortunate to get by them."

The win was worth $17,371 and put Lewis back in the driver's seat for his fourth NFR.

"I work hard and I rope good and I know it," he said. "You just have to stay hooked. I never doubted myself."

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Bareback Riding
At the rough stock end of the arena, cowboys are used to overcoming injuries in order to compete.

Heath Ford, who finished 44th in the world standings last year, chalked his poor 2008 performance up to injury, but he admitted to one most cowboys wouldn't.
"I was doing pretty good [beginning in 2008] and cowboys like to be tough, but when your heart's broken you don't feel like rodeoing," he said of a broken engagement. "So I sat at home and didn't eat, didn't sleep, didn't do nothing. In that time off, I realized how important rodeo was to me. I didn't like to be 44th, I'm a better cowboy than that."

So far in 2009 he's proven it.

In San Antonio, he earned $17,630 and had the best ride of his life on his favorite draw, a 92 on Classic ProRodeo's Wise Guy.

"To have Wise Guy, that was something," he said. "There's nothing that tries harder, I'll tell you that. There might be a few that are stronger, but there ain't one that puts any more heart in it. When that horse goes to high jumping, it allows you to show off and he gets to show off. You know when you're jumping high, you're going to be a lot of points. That's the first time I've been in the 90s and man, I'm tickled to death."

In San Antonio, prior to the final round, Ford was second three times and third once. As the leader of some of the rounds, event producers would usher him over to the victory lap horse, only each time his score would be overtaken and someone else would take the trip. The man in charge of the victory lap horses began to feel as if he might be bad luck for Ford. The Greeley, Colo., cowboy assured him he wasn't."
"I told him, 'I only come here for one victory lap and they ain't run that one yet,'" he said. "So I was tickled to get to take the truck [used for the event champ victory lap] because I don't like riding saddle horses anyway."

From a bareback riding family-Ford's uncle is five-time world champion Bruce, his father is 1976 NFR qualifier Glen, his cousin is six-time NFR qualifier Royce and his brother Jarrod made the NFR once as a bull rider-Heath knows the significance of San Antonio.

"I've been really fortunate and gotten to win Greeley, my hometown rodeo on the Fourth of July, and I've won Reno, but every cowboy wants to come to San Antone and win this buckle, there ain't a nicer buckle in the world. It's a big step and probably the best I've rode day in and day out in my life and it's going to get better."
Plus, it goes a long way in healing a broken heart.

"I'm just tickled to be out here rodeoing and doing what I love to do. My goal when I started this deal was to be a world champ and this is a step in the right direction."

Steer Wrestling
Like Monty Lewis, the big money winner of the rodeo came from a guy trying to capture a little magic from an earlier time in his career.
Joey Bell, originally from New Jersey but now living in Texas, threw his final round steer in 3.6 seconds to win a total of $19,445.

"It's good to be back on top of my game again," he said. "It's been a long time. I've been struggling with horses for the past few years and mentally I've had younger guys going with me and I went to their level rather than making them come to mine. Funny thing, Luke Branquinho kind of helped me with the mental deal a little bit. I picked his brain a lot. I'm back in there like I was in '02 and '03 when I was dominant. I'm relaxed and whatever happens happens. I got back to that mentality and just let my ability take over."

Another key to his success is, like Lewis, reuniting with the horse that originally carried him to glory.

"He won't quit," Bell said of possibly the most underrated steer wrestling horse. "This year he's just not backed off. Running hard and working hard."

Big Iron, also around 17 years old, carried Bell to his previous NFR berths in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007. Originally Rope Myers's horse, Bell was able to buy him in 2006. However, last year, Bell fell into a mental struggle that was complicated by trying to develop young horses.

"I was making it a lot harder than it was," he said. "I know how to bulldog and instead of backing in there and going, I was adding all kinds of stuff in. Over-thinking and over-analyzing it. It's not rocket science; we're a bunch of bulldoggers. It's not that hard."

Saddle Bronc Riding
When rodeo fans hear DeMoss announced during the saddle bronc riding, the first thought that jumps to mind is two-time runner-up to the world title Cody.
Cody's younger brother, Heith, however, might make fans listen harder for exactly which DeMoss is nodding his head.

Heith DeMoss rode Frontier Rodeo's Little Kitty for 88 points (J.J. Elshere also hit that mark on Kelser's Sandcastle) to earn $16,334, edging Elshere for the title by $2,000.

"That was one of the greatest times of my life, right there," DeMoss said. "I won a round at the Wrangler NFR, and other than that, this is it."

Bull Riding
For anyone who stayed up late enough to watch the bull riding at last year's Wrangler NFR, Spud Jones from Tohatchi, N.M., no doubt left an impression.

Not only did the young Navajo cowboy show his considerable skill, he won fans with his quick smile and demonstrative facial expressions.

There's little doubt that when he heard he drew Andrews Rodeo's bull Reece's Pieces for the final round, an excited expression covered his face.

In the semifinal round, Jones rode the bull for 90 points.

"I was coming from San Angelo this afternoon and they said I got Reece's Pieces again, and I said, 'Oh, right on.' The first time he was round and round, this time he just fired out of there."

A different trip, perhaps, but the judges awarded him another 90-which tied reigning world champion J.W. Harris's mark. Jones, however, won $15,037, edging Harris by $800.

"This is a bull rider's dream," he said.