Rodeo is special because at any given time, with eight events, there's a transcendent performer. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton were that in the team roping for a time, The Fred Whitfield and Cody Ohl battles captivated our attention in the calf roping, Billy Etbauer and Dan Mortensen did the same in the saddle bronc riding.
Now, however, rodeo fans are being treated to what will likely become the most dominant all-around performances in rodeo history. Trevor Brazile, while still one all-around buckle behind Ty Murray's record of seven, will bypass that mark barring career-ending injury.
What makes Brazile special, like Murray, is that he doesn't win all-around titles by default. He is competitive in all his events: team roping (six Wrangler NFR qualifications, two top-five finishes); tie-down roping (one world title, eight NFRs, six top-five finishes); and steer roping (two world titles, 12 NFSR qualifications all of which he finished no lower than fourth and was second six times).
And he wins in the regular season too. In only the late summer, he's won all-around titles in Dodge City, Kan., Sikeston, Mo., Hermiston, Ore., Lovington, N.M., Canby, Ore., Phillipsburg and Abilene, Kan. Tie-down roping titles have come in Nampa, Idaho, Hermiston, Molalla, Ore., and Phillipsburg.
He and heeler Patrick Smith won Dodge City in the team roping. In May at the Wild, Wild West ProRodeo in Silver City, N.M., he won the team roping, tie-down roping and steer roping titles.
"I feel good, my horses are good," he said. "I haven't changed anything, everything's been working out."
Most recently, he won the all-around and tie-down roping titles at the Caldwell (Idaho) Night Rodeo.
"That Treasure Valley has been good to me this year," Brazile said. "I won Nampa [8 miles southeast of Caldwell] and then came back to win Caldwell. I won over $20,000 at those two rodeos in the calf roping. They're so opposite as far the cattle and the setups."
It's the second year in a row Brazile won in Caldwell. Last year, the rodeo was the first stop on the Ariat Playoffs. This year, it returned to its normal format of two go-rounds and a final.
"It's a little bit longer setup than most places we go previous to there," Brazile said. "That's one rodeo you have to score pretty good at. My last one, we used up a lot of the arena. It was just about making good runs and it wasn't about getting it on them real fast."
Nevertheless, Brazile got off to a fast start in the first round, winning it with an 8 flat. He placed in the second round as well, with an 8.2 and had a comfortable margin heading into the finals. Once there, he roped his calf in 9.4 seconds, bringing his total time to 25.6 on three and netting him $7,834.
"I guess that buckskin horse I'm riding is sure not hurting anything," Brazile said of the horse he calls Jaguar. "He makes it easy. He's not as spectacular as Texaco, but he never gets in my way, is too physical or takes a throw away. I think that's made it easy to be a lot more consistent."
With the win, he pulled ahead of the rest of the field by about $20,000-nearly the same lead he had heading into the 2007 NFR. That year Brazile won rodeo's first triple crown in 24 years after winning the all-around, tie-down and steer roping titles.
"We've got a lot of stuff coming up," he said. "I just try to keep winning because there's a lot of money to be won and a $20,000 lead isn't that much in the places we're going."
While his bid for a second triple crown might be more difficult than the first (he's $30,000 off the leader in the steer roping and $40,000 back in the team roping) stranger things have happened.
"I started off to try to be in a good position to win a championship in the team roping for sure," Brazile said of his strategy. "Chad Masters has had an awesome year and is roping great. I guess it's a long ways from over. No matter how good those guys are doing and how much they're winning you've got to just stay after it and try not to let that get you off course. There's a lot of money between now and the end of the National Finals. We're coming up on some Tour Finales, so I'm going to try to get as close as I can get before the NFR and see what happens."
Over his career, that strategy has led him to nine PRCA world titles, leaving him behind only Guy Allen, who has 18 steer roping titles, Jim Shoulders, who has 16 in all-around, bareback and bull riding, Dean Oliver who has 11 in tie-down roping and all-around, Charmayne James, who has 11 as a barrel racer and Everett Bowman, who has 10 in all-around, tie-down, steer wrestling and steer roping. There are four others with nine.
While becoming the record-holder for all-around titles has always been his goal, now that he is in his prime-at 32 years old and the all-around record within reach-has he given much thought to the possibility of pursuing another record: most world titles?
"Honestly, I really haven't," he said. "Unless they do something really different in the sport to get it to fewer, more quality rodeos. It seems like every year they go to more numbers of rodeos. With the Heartland deal, it's kind of discouraging to want to keep going."
With a young family-his son Treston will turn 2 just before the Finals this year-an incredibly demanding schedule, and the effort that it takes to remain competitive in three events, Brazile may not compete at the level rodeo fans are used to for as long as he athletically could simply because of the way rodeo works.
"That's the only thing that frustrates me," he said. "We need to try to get it to where the best rodeos have the best guys. Our sport is about the only one you have to start over from scratch each year. You have to prove yourself each year, which is fine, I just wish you didn't have to do it at as many rodeos. It seems like they're trying to add more and more. It shouldn't be about who goes to the most rodeos or who has the biggest trust fund. It should be about the best roper wins the world championship each year without putting them and their horses in the ground."
It takes as much effort to travel and compete at a rodeo that adds $3,000 as is does for one that adds $20,000 per event. And if Brazile skips the small rodeo, you can bet his competition is there, scratching out every penny.
"There are different ways to look at it, but just take the Heartland Series for example," he said. "If you go to Kansas, you've got Dodge City, which is a good, headliner rodeo. Then, you've got a bunch of little Kansas rodeos, but what good did it do for Dodge City to add all its money and be the best rodeo it could be if people can go right down the road to Hill City, Kan., and watch the same cowboys? That's what the Heartland has done. It's made it so the rodeos that don't add any money will still get the good cowboys. It's not fair to the rodeos that get them the hard way. They earn our entries. I think that's rodeo going backwards and I hate to be here when it happens. Stuff like that needs to change for the future of rodeo."
What would be a shame is if Brazile-a once-in-a-generation talent-walks away because of burnout. Rodeo fans will get to see him pass Ty Murray's record almost undoubtedly, but will they get to witness him fulfill his potential?
Randon Adams first made the Wrangler NFR in 2002, competing there as a rookie with Shain Sproul. He missed the Finals for the next three years, but in 2006, he teamed up with his younger brother Jay. The gesture brought Randon back to a level his talent warranted and gave Jay a taste of the big time.
Though he loves rodeo, Jay isn't a lifer for the sport. He's got other interests and the very next year, just as he and Randon were about to crack the top 15, he decided to leave roping behind for a chance to play college football as the redshirt quarterback for Southern Virginia University.
"Everybody thought I was crazy," he said. "I love to rope and I enjoy rodeo and the people and everything around it. It's been great for me and my family. At the same time, I love football, too. I knew there was only a little window I could go play before I was too old. I dropped rodeo, and it was a tough decision.
"I redshirted that year and it was going really good. I dropped back to throw a pass and when I pushed off from under center I snapped my ankle in two spots. My mentality was, I left the top 15 in the world to come play football, so I'm not going to sit on the bench. I tried to suck up the pain and had the trainer tape it up. I played on it for four more weeks, and then went and got an MRI and found out it ruined my career. The specialist told me that if I ever wanted to rope calves again, I would have to get surgery. It was really hard for me to let go, but I've got a family and needed a way to put food on the table. I loved it. Still, I'm so glad I tried it.
"What hurt the worst was me and Randon were just getting some momentum and it probably cost him making the Finals that year."
So, perhaps out of a sense of guilt for letting one brother down and a sense of duty for helping another one, he and younger brother Austin teamed up for the 2009 season.
"This year, I told myself I'm going start to finish whether we win $10 or $10 million," he said. "I'm roping for my little brother and I'm going to try to do what Randon did for me. Nothing was going to stop that. I wasn't going to quit or weaken. I broke the barrier in Odessa to win it and that's kind of the things that have happened all year. It hasn't been Austin, it's been me. He's done such a phenomenal job. His growth this year is inexplicable."
And while the season hasn't been a disaster, it has fallen short of their expectations. Both hoped to qualify for the Wrangler NFR, but a top 25 finish would be respectable. Plus, as the season wore on with no resounding successes, Jay became more focused on showcasing Austin.
"My goal was to give Austin enough repetitions this year for him to grow," he said. "And next year, in case I decide not to go, which is likely, that he can get a good partner. Everybody out here this year noticed him."
The rest of the top team ropers couldn't help but notice when the duo handily won the Caldwell Night Rodeo.
"Our first two steers, we drew pretty good," Austin said. "My brother did a great job. He just ran out there and roped them, and gave me a pretty good opportunity. We were 4.8 on our first two and 9.6 coming in. We had to be 17 flat to win the whole deal. We just had to make a smooth run on our last steer."
But while Austin may have been comfortable heeling behind big brother, the moment got to Jay.
"We come down to the short round, and we had a little more time," Jay said. "It's been a while since I've been in that position and if I was to say that the nerves didn't hurt me, I'd be lying. I went in there and tried to stick to protocol because we had a little time. I scored good and that steer ran out there and stuck his head down, so I just roped him and got him on a short rope and Austin come around there and it was just like roping with Randon again."
They stopped the clock in 7.2-way off the fast pace they had set in the rounds-bringing their total to 16.8. They won the average by 0.2 and pocketed $4,789 each.
"It wasn't a problem for him," Jay said of how Austin handled the pressure. "I don't know if that's youth or what. It was a really exciting win. The money is great, but I'm happy that my little brother is finally getting to enjoy some success like that. It's felt like he's been in mine and Randon's shadow. But he's a real talented kid and worked at it really, really hard. I'm just excited for him."
For Austin, it was reassuring realizing he could compete with, and beat, the world's best.
"It's pretty neat to win any rodeo out here with these guys, but this was pretty exciting," he said.
He rode a six-year-old horse he bought this summer named Peddles.
"I got him a week before Reno, the first spot I rode him was at the World's Greatest Roper and he's just been good for me ever since then," he said. "He's kind of a taller horse and long-strided. He can really run and he gets up there around them. He's pretty free and gives me a good shot and never gets in my way."
Jay rode his old standby, the 17-year-old Geronimo. The horse carried him to the NFR in 2006 and helped Riley Minor qualify for his first trip to Las Vegas last year.
"Last year when I was working construction, Trevor [Brazile] called and asked if he could buy him, but I just couldn't let him go," Jay said. "He'll drive you nuts at times, but he gives you the same opportunity to win every time. He's a great-minded horse. He'll never backtalk you. He's one of the greats in my opinion. He's a tiny horse, but he gives you everything he's got."
And as the season winds down, with no realistic shot at the NFR, Jay seems to take comfort in knowing he's helped his younger brother get started in his own career.
"My little brother has done an exceptional job this year," Jay said. "I've set out to be the older brother and set an example as far as roping and doing a good job, but it's totally been the other way around. I've made some costly mistakes here and there and he's just pulled through every time we've had a chance to win something. He's roped like a veteran this year. He's really done a lot of growing up and I'm really, really proud of him.
"I definitely see a National Finals appearance in his future. In his mind, it would be a disappointment if he didn't. One thing you have to know about Austin is he is full of fight. He's such a hand with a rope. He can rope calves extremely well, he can head, obviously, and he can heel. He can ride a cutting horse really well. He's a really good horseman and he's smart."
For himself, the future is less clear. He's got some ideas for small business start-ups and could rejoin the family construction business.
"I don't know," he said. "I've got a wife and we're working on a family. There's no telling. I don't know what I'm going to do. You might see me at a rodeo somewhere, or you might not see me for a long time. It depends. Rodeo will always hold a special place in my heart. I'll always go to some circuit rodeos and keep some good head horses on hand, but as far as a plan, I don't have one."
Austin, however, does.
"Hopefully I can get a pretty good partner and keep going next year," he said. "We're still a long ways from there. I'd like to keep roping and see what I can get done."
Saddle Bronc Riding
In a young man's sport, 46-year-old Billy Etbauer continues to defy his age. At the short round at Caldwell, in a field that included reigning World Champion Cody Wright, world standings leader Jesse Kruse, former NFR average winner J.J. Elshere-all of whom are under 32 years old-Etbauer did nothing short of break the Caldwell Night Rodeo arena record with an 89-point ride.
"That was a nice little horse, Knife Money of Calgary's. Bryce [Miller] won a round at the Finals on him last year," Etbauer said. "I knew the horse was good, I was just worried about taking care of it on my end and I was just glad to be there when the whistle blew. I was tickled to death to have it and we'll just keep working at it and see what happens."
The win-worth $4,965-combined with a huge win in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., at the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo the next day, bumped him to fourth in the world standings. That's particularly amazing considering that at the time, Etbauer had been to around 40 rodeos. (He couldn't be sure because Craig Latham, his traveling partner from years ago, still does all his entering.)
Contrast that with Kruse, who's ridden at nearly 70. As an aside, Kruse won enough money last year to qualify for his first-ever NFR, but counted too many rodeos and so couldn't count Omaha and Dallas winnings toward his world standings earnings.
"Jesse rides real, real good," the Five-Time World Champ Etbauer said of Kruse. "Hopefully a guy can stay healthy. There's been a lot of guys ride really well through the years and then something happened and they're back to square one. You just hope that you can stay healthy and see what happens."
Etbauer, largely due to his reduced travel schedule, has managed to stay very healthy himself all season.
"I've been blessed all year," he said. "I've been taking it easy the last few years, and when I did get sore I'd go home. I've been fortunate enough that I can pick and choose and go to the bigger ones where the horses are good and I can stay healthy."
Another cowboy who knows the value of a healthy body-and the costs of injury-all too well is steer wrestler Wade Sumpter.
After setting the regular season earnings record in the steer wrestling last year at $133,685, he tore his pectoral muscle in the first round of the NFR and had to withdraw from competition. Immediately after the Finals, he had surgery and cracked back out in Reno and won the second round with a 3.8-second run.
Since then, he's been steadily winning, with victories in Livingston, Mont., and Oakley, Utah, and now Caldwell.
"I ended up splitting the first round and came back on my second one that night and was 4.6 on that one," he said. "I should have been a little faster, I missed the barrier a little bit and the steer tried on through there.
"I came back second high call and I drew a pretty good one. That short round fell apart and all I needed to do was hit the barrier and go throw one down and it worked out. There were a bunch of broken barriers and four no-times. Typical short-round chaos."
When the dust settled, he wound up with a 12.3-second time on three and $7,129. The very next day he, like Etbauer, won in San Juan Capistrano.
Interestingly, it's the second year in a row that Sumpter and traveling partner Ken Lewis's horse, Wick, had the fastest time at the end of Caldwell. Last year, when the rodeo was a playoff, Lewis rode the horse to the top time in the final round, but Jason Miller tied the time, and the tie-breaker for the title went to Miller.
"He's working good," Sumpter said. "I can't complain, he gives me a chance to win every time. When I don't win, it's not his fault."
Sumpter's two back-to-back wins boosted him to 24th in the world standings.
"I'm in a position now where if I win a bunch I can make some money this year and I might possibly make the Finals," he said. "Either way, I need to win. I was pretty much unemployed for six months. But hopefully, the two go hand-in-hand."
The Wrangler Million Dollar Tour remains an important part of Sumpter's unlikely bid to make the Finals despite his late start.
"The week of Dodge City, Sikeston, Lawton and Lovington I had a terrible week. It was an important week for me because it was three Tour rodeos and I needed to do good that week and didn't get anything done.
"I'm back in the tour deal, but I've got two more chances at Bremerton and Ellensburg to try to get into Puyallup," Sumpter said. "I don't have to have that for it to be possible, but it would make a huge difference. I still need to win another $25,000 or $30,000. It'll be hard, but it's possible."
In the bareback riding, Clint Cannon has torn up the regular season, breaking Bobby Mote's two-year-old earnings record. He continued his run by riding two horses for 172 points. In sum, he added $6,616 to that new record.
Barrel racer Sue Smith ran the cloverleaf pattern in 52.29 seconds, including a short-round-winning run of 17.42 seconds. She won $5,908 and moved to 16th in the world standings.
World standings leader and reigning World Champion J.W. Harris won the bull riding with a 90-point ride. Harris added $6,878 to his lead in the standings.