First time for everything

You never forget your first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. There’s simply nothing like it on Earth, and for the contestants who qualify for the 10-day extravaganza for the first time, every experience is new and exhilarating.

Just ask bareback rider Casey Colletti. The Pueblo, Colo., cowboy wasn’t too overcome by nerves or excitement to post an 87.5-point ride on Carr Pro Rodeo’s Black Coffee in Round 1. His score led the rodeo until world standings leader Kaycee Feild trumped him on the last ride with a mark of 89.

Kaycee Feild is interviewed in the Wrangler NFR press room after winning Round 1.

Colletti, who turns 26 on Dec. 21, was all smiles as he talked with media in the new Wrangler NFR press room in the UNLV practice gym.

“It was the best experience of my life so far,” said Colletti, who is one of 26 Wrangler NFR rookies this year. “The last three days have been just phenomenal. Before the national anthem, I kind of looked around (the arena) and thanked God for letting me be here to do this. There aren’t many guys who get to experience it.”

Colletti was a guest of Matt Bright during one round of last year’s Finals, and the experience motivated him to qualify this year.

“I said, ‘Man, next year, I’m going to try my guts out (to make it), because I don’t want to sit up here and watch. I want to be running my hand in my rigging,’” said Colletti, who earned $14,135 for his second-place finish and moved from 10th to sixth in the world standings.

Colletti got along just fine with Carr Pro Rodeo’s talented bucker, which is appearing at its third Wrangler NFR.

“I was just going 100 miles an hour and not quitting at all,” he said. “It’s the NFR, so you leave nothing to doubt.”

The five-figure pay day will come in handy for Colletti, an avid gambler.

“To win $14,000 in eight seconds is mind-blowing,” he said. “My dad and I were shooting craps before we came over here tonight, and I lost 12 bucks. Now I have a little more spending money.”

Fellow bareback rider Brian Bain was also competing in his first Wrangler NFR, and his 86-pointer was good enough for fourth place in the round and a check for $7,500.

I would argue that no competitor is busier than Wrangler NFR rookie saddle bronc rider Jacobs Crawley this week. The 23-year-old from College Station, Texas, is not only dealing with the pressure of appearing in his first Finals, but also with the weight of having to study for three college finals.

Crawleyis a senior at Texas A&M, where he’s majoring in industrial and systems engineering. He has a presentation to make via Skype next Wednesday with his engineering group, and has a pair of finals on Dec. 12 and 13 before graduating Dec. 16.

“It’s hectic, but it’s not too bad,” Crawley said. “It’s a lot of planning. If you plan everything out and make sure you’ve got all your I’s dotted and T’s crossed, it plays out how you planned. You can’t have a whole lot of days wasted, otherwise you’ll get behind.”

He was too nervous to even look around and take in the atmosphere in the Thomas & Mack Center arena. One word to describe his mentality during the grand entry?

“Butterflies,” he said with a laugh. “I’m lucky I had a broke horse for the grand entry, otherwise, it would have been bad. I tried not to look up, because if I looked around too much, I might have gotten wide-eyed.”

His score wasn’t nearly enough to put Crawley in the money, but he was still happy with the experience of riding at the world’s richest rodeo.

“I was 69 points (69.5, actually), but I guarantee you I had as much fun as anybody else,” Crawley said.

Crawley and Colletti used the same word to describe what their experience at the Finals this year has been like.

“It’s all been pretty surreal,” said Crawley, who attended the NFR when he was 11 to watch his cousin, Cheyenne Wimberley, in the barrel racing. “From the time we checked in at the Aria, it’s been an awesome roller-coaster. I’m ready for nine more rounds. Now that I’ve got one down, I’m excited to get on nine buckers and see how everything pans out.”

Far from a Wrangler NFR rookie, future Hall of Fame tie-down roper Cody Ohl won his 41st round at the Finals. He was nice enough to take a mental trip back to his first Wrangler NFR in 1994 and share his memories of Round 1 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“I was a nervous son-of-a-gun,” said Ohl, who has won more than $1 million at the Wrangler NFR alone. “I went for first, just like today, and I didn’t have a very good night. It didn’t go well, and I didn’t end up having a very good Finals. But then everything just started piecing together, and I’ve been doing great.”

The veteran now serves as a mentor to first-timers, telling them what to expect in Las Veags.

“I get questions all the time from guys, and I try to help them,” Ohl said. “Joe Beaver and Fred Whitfield helped me when I got here, and I just try to return (the favor). It’s part of the sport.”

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