The Wrangler NFR press room was a hectic and buzzing place Sunday afternoon for Round 4. Lots was happening during the first daytime performance since 2005, and I was in the middle of it.
It was a busy day, in general, at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Round 4 was Memorial “Night,” where members of the Wrangler NFR “family” who have passed away in the last year are honored before the rodeo. ProRodeo Hall of Famers Eddy Akridge and Jack Buschbom, along with Vince Bruce, Harlan Gunville, Dell Hubbard, John Ketcham, Stanley “Pete” Simmons and Ken Stemler were honored with a special song by recording artist Bonnie Bishop (the daughter of former Texas A&M and Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill, according to Texas A&M alum and Shawn Davis assistant Ann Bleiker).
Kyle Whitaker was honored in the arena before the barrel racing for winning his record sixth Linderman Award. PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman and PRCA Director of Communications Kendra Santos presented Whitaker with the award, which honors the cowboy who wins the most money in at least three events.
The events must come at both ends of the arena (which is why Trevor Brazile hasn’t dominated it), and Whitaker competes in saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and tie-down roping. Linderman Award winners must earn at least $1,000 in all three events to be eligible.
One of the cool things about Whitaker is that his father, Chip, was a four-time Linderman Award winner himself. Kyle’s other five came in 1997, 1998, 2003, 2005 and 2006, while his father won the award in 1975 and from 1977-79.
“It was a great feeling,” Whitaker said of his sixth Linderman Award. “It was a little strange to look up and see myself on the big screen, but everybody who ever rodeos wants to be in the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas. For the PRCA to recognize the Linderman Award winner at the rodeo was really special.”
Whitaker said his father’s plane arrived in Vegas just in time for him to make it to the rodeo, and his wife, Halie, and youngest daughter were also in attendance. The talented cowboy told me he plans to go hard again next year and try and chase down another award.
“We’ve got a baby at home, so it might be a little tougher for me to go to some of the winter rodeos, but I plan on going to some of the bigger ones,” said Whitaker, who also received a $5,000 check from the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo in honor of his award. “I’ll take a run at it.”
Bill Linderman was a six-time world champion who won titles in bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding and the all-around. He died in a plane crash in 1965 and is considered one of the best all-around hands in rodeo history. The Linderman Award is one of the most coveted prizes in the sport, so big congrats to Kyle.
The other cool occurrence that had everyone scrambling was Brazile clinching his ninth all-around world title. Shane Proctor would have had to have won the bull riding to stay alive in the hunt for the top prize in ProRodeo, but he was bucked off his bull.
Not only did Brazile clinch his ninth all-around, but the gold buckle pulled him even with legendary Jim Shoulders with 16 career world titles. Brazile won his 15th last month at the Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping in Oklahoma City.
He had already flown the coop by the time Proctor hit the dirt at the Thomas & Mack, but the diligent PRCA media staff caught up to him by phone for some quotes.
“It’s an uncharted territory, and I’m just thrilled to have such a blessed year this year again,” said Brazile, who has $305,581 in earnings this season and has made at least $300,000 in each of the past six seasons. “To clinch it this early kind of lets a guy let his hair down in the single events. Calf roping isn’t going as well as I wanted to start it, but in the team roping, we’ve still got an outside chance.
“We’re going to keep after them and see what happens. You never know.”
He couldn’t get his mind around the fact that he’d tied Shoulders with his 16th gold buckle.
“It sounds nuts to me,” Brazile said. “When I came into this game, I was one of the guys that was saying those records would never be broken. To talk about Jim Shoulders, I said that’s not going to happen in this new era of rodeo.
“It doesn’t even seem real to me to reach that 16th title. My career has been more than I could ever dream it would be at this point. I’m loving it. I’m living the dream, actually. I didn’t dare to dream this stuff, I’ll be honest.”
Each event’s round winners are brought into the press room each performance, and there’s always a buzz when they’re in the room being interviewed. Some of them have been here before, while others are making the trek for the first time.
Wrangler NFR rookie Carlee Pierce won the barrel racing in 13.81 seconds and was in the room being interviewed when 2008 World Champion Lindsay Sears – who was also there for an interview – stopped by to offer her congratulations. It made for a good photo op, and Pierce thanked Sears for offering some sage advice to her during the week.
Three-time and reigning World Champion Bull Rider J.W. Harris may have won Round 4 with an 88-point ride on Mo Betta Rodeo’s Bailey Hou, but he limped away from the arena with what turned out to be a broken right foot. He left the Justin Sportsmedicine Room on crutches and wearing a walking boot, but gave all indications he’d be nodding his head in Round 5.
“It’s a long way from my heart,” Harris told PSN Staff Writer Marvin Olberding.
“It’s just my foot, and I don’t use my foot to ride bulls,” he told PRCA media staffer Justin Shaw. “So, I’ll just get another pair of boots to ride in, and the (Justin) Sportsmedicine people will find a way for me to keep going.”
Harris is second behind Proctor ($190,508-$158,015) in the world standings and is serious about going after another gold buckle.
“I told my wife that the biggest mistake they made was letting me get by one,” said Harris, who is also competing with a sprained lower back and left knee. “It’s on from here, and I’m gunning for the lead. If I get bucked off one, it’s not going to be because of a lack of effort. It’s a whole new game.”
Rock on J.W., rock on.
The press room is always like a beehive, with people buzzing in and out on a daily basis. It’s one of the nerve centers of the Wrangler NFR, and it’s always interesting to be there when history happens.