Qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is always a special feat, but contestants will forever remember their first trips to Las Vegas for the “Super Bowl of rodeo.”
This year’s 119-member field includes 27 first-time qualifiers, an influx of new blood that the Finals sees on an annual basis. Their joy of competing in and awe for the world’s richest rodeo is evident by the smiles on their faces, the butterflies in their stomachs and goose bumps they experience on a nightly basis.
This year’s crew of first-timers includes seven of the 15 bull riders and five of the 15 steer wrestlers and barrel racers, and many of the NFR rookies have legitimate shots at world championships in their maiden voyages to Las Vegas.
That includes bareback rider Tim O’Connell, who will enter the Wrangler NFR in fourth place in the standings with $102,890. He trails three-time and reigning World Champion Kaycee Feild by $69,494, but will approach his first NFR with his sights set on gold.
“I’m going to try and be David vs. Goliath and knock off Kaycee,” said O’Connell, who hails from Zwingle, Iowa. “He is very tough, but anything can happen in Vegas. I’m going to go there with the same attitude I’ve had all year.
“I’ll probably get the butterflies the first couple of rounds, but I love high-intensity atmospheres.”
O’Connell said a number of factors contributed to his inaugural Finals berth.
“Staying healthy was a big part of it, because you can’t ride bareback horses sore,” said O’Connell, 23. “I just tried to rodeo smarter and didn’t try to wear my body out. I drew so well throughout the entire year.
“My body was healthy, I felt like I was riding and drawing well, and the good Lord just blessed me.”
Regardless of where he ends up in the final world standings, one thing will be for certain for O’Connell. He’s going to have a blast.
“I’m going to go there and try to win the world, and I’m going to go there and enjoy every minute and second of it,” O’Connell said. “Guys wait their entire lives just to make it to that point, so I’m going to take it all in. I’m going out there to win the world, and if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’m just blessed to be out there.”
First-time Wrangler NFR steer wrestler Clayton Hass is another cowboy with a good shot at a world title this December. The 6-3, 235-pound Texan enters the proceedings ranked fifth in the world with $76,576, just $15,228 behind world standings leader Trevor Knowles.
The 2014 season has been a dream for Hass.
“It’s been an awesome year, and I’ve done better at taking advantages of chances when I’ve gotten them,” he said.
Hass knows he has just as good of a shot at a gold buckle as any other bulldogger.
“If a guy can get on a roll out there and do well, it’s anybody’s ball game,” said Hass, who will celebrate his 21st birthday during the Finals on Dec. 9. “I’m just going to stay focused and be aggressive. That arena is small out there, and if you miss the barrier, it’ll cost you.”
Hass will have ProRodeo Hall of Famer Ote Berry alongside him at the Thomas & Mack Center as his hazer, and World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron Walker is also helping him prepare for the 10-day finale.
His qualification has also been a thrill for Hass’ family.
“Heck, they might be more excited than I am,” Hass said. “They’re tickled to death. My mom and dad will be out there the whole time, and it’ll be awesome for them to take it all in.”
Being able to experience his first Finals with his parents will be a special experience for the bulldogger.
“They’ve sacrificed a lot for me growing up and during my career, and for me to be where I am, it’s something for them to be able to come out there and watch me perform,” he said. “Gosh, all of the money they’ve spent on me rodeoing growing up, it’s paid off.”
Bull rider Tim Bingham has not been able to get the Wrangler NFR off his mind since his qualification was official at the end of September.
“I haven’t quit thinking about it since Omaha’s been over, really,” said Bingham, of Honeyville, Utah. “I’m excited, and it’s coming soon.”
As is the case with most bull riders, staying healthy has been a big key for the 23-year-old Bingham.
“I finally was able to string more rides together, and my wins, instead of high 80s or 90-point rides at smaller rodeos – which do add up – I was able to make good rides for a lot bigger checks this year,” he said. “So, I’ve been able to make more money, and I didn’t take one doctor’s release this year and never had to sit out any all year. That’s probably the biggest difference for this year to past years.”
Bingham enters this year’s Finals fourth in the standings with $85,634, and while he trails world standings leader Sage Kimzey by $57,531, he knows a gold buckle isn’t out of the question.
“A lot of people see Sage out there with a big lead, and what they don’t realize is a guy could go out there and win $150,000, so $50,000 really isn’t that much,” Bingham said. “I’m not hoping bad against him, and he’d have to stub his toe, for sure, for that to happen, but that’s the thing about the NFR. Not only is it the Finals, but it’s a game-changer that shows it’s not really over until it’s over.
“I look at it as I better step my game up, because it is still possible. It motivates me to do better.”
No matter how much they mentally prepare for what is to come, Wrangler NFR first-timers will be aglow in the splendor of finally experiencing the sport’s crown jewel.
“It’s really happening, and I’ve really accomplished a dream and a lifelong goal,” O’Connell said.