As an Alabama native, I couldn’t help but notice that steer wrestler Kyle Irwin also hails from the “Yellowhammer State.”
So, I kept my eye on him during the first couple of rounds and was thrilled to see him split the Round 2 win with none other than four-time World Champion Luke Branquinho. Irwin, one of 27 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo first-time qualifiers this year, picked up a check for $17,010 after stopping the clock in 3.6 seconds to tie Branquinho for the go-round and has moved from 10th to sixth in the world standings after also earning a check in Round 1.
The first Wrangler NFR qualifier from Alabama since Cole Bigbee in 2006, Irwin was euphoric in the press room after sharing the round win with Branquinho.
“To be 3.6 and win my second round at the NFR, it’s great,” said Irwin, who won the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash., to solidify his first Wrangler NFR berth. “When we were getting ready in the parking lot, it was what I envisioned in my head.”
If he could have picked anyone to split his first round win with, Irwin would have chosen Branquinho.
“Luke is a winner, a great competitor and a phenomenal steer wrestler,” said Irwin, just the fourth Alabama native to ever qualify for the Wrangler NFR. “He’s also a great guy who’s very humble and who will go out of his way to speak to you. When we were getting ready to take the victory lap, he said, ‘You go first champ,’ and ‘Congratulations to you.’
“It means a lot and is pretty neat, because that guy is arguably one of the best ever.”
Irwin didn’t want the victory lap to end.
“That was the coolest thing I think I’ve ever done,” he said. “When I was in college, we were here watching the ’06 NFR every night watching those guys take that victory lap, and I always wondered what it’d be like. I think it happened too fast, and I wish I could have taken more laps.”
The Robertsdale cowboy spent Thanksgiving running steers with Branquinho and a handful of other bulldoggers in California, and that practice has paid off in a big way so far.
“The steers we’re running here were going to be there (in California), and Luke offers all the top 15 guys the chance to come out and run them,” said Irwin, who has $81,650 in season earnings. “I felt like that was an advantage, and the steer I had tonight I knew was good in advance. I tried to just get a good start and make no mistakes.”
Irwin grew up in a family worked cattle and “cowboyed,” went on to win two Alabama High School Rodeo Association titles and has worked hard in recent years to improve in every aspect of the event. He finished 25th in the world standings in 2012, a near-miss that motivated him to work even harder.
The combination of increased confidence and horsepower has been huge for the 6-1, 205-pounder.
“In 2012, I missed the Finals by $7,000, and that opened my eyes,” Irwin said. “I thought I had a chance and could make a living at it. In 2013, I had no luck, was broke and was going to go back to work.
“But I won the RAM National Circuit Finals, and it’s just snowballed from there.”
Irwin is riding a horse named Sketch that belongs to one of this traveling partners, Tyler Pearson, who is hazing for him in Las Vegas.
“The first rodeo I went to this year was Austin, Texas, and I went with Tyler Pearson,” Irwin said. “I rode his same horse there, so I’m comfortable now. I don’t have any doubts, and being comfortable here in this atmosphere means everything.”
Branquinho, who has a steer wrestling record 23 career Wrangler NFR round victories, said he’s going to let Irwin take the buckle at the buckle presentation at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa tonight and just wait for Montana Silversmiths to make him an identical one after the Finals. That’s a pretty great gesture from the well-liked veteran.
“That guy deserves to wear one around if he wants to wear it around,” Branquinho said. “He’s been out to the house practicing with us and honing his skills, and he’s doing good.”
I found Irwin to be an engaging, intelligent and fun-loving guy who clearly looks up to the future Hall of Famer Branquinho. Branquinho – one of my favorite contestants in any event – had some great things to say about the 24-year-old Irwin.
“Kyle Irwin is as tough as they come, and one thing I like about him is he has no fear,” Branquinho said. “He’s an aggressive bulldogger who snatches their head away and finishes strong, and he has great footwork. He’s going to be someone to be reckoned with the next few years.”
I held one last question for Irwin until the end to really see if I should pull for him to keep winning.
“Auburn or Alabama?” I asked.
“Oh, War Eagle!” Irwin responded.
War Eagle, Kyle. War Eagle, indeed!