Clay O’Brien Cooper is old enough to be the father of many of his team roping peers. Yet Father Time still hasn’t caught up to the 52-year-old, who is competing in his 27th National Finals Rodeo, his 23rd at the Thomas &Mack Center.
O’Brien Cooper made his first NFR in 1981, and he’s bagged seven world championships in the past 32 years. Last year, he made another run at the team roping title, working with Chad Masters. The two won the NFR average — the best aggregate time over the 10 rounds — helping Masters win the header world crown as O’ Brien Cooper took second in the heeler world standings, just $1,131 short of the title.
O’Brien Cooper, a Gardnerville resident, is back this year with a new partner, Justin Van Davis, a 31-year-old making his NFR debut. The two are hardly strangers, having known each other for 15 years, but they’ve roped together only a few times several years ago, and Davis had never tried to rope enough in a season to earn an NFR berth.
“When you start out the year, you have the expectation of hopefully having a good year,” O’Brien Cooper said. “But somewhere along the line, each year is gonna present its obstacles. You just have to be committed to press through.
“Our year started off where we didn’t do really good at rodeos that counted toward the NFR. But then we won at Houston, which was good even though that one doesn’t count in the standings. Then we had a really good spring, and we established ourselves in the top 15 in the standings.”
It was a rough summer, and the two were in and out of the top 15 in their respective standings, but did just enough late in the season to hang on. O’Brien Cooper finished 14th with $65,643 among heelers, and Davis took the 15th and final spot among headers with $60,936.
“With anyone, there’s a certain amount of time it takes to kind of get into the flow of knowing what the other guy is doing, how things will set up and how you react to that,” O’Brien Cooper said. “But that didn’t take long for us. I’ve roped with him before and with others with similar styles.
But Davis, even at 31, didn’t have the experience of most team ropers, let alone the veteran O’Brien Cooper.
“Justin’s kind of a rookie, in the sense that he’s never really tried to make the NFR,” O’Brien Cooper said. “I gave him the ins and outs of what we’ll face during the year, told him not to be worried by what others are doing, to trust in what you’re doing. That was my job, to have us both on the same page.”
Davis’ job was to do what youngsters can do.
“The thing the young guys bring is the enthusiasm and the excitement of the challenge of making it to the NFR for the first time,” O’Brien Cooper said. “Also, youth brings the athleticism, quickness and speed — the ability to do the job fast. This is a timed, speed-driven event. One partner needs to be fast, the other consistent. Usually the good teams have both those components.”
And O’Brien Cooper would certainly know the winning formula at this stage of his career. Yet anymore, reaching the NFR isn’t necessarily the most important achievement.
“It used to be that the NFR was what it was all about,” he said. “But to me, the NFR is not the only focus and the only goal at this point of my life. I enjoy going to good rodeos throughout the year, I enjoy the camaraderie with my friends, and making friends with the younger generation.
“I’ve seen these kids grow up, I’ve known a lot of them since they were born, so I’ve got a friendship with kids I’ve known my whole life. So that part of it is really cool, as well.”
Also really cool is still being at the top of his game after so long — well after athletes in most any other sport would have to hang it up.
“I’m grateful and feel like God has blessed me,” O’Brien Cooper said. “There are not too many 52-year-old guys who get to compete in the sport they’ve loved their whole life, and still compete with the best. I’m blessed by the opportunity to have good partners and good horses and still be able to compete.
“I enjoy the thrill, the excitement and the enthusiasm of competition. Life is fun when you can do what you want to do. To be able to make a living at it is icing on the cake.”