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Short of qualifying, partner helps Jeremy Buhler get back to NFR

For Jeremy Buhler, Levi Simpson and Tom Richards, the term “team roping” took on added meaning during the 2017 PRCA tour.

Buhler and Simpson won the team roping world championship in 2016, as first-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifiers. But getting back to the Thomas &Mack Center for this year’s Wrangler NFR took a little bit different path. Buhler, a team roping heeler, made it. Simpson, a team roping header, did not. So Buhler has been roping all week with Richards as his header.

Confused yet? Buhler offered some clarification.

“With about two to three weeks left in the season, there was no mathematical chance for Levi to qualify,” Buhler said.

Buhler was still alive to finish among the top 15 heelers and earn a return trip to Vegas. But with his partner out of contention, Buhler didn’t want to push Simpson to run any more rodeos during those last couple of weeks of September because it could have been costly for Simpson — rodeo travel tears through much of these cowboys’ cash each year — and there was no guarantee either roper would make any money or that Buhler would qualify.

“I told Levi that I totally understood if he didn’t want to do it. It’s a pretty big financial obligation,” Buhler said. “But he said he’d do it. He was awesome about it.”

Buhler needed to earn another $4,000 or so in official PRCA winnings to grab the 15th and final slot. He got that, with a big boost in unofficial “jackpot” earnings — meaning Simpson saw a windfall, as well.

“It shows what kind of a guy Levi

is,” Buhler said. “The cool thing about the whole deal is he did that, and we ended up winning $20,000 in those last weeks. It was great for him, that he was able to benefit after being such a good guy.”

The late money run left Simpson in 16th, one spot shy of a Wrangler NFR berth, but again, he understood 15th wasn’t attainable.

“It’s just the way it worked out. I was kind of the odd ball out,” Simpson said. “My goal was always to get there myself. Once I realized I was too far out, Jeremy and I wanted to make sure we kept him in there, so he could get to go back. You do everything you can to try to get the team there, and if only one-half makes it, that’s the way it goes.”

In this case, doing “everything you can” included both these Canadian cowboys making a long haul to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the Champions Challenge Finale on Sept. 29-30, the last days of the regular season.

“Jeremy still had a really good chance,” Simpson said. “So to load up and drive the truck to Sioux Falls, I never second-guessed it. We roped two steers, placed in the money both days and made sure he got to defend his world title on the heeling side.”

Indeed, Buhler got that opportunity, finishing the regular season with $68,006, about $3,000 ahead of No. 16 Bucky Hawkins II. But Buhler’s return to Vegas was going to come with a different roping mate: Richards, who finished eighth in the team roping header standings with $81,415, after a season in which he roped with Ryan Motes and Tyler McKnight, who also qualified for the Wrangler NFR, paired with Jr. Dees.

So after Buhler and Simpson competed in the Canadian Finals Rodeo in November — an event they won, though it doesn’t count for the PRCA 2017 standings — Buhler and Richards had a quick get-to-know-you session to gear up for the Wrangler NFR.

“We practiced for about three weeks, probably got together a half-dozen times and roped,” said Richards, also in his second Wrangler NFR, as he qualified in 2014. “But we talked about it before that. We’ve both been here before, and he’s won a world title. We really didn’t have too much of a problem. We roped good together right off. We were both in the top 15, so it’s not like roping with somebody you’ve never seen.”

Buhler echoed Richards’ thoughts.

“It really wasn’t challenging at all,” Buhler said. “After the first day, everything went pretty smooth.”

It wasn’t quite as smooth the first few days at the Wrangler NFR. Buhler and Richards each got the $10,000 bonus that all qualifiers receive but didn’t cash in the first four go-rounds. But they broke through with a solid 4.0-second time in Tuesday’s fifth go-round, tying for third to pocket $13,327 apiece.

“We got off to a little bit of a slow start,” Richards said, noting he has been on his second-string horse all week because that horse seems to be running better, and Buhler switched to his second-string horse after the first two rounds.

“It’s kind of funny. We talked about it while we were practicing last month. We practiced well on those two horses.”

Unfortunately, the twosome hasn’t cashed since that Tuesday run. Buhler had nothing but praise for his short-term teammate’s efforts the past eight days. He put the onus of the results on his miscues from the heeling end.

“Tom’s done a great job heading. He’s turned the majority of the steers,” Buhler said. “The first couple rounds, I felt a step behind. It doesn’t feel like anything big. It feels like stupid little things. It’s easy when Tom’s turned 90 percent of the steers for (what should be) good money. They’ve all been a good chance. As the heeler, I’ve just been dropping the ball this week.”

Still, there’s a couple more nights and plenty of money out there, with each first-place go-round effort worth $26,231. Buhler and Richards hope to finish with a flurry.

“At the start of the week, you don’t want to take stupid shots and take yourself out. Now, you try to win first every night and make up for lost time,” Buhler said, while noting he has enjoyed his year as the world champion heeler. “It was a dream come true. I got to meet a lot of people and got to do a lot of cool things because of it. And I’m still in Vegas, I’ve got family and friends here. I’m having fun, staying positive, trying to make the most of it.”

And Simpson can take satisfaction in knowing he helped his teammate get a chance to defend that title.

“To come through for your partner at the end of the year is a huge accomplishment for both of us,” Simpson said. “It’s very rare to see that in any other sport. In the rodeo world, there’s support for everybody. The majority of the guys are like that. It’s pretty cool.”

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