As the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo prepares to launch out of the chutes for the 60th time, the race to claim the title of all-around world champion cowboy befits this milestone year. Less than $6,000 separates the top two contestants.
Also befitting the celebration, one of those contestants is arguably the greatest cowboy to ever put on a pair of boots. And his brother-in-law, 14 years his junior, is the other contestant.
Trevor Brazile, the 13-time all-around champion, has an excellent shot to get No. 14 at 42 years old. But he’ll have to overtake defending all-around champ and current No. 1 Tuf Cooper over the next 10 nights at the Thomas & Mack Center, starting with Thursday’s 6:45 p.m. first go-round.
Cooper edged Brazile for the all-around crown last year in a battle that went right down to the last day of the Wrangler NFR. Cooper finished the season with $341,560, and Brazile finished with $319,337, a difference of less than one NFR go-round win.
And as if all that doesn’t provide enough of a storyline, Brazile just announced that this year’s Wrangler NFR would cap his last full-time rodeo season as he scales back on competing to focus more on family life with his wife and three children.
“My priorities have officially changed,” Brazile said. “The way I divide my time has been trending toward where we are today for a while now. Though we rodeoed together as a family, rodeo was taking a lot of my time and attention. Home-schooling our kids is the only thing that made it work as long as it did.
“Now that they’re in public school, the days of being gone on the first day of school and missing ballgames are over. I’ve always been an all-in kind of guy, and if there’s one thing I cannot live with doing halfway, it’s being a husband and dad.”
A different role
That could mean that Cooper slides more firmly into the shoes his brother-in-law filled for most of this century, a role Cooper certainly relished the past 12 months.
“This year has been the best season of my entire career. It’s been the most enjoyable, too,” Cooper said. “I started the year off knowing what I had to do — the adjustments with my horses, the travel, my mental approach. You’ve got to manage your rodeo schedule and your performance as well. But being the all-around champion has been awesome. I’ve had so much fun doing it all.
“Winning the world title, it happens once a year. Then you’ve got to keep pushing forward. You’re not going to get special breaks or draw the best calf every night or anything. It’s a new year. I just have to do the best I can to make the most of the opportunity in front of me.”
Cooper has $239,857 in 2018 earnings from tie-down roping and steer roping, taking second in the world in steer roping, which holds its finals separately from the Wrangler NFR, though the money earned counts in the PRCA standings. Brazile, who competes in tie-down roping, team roping and steer roping, is right on Cooper’s heels at $234,154 and finished third in the world in steer roping.
The results show that these two cowboys are practically mirror images of each other. As such, Brazile couldn’t be happier that Cooper is the reigning world champ.
“He was already a champion and has always conducted himself like a champion,” Brazile said, alluding to the three tie-down world titles Cooper won before breaking through to win the all-around last year. “I’ve told the story a bunch before, but I started dating his sister (Shada) when he was 5 or 6 years old. It’s just cool to see someone who knew what he wanted to do, who had a lot opportunities presented to him but never took it for granted.
“I know the hard work it takes to get there. To watch the hard work come to fruition in Tuf’s life has been fun for me, too.”
Work to do
Brazile isn’t in Las Vegas to take vacation time or gracefully ride off into the sunset. Along with those 13 all-around titles, he’s got 10 individual event gold buckles spread among tie-down roping, team roping and steer roping. He’s got plenty of life in him, and he intends to throw all he’s got at Cooper as both compete in tie-down roping, in which Cooper is second in the world standings at $134,768 and Brazile sixth at $92,772.
“I haven’t really had up-to-par years the last couple years. But I was within about $20,000 last year in the all-around, so it wasn’t really a bad year,” Brazile said, noting the importance of staying within himself, not worrying too much about other competitors or the calves he draws. “The main thing is not to get bogged down with the variables you can’t control. Just stay focused. That’s a roller-coaster ride, those 10 days, and you can’t change those variables.”
Cooper is clearly up for the challenge, and competing against his sister’s husband is nothing new. In fact, they’re often traveling partners during the long slog of the season, which has proved a great benefit to Cooper. Not to mention the fact that Cooper is the son of eight-time world champ Roy “Super Looper” Cooper.
“I rodeo with Trevor a lot, and he’s been the best coach, mentor and brother-in-law,” Cooper said. “I’ve been paying attention to how he handles all his situations since I was 10 years old. I’ve had two perfect examples in front of me my entire life. I’m just following in my dad’s and brother-in-law’s footsteps.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world for me to be going up against the king of the cowboys, 23-time world champion Trevor Brazile.”
Competition in the wings
This being the NFR, with $10 million in total prize money, Cooper and Brazile both said they can’t overlook Rhen Richard, who sits about $100,000 behind them in the all-around but qualified in two events: tie-down roping and team roping.
For the moment, though, it appears to be a two-person race, a brotherly battle, although it’s far from an adversarial competition. Cooper and Brazile take strides to keep it fun and family-friendly, if you will. There’s not even a friendly wager over who will do better over the next 10 days.
“We do enough silly bets during our practice sessions together,” Cooper said. “When we compete, there doesn’t need to be a big bet. We’re pulling for each other to do our best.”
Brazile certainly wants that big buckle again, but if after 10 days it ends up with Cooper, he’ll have no complaints.
“I do this to win; that’s all there is to it. But if it’s not going on my belt, there’s nowhere else I’d rather see it,” he said. “Honestly, if he doesn’t beat me sometimes, I’d say I haven’t done a good job as a mentor.”