COUNTDOWN

NFR Insider Blog

Nov 6, 2020

What the 2020

This year everyone is a Wrangler National Finals Rookie

What the 2020? It’s been a year of ups and downs with more valleys than peaks. I read a Facebook post that encouraged us to use 2020 instead of cussing and believe me I’ve done a lot of that this year. I am a woman of faith and I believe that this is all part of God’s bigger plan, but I question that plan daily. So have a lot of rodeo committees and the communities they support, contestants, contract personnel, stock contractors, and the list goes on.

It means that some of our favorite contestants won’t be at the Wrangler NFR this year and none of them will be in Vegas. We will certainly miss seeing our reigning world champion steer wrestler Ty Erickson compete as well as countless others. When rodeos started cancelling due to COVID-19, he got a job. No one was able to go to as many rodeos and everyone has been trying to figure out what their options are.

Doing well at the winter rodeos became more important than ever and it’s safe to say that 90 percent of this year’s field got a big percentage of their earnings at the National Western Stock Show Rodeo (Denver), the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo or the San Antonio Stock Show Rodeo, both of which are in Texas.

Every rodeo committee looked for alternatives. They considered their insurance, local regulations, projected income, ways to cut expenses and exhausted every option. Some of those options were put in place and rodeos happened. Many did not.

When restrictions made it impossible to have the 2020 Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas with fans, alternatives were sought out and Texas stepped up to the plate – literally. This year’s competition will be held in the home of the Texas Rangers professional baseball team, Globe Life Field in Arlington.

A new location, venue, and new set up after 35 years is going to be different for everyone. The arena in the Thomas & Mack Center was so familiar to so many and people knew what to expect. I know fans who have had the same tickets for every performance since it moved to Las Vegas in 1985. The contestants might see the biggest differences. In the past, timed-event competitors set up their own arenas with the same dimensions so they could practice for the NFR. Rough Stock contestants talked about the yellow bucking chutes all year round, just waiting to get the chance to nod their heads in them in December.

There are a group of this year’s contestant that have been waiting all of their life to compete in Las Vegas for the first time. Now, they are going to need a second Wrangler NFR qualification to make that happen. Well 2020.

BAREBACK RIDING

There are five first-time qualifiers in the bareback riding, Jamie Howlett from Rapid City, South Dakota by way of Australia is highest in the standings at 6th. Texas native Leighton Berry will just have an hour drive from his home in Weatherford, Texas. He starts in 10th place. Right behind him is Jess Pope from Waverly, Kansas, and Cole Reiner from Kaycee, Wyoming. All three of them were at the College National Finals Rodeo in 2019 and were vying for the championship in the final round. None of them won the championship, but they all represented their colleges well and I’m excited to see them competing on rodeo’s biggest stage.  

Chad Rutherford’s performance at the Gold Buckle Knockout at the Cervi Ranch on the final day of the 2020 season was instrumental in his first Wrangler NFR qualification. Courtesy Cervi Rodeo and Emily Hilton

Rounding out the newcomers in the bareback riding is Chad Rutherford, from Hillsboro, Texas. He’s been a member of the PRCA for seven years, been on his way to a qualification, got hurt, went home, came back and started all over again. He qualified this year on the final day of the season at the Gold Buckle Knockout at the Cervi Ranch in Stoneham, Colorado. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain in Arlington.

STEER WRESTLING

There are four first timers in the steer wrestling. Jace Melvin from Fort Pierre, South Dakota is at the top of the list at 7th. Jace was a gear-bag toting cowboy growing up. When his older sister Jessica was the National Little Britches Queen the family made a trip to Las Vegas for the Miss Rodeo America Pageant. Jace’s highlight of the whole trip was getting to shake Ty Murray’s hand and getting his autograph. It wasn’t long until his focus turned to timed events and that will see him in Arlington in December.

Steer wrestler Jace Melvin shaking Ty Murray’s hand and getting an autograph.  

In ninth place is Jacob Edler from State Center, Iowa. Next is Bridger Anderson from Carrington, North Dakota. He won the College National Finals in 2019 and since that event was cancelled this year, he still holds the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association title. Bridger attended Northwestern Oklahoma State University to learn from Wrangler NFR qualifier Stockton Graves. He starts in 10th place. Football player turned steer wrestler Jesse Brown from Baker City, Oregon locked down the final spot with a check at the Pro Tour Finale in Rapid City, South Dakota the end of the season.

TEAM ROPING HEADERS

No one is surprised to see Oklahoma native Andrew Ward in the sixth spot for the headers. He and his brother Reagan have been in the top 25 while roping together and were co-champions at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo in 2018. This year Andrew has been roping with his brother-in-law, Buddy Hawkins II.

Nelson Wyatt and Levi Lord have roped together most of the year and will be roping at their first Wrangler NFR at Globe Life Field. National Western Stock Show photo by Ric Anderson

Nelson Wyatt from Clanton, Alabama will start in 12th and his partner, Levi Lord is also an NFR rookie. Lucky 13 is Jeff Flenniken from Caldwell, Idaho. Jeff finished the 2018 season in 17th and then last year was 23rd but helped his partner Tyler Worley get to Vegas. This year they both qualified.

TEAM ROPING HEELERS

At the top of the list is two-time National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champion Logan Medlin from Tatum, N.M. The second-generation roper is heeling for Charly Crawford. Logan’s dad Jeff qualified for the NFR in 1991 and 1996. Paden Bray nearly qualified in 2019 at 17th place and earned the Rookie of the Year title. Paden is heeling for world champion Erich Rogers and the duo won more money than any other rodeo contestants over this year’s Fourth of July run.

And then there is Levi Lord in 12th place. The name Lord is legendary in the Badlands Circuit and that is because of Levi’s dad, J.B., who competed in steer wrestling and team roping and won multiple circuit titles. Levi and his dad have won the circuit together. His older brother Eli finished this year’s season in 19th place in the steer wrestling. But Levi is the first of the family to qualify and have a chance at a gold buckle that says world champion on it.

SADDLE BRONC RIDING

What a year it’s been for Wyatt Casper, who starts in first place and has a $30,000 lead over the man in second place, Ryder Wright. Wyatt won the college title for Clarendon (Texas) College in 2016, where his coach was NFR qualifier Bret Franks. The Pampa, Texas resident’s season this year started great with Wyatt riding every horse that they put under him. It wasn’t until RodeoHouston that he got bucked off. In fact, he has ridden 93% of the horses he has gotten on at rodeos this year.

Shorty Garrett comes from a long line of rodeo contestants and cowboys. His best year of his career so far sees him starting the NFR in fourth place. Lefty Holman also has a rodeo legacy behind him and will be doing his best to make them all proud. His grandfather, John Holman competed at the NFR In Oklahoma City from 1970 – 72. Hall of Famer Joe Marvel is his great uncle and he’s likely to be paying attention during the steer wrestling at Globe Life Field – Dakota Eldridge is his uncle by marriage.

TIE-DOWN ROPING

There are only two newcomers in the tie-down roping field and what a journey this has been for both of them. Weston Hughes from Caldwell, Texas won the tie-down rookie title in 2016 he went hard in 2017 to finish 20th in the world. Then he thought maybe it would be easier to rodeo on the other end of the arena and started riding bareback horses. That was a devastating decision as one of those rides resulted in a broken roping arm. After that he had some herniated discs in his back that got infected. This year he has been healthy and achieved his NFR goal in fifth place.

Caddo Lewallen, Morrison, Oklahoma, also won the tie-down roping rookie – 16 years ago. Rodeo became a hobby for him. He got married had two daughters and went to work while competing at rodeos they could all go to and have fun. When he got the chance to make rodeo a priority, they were all ready. He had a great winter and a $25,000 check at The American pretty much sealed the deal for him this year.

WPRA BARREL RACE

Two years ago, Jimmie Smith from McDade, Texas was the rookie of the year while finishing a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and journalism from Texas A&M. The next year she started on her master’s degree at Texas A&M Commerce and finished the season just four positions out of the top 15. The quick learner used every lesson from the past two years to qualify for her first Wrangler NFR this year in fourth place.  She’s had most of her success aboard a palomino mare she calls Lena.

Jill Wilson from Snyder, Texas knew she had the horse power in Blue Dean, a gray gelding to get her to the NFR. Last year she set a goal of winning enough to qualify for the big rodeos in 2020. That worked and she finished second at the San Antonio Rodeo. She will start in 6th. Ryann Pedone, from Sunset, Texas has always been competitive, just not on the level of 2020. She will start in 11th place.

The last two spots in this year’s field also belong to Wrangler NFR rookies Wenda Johnson, from Pawhuska, Oklahoma is 14th and Brittney Barnett from Stephenville, by way of California is 15th.

BULL RIDING

Ky Hamilton from Queensland, Australia has been Sage Kimzey’s biggest threat this year and will start the NFR less than $3,000 behind the six-time world champion. Hamilton came over here to compete at the junior high and high school finals. Then college rodeo coach C.J. Aragon convinced him to further his education. He is currently competing in college for Sul Ross State University (Alpine, Texas), and is working his schooling around rodeos. In fifth place is Caldwell, Idaho’s Brady Portneier. Brady joined the PRCA in 2013 and just three years ago was in the crying hole for his first Wrangler NFR. He is well inside the top 15 this year at fifth.

Colten Fritzlan from Rifle, Colorado is 10th, Parker McCown from Montgomery, Texas is 11th and Denton Fugate is 15th.

WPRA BREAKAWAY ROPING

It’s safe to say that all of this year’s breakaway ropers are Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping (NFBR) rookies as it is the first time that the event has been held. However, it is not the first time that breakaway ropers have competed for gold buckles and world titles. It will likely be the first time that any of them have roped on a baseball field and they are grateful for the opportunity. Their qualification and stories deserve a story of their own, so come back soon as I delve into the women at the inaugural Wrangler NFBR.