For longtime Wrangler NFR attendees, it’s all about the stories
By PATRICK EVERSON
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Since 1985, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo has called Las Vegas home. And there are a few handfuls of folks who, every year since then, have made a point of also calling Vegas home for the annual 10-day festival of riding, roping and racing. Some of them have attended the Wrangler NFR since long before that, in Oklahoma City, Los Angeles or its original site in Dallas.
The reasons are plentiful for coming back, year after year, decade after decade. But there’s a common thread among all those reasons: the stories. Longtime Wrangler NFR attendees, including some approaching their 90s, return to Vegas to relive those stories and create some new ones
There are very few people who have heard or can relay Wrangler NFR stories the way Ted Kimzey can. That’s because very few have seen it from as many perspectives as Kimzey. He’s seen it at two venues in Oklahoma City. He’s been down on the dirt at the Thomas & Mack Center, as a renowned bullfighter/rodeo clown/barrelman. He’s been in the stands as just a Joe Six-Pack rodeo fan.
And now, his son Sage Kimzey is the best bull rider on the planet.
“Everybody used to ask if he was my son. Now, they ask if I’m his father,” says Kimzey, who harbors no ill will over that change. “I don’t have a problem with it. I think that’s awesome as hell.”
That’s just a small sample of the lively dialog you’ll get from Kimzey. He’ll talk your ear off, to be sure — and you’ll want to keep listening until he talks your other ear off. He’s back at the Wrangler NFR this year, having made it out for all 32 shows at the Thomas & Mack, and even to a few before the Super Bowl of Rodeo moved to this town.
“I bought my first season tickets to the NFR when it was at the Oklahoma state fairgrounds. I thought it was a good business move on my part, probably because it was a good business move,” Kimzey jokes of his mid-1970s investment, pointing to high ticket demand over the years, with the Wrangler NFR on a 300-night sellout streak at the Thomas & Mack. “If people wanted to come, I could say, ‘Hell yeah, I got tickets.’”
That certainly helped out friends and family when, for years, Kimzey worked the Wrangler NFR and competed in the Wrangler Bullfight Finals 17 times. Perhaps his fondest memory came at the 2009 Wrangler NFR, when he and fellow star clown/bullfighter Greg Rumohr were tapped to do a bullfight as part of the opening ceremony before one of the go-rounds.
“We got done, I looked at Greg, I came up out of the barrel and we just hugged one another, and then we turned around to take our hats off to the crowd, and hell, there were 17,000 people standing on their feet,” says Kimzey, who still gets a little choked up by the memory. “That was absolutely one of the highlights of my career, the crowd giving me and him a standing ovation. It was pretty damn cool.”
Kimzey hasn’t quite closed the chute on his rodeo career — “Very limited, but I have not officially retired yet” — and he won’t quite divulge his age — “I’m going to be eligible for Medicare in 2017” — but the focus of his Wrangler NFR trips is definitely shifting.
“For the last few years, the first thing I’m here for is to watch my son ride bulls,” Kimzey says of Sage, the two-time defending world champion, who is firmly in position to claim a third world title and crack $1 million in career earnings this week. “Second to that, this is the largest cowboy gathering of the year. Guys my age, guys even older than me, like Cotton Rosser” — more on him later — “I get to see those guys and say hello to them. It’s the only time of the year I get to see them, and sometimes we get to visit a little bit.”
For you rookies of Western culture, “visit” is the term for sitting down to have a friendly chat, over a hot cup of coffee or perhaps an ice-cold beer.
“That’s pretty huge to me. I always look forward to visiting with T.J. Walter, and another guy I really cherish is Harry Vold,” Kimzey says of two more longtime Wrangler NFR attendees. “And I’m not playing favorites. Chuck Henson means the world to me, and Mel Potter too. My gosh, T.J. and I get to telling stories, and it’s just awesome.”
Walter, a 12-time Wrangler NFR qualifier in bareback riding back when the event was in Oklahoma City, has held season tickets since 1984. He’s been battling cancer the past four years — “It’s not getting any worse or getting any better” — so he’s not sure if he’ll make it to town this year. But he fondly recalls a visit with Kimzey four years ago.
“We sat down at the bar at the South Point, about 11 o’clock in the morning,” Walter says. “We got up and left the bar about 8 o’clock that night. We got to telling stories and talking and laughing. God it was fun. And that son of his damn-sure can ride bulls.”
Kimzey says he wished he could’ve recorded some of that conversation and dozens of others, though that might have squelched the story-telling right there.
“If they knew I was recording, they probably wouldn’t tell me. That makes me feel really special.”
Over the past 32 years, Kimzey has also enjoyed getting to better know all those in the seats around him, five rows up behind the announcer. They’re as close to family as one can be without sharing the same bloodlines.
“The people who sit in the two seats right next to me, their kids were about the same age as my kids growing up,” says Kimzey, who has a daughter and son younger than 22-year-old Sage. “We swap some tickets every year to try to accommodate everyone. They’ve become family. We don’t see them or call a whole heckuva lot. But we’ve exchanged graduation invitations for the kids.
“At the NFR, it’s like a family reunion, and it’s magical to me. I’m lucky I did what I did back in the ‘70s and got some really nice seats. I still have really nice seats.”
And really nice stories!
Robert and Betty Harney probably didn’t know it at the time, but back in 1985, they made a decision that would continue making an impact right up to this day — and beyond.
“My father and mother bought four tickets,” Pamela Jo Harney recalls, noting her parents were friends with Shawn Davis, general manager of the Wrangler NFR. “When the PRCA decided to move the rodeo to Vegas, Shawn wanted to sell the place out, and he talked my dad into buying tickets.”
Robert and Betty raised five kids in Twin Falls, Idaho, but Pamela Jo and Betsy Anne took the biggest shine to rodeo. So the two sisters are now the caretakers of those four tickets, carrying on the love of the Wrangler NFR after their parents moved on from these earthly bonds.
“My sister and I divide them up between family and friends,” says Pam, who now lives near Sacramento, while Betsy lives in Seattle. “It gives my sister and I an excuse to spend a week together every year. It’s become quite the tradition. The first few nights, close friends use the tickets. Then we start Monday night.”
The sisters use two of the tickets, of course, and the other two go to three more twosomes, who each get two nights at the Thomas & Mack Center. For Pam and Betsy, the rodeo brings back fond recollections of their childhood.
“I think that’s because we were raised with horses. Dad always had a herd, and we showed horses,” Pam says. “The NFR gives us one week a year to go back and check it all out. It really brings back memories. We had such a wonderful childhood, to be part of that environment. So going to the rodeo gets you all fired up. You want to go get a horse and a trainer! But by the end of the week, reality sets in.”
It took a couple of years in Vegas for the Wrangler NFR to reach Davis’ goal of selling out, but every go-round since 1987 has indeed been a full house. The incredible success and transformation of the event has been breathtaking for Pam and Betsy, and they’re surely not alone.
“We have really seen this totally evolve,” Pam says. “From the very first time to what it is today, I can’t believe how much it has grown. When we first went, there was a gravel parking lot with no markings. All these farmers were stopping and parking their trucks wherever they like to be.”
The Thomas & Mack now has plenty of well-marked, paved parking, if in fact you actually need a spot.
“Now, you don’t even have to have a car. You can take the shuttle from anywhere,” Pam says. “It took a while for us to do that. We’re girls from Idaho, where you always drive a car, even across the street to Safeway. But now, we take the shuttle and love that.”
They also love how they’ve always been able to fill up their days, before a night full of rodeo at the T&M. Specifically at Cowboy Christmas, which had humble beginnings back in the mid-1980s, but has grown tremendously since and now has a huge footprint at the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls, which it shares with the Hunter & Outdoor Christmas Expo.
“We’re totally blown away by that,” Pam says. “There are years where we’ve gone to Cowboy Christmas every day, we’re so blown away. Now, even if you go every day, you may not see everything. It’s also kind of neat that a lot of older vendors are still there. We’ve made friends with them over the years. They don’t really know our names — they just know us as the sisters from Idaho.”
Much like Ted Kimzey, Pam and Betsy have also grown close to all the other longtime Wrangler NFR attendees who sit near them each night of the Wrangler NFR.
“We do have the same people around us every year, and a few are kids we grew up with in Idaho,” Pam says. “It’s really awesome, because this is the only time we get to see them. It feels like a family reunion, plus we have family coming every other night, too.
“And the row behind us is sponsor seats, so there’s always a different crowd there, which is every interesting. They’ll be prim and proper one night, then partying the next night.”
Pam wouldn’t reveal her age, or sister Betsy’s, but suffice it to say, they probably don’t mind when a partying crowd arrives in the row behind them.
“We’re not too old to chase cowboys,” Pam says with a laugh.
Cotton Rosser has pretty much seen it all over the last 90 years — or at least lived through it. He was born just a year before the Great Depression began. He was a teenager as America’s Greatest Generation was saving the world’s bacon in World War II. And he’s been tied into rodeo pretty much all of his adult life — including, of course, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“I’m 88 years old — 50 plus a mark-up. Mickey Mouse and I are both the same age, both born in 1928,” Rosser says with a laugh.
The longtime rodeo producer, who oversaw the first nine opening shows when the Wrangler NFR moved to the Thomas & Mack Center, is among the longest-running attendees of this season-ending showdown, since long before it came to Vegas.
“I was in Dallas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City,” says Rosser, who lives in Marysville, Calif. “But Vegas is the place to be. We’re tickled to death to be in Las Vegas.”
The Wrangler NFR is in the midst of its 32nd run at the Thomas & Mack, and Rosser has been on hand for 31 of those, with a pretty good excuse for his absence in 2001.
“I missed one year when I got my new knees,” Rosser says. “I was in pretty good pain. I had to learn to walk again, and I had hell flying my airplane, which I did for 60 years.”
Fortunately, Rosser now has a buddy with a jet, so he can relax on the flight down to Vegas. He remains a stock contractor, so he’s got steers and bucking horses in town this week.
Back in 1984, Rosser was one of the biggest proponents of moving this event from Oklahoma City. And the city needed something to fill the incredibly dead period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
“I said it needs to go to Vegas — it’s the entertainment capital of the world,” Rosser recounts. “The first year we were there, every hotel, little old motel, everybody in town had ‘Welcome NFR’ signs. The cabdrivers thanked us, everybody thanked us. They were so tickled to have us here.”
Rosser rodeoed a bit with the legendary Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders — “I broke both legs in ’55. Best thing that ever happened. It got me out of competing and into rodeo management” — and he was on the PRCA’s Board of Directors for decades, up until five years ago. He’s seen the explosive growth of the Wrangler NFR, all its ancillary events and the city itself.
“What brings me back every year is the success of the NFR, and knowing I was a little bit part of it,” he says. “In Oklahoma City, you couldn’t get a bite to eat after the rodeo, and there was nothing to do. In Vegas, they’ve got rodeo down to a T. And the weather is good. I’ve seen blowing snow in Oklahoma City.
“Vegas has got all them events, you can see all the people, a lot of my friends who are still alive. You get to watch rodeo, the food is fantastic, it’s the cheapest vacation you can take, and the weather is usually wonderful.”
Like many other longtime Wrangler NFR attendees, Rosser really couldn’t imagine this 10-day rodeo being anywhere else. And generations of fans after him surely agree, turning out in droves every December for 32 years running now.
Says Rosser: “It’s heaven in Vegas, and the Finals is the best place.”
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After near misses, R.C. Landingham competes at WNFR
By BETSY HELFAND
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Every cowboy and cowgirl competing at the National Finals Rodeo knows how difficult it is to make it to the event.
The long hours, the travel and the physical demands are just parts of it.
R.C. Landingham knows those hardships. He also knows the heartbreak that comes with putting in all the work and just missing out on a chance to compete in what is considered the Super Bowl of professional rodeo.
Landingham, a 26-year-old bareback rider, finished 16th two straight years — the top 15 qualify for the NFR — and 19th last year.
So in July when he knew he finally had a spot in this year’s NFR, the pressure was lifted.
“I didn’t have to win to make the finals, so that made it a lot easier to win and it was just a huge relief to finally know that I was going to get to go,” Landingham said.
Landingham finished fifth overall in the bareback standings, but despite a solid season, he was understandably nervous on Thursday in his first go-round.
He wasn’t himself behind the chutes, hardly talking to anybody and was almost in shock that he was there.
That translated to poor results, with him placing last.
“Things did not go the way I planned and after being 16th twice and 19th once and being so close to making it and then finally making it this year, I think I had a lot of pressure on me and I just wanted really bad to have a good performance and things definitely did not go the way I wanted them to,” he said. “After being there and experiencing it … I kind of have an idea of what it’s like. I’m not going to have all that pressure.”
On the second night, he had a better performance, finishing seventh, though just missing out on earning money in the round.
In his third go-round, which took place Saturday, he posted an 80.0, his best score of the three, but again just missed out on cashing.
He currently sits seventh in the event standings.
The success this year, he said, is a function of making better decisions, thanks in part to lessons he learned from near misses in the past.
He said being so close to qualifying for the NFR but just missing was really difficult, especially when it happened the second time, but it made him work a little harder.
“You go back, you think about things you could have done different and both years there were a handful of things that I could have done different and choices that I made that I shouldn’t have and it might have made the difference in that $5,000 and (gotten) me to the finals. But at the end of the day, you never really know what would have happened if you had done things different anyways,” Landingham said.
This year, Landingham said he was healthy all season, taking better care of his body and being better at deciding which horses to get on.
“I don’t really dwell on the past. I just kind of try to build on it and try not to make the same mistakes twice and I think it made me a better bareback rider and a smarter bareback rider,” Landingham said. “I (make) some smart decisions on what horses I get on now, what rodoes I go to and when I go and when I stay home and all that.”
Contact Betsy Helfand at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter:
WNFR first timer Ryder Wright continues dominance
IF YOU GO:
What: Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
When: Dec. 1-10, 6:45 p.m.
Tickets: Mad Dash (general admission, seat not guaranteed) tickets available by calling Thomas & Mack box office at (702) 739-3267 or www.UNLVtickets.com
By BETSY HELFAND
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Ryder Wright’s domination continued Saturday during the third night of competition at the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Wright, an 18-year-old competing in his first NFR, took first in saddle bronc riding for the third straight night, beating out, among others, numerous family members including his father, brother and uncles and bringing his total three-day earnings to $88,692.31.
Wright’s performances have him now second in the world standings behind just Jacobs Crawley, last year’s world champion. He came in 14th.
“It’s crazy,” Wright said. “I couldn’t even tell you where I thought I’d be.”
Dustin Bird maintained his hold on the All-Around lead, though brothers Riley and Brady Minor tied with Matt Sherwood and Quinn Kesler for first in the go-round.
It was an off-night for All-Around leaders Bird and Russell Cordoza, who took a no-time. Though Bird is still first in the All-Around, steer wrestler Clayton Hass, who tied for fifth in his event, moved into second place Saturday.
Cardoza, Junior Nogueira and Josh Peek round out the All-Around top five after the third go-round.
Other winners Saturday include Tanner Aus and Clayton Biglow, who tied for first in the third bareback riding go-round, both posting an 88.0, and Tyler Waguespack and J.D. Struxness who tied at 3.90 seconds in steer wrestling.
Cade Swor and Hunter Herrin tied for first in tie-down roping, at 7 seconds.
Lisa Lockhart finished first in the third barrel racing go-round at 13.72 seconds while Shane Proctor was the night’s top bull rider, posting a 91.0.
Contact Betsy Helfand at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter:
For Barnes, O’Brien, it ain’t their first rodeo
By TODD DEWEY
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
In 1985, the year the National Finals Rodeo arrived in Las Vegas, the No. 1 movie was “Back to the Future” and the top team ropers were Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper.
If the seven-time world champions had fired up the flux capacitor back then and taken the DeLorean for a spin — to say, Dec. 4, 2014 — they would have been thrilled to discover that, 30 years later, they were still contending for titles at the NFR, which started its annual 10-day run Thursday at the Thomas &Mack Center.
Barnes, 55, and O’Brien, 53 — the oldest competitors at the NFR — also would have been happy to see 1985 world champs Ote Berry, Joe Beaver and Lewis Feild at the T&M on Thursday, though only one of them (Berry) was on a horse.
Barnes, a heeler making his 26th NFR appearance, placed fourth in the first round with partner Junior Nogueira, the first Brazilian ever to qualify for a timed event at the NFR.
O’Brien, a header, finished eighth with Aaron Tsinigine in his 28th NFR appearance.
“We all thought what Cal Ripken did was amazing. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Jake and Clay,” said Berry, a four-time steer wrestling champ who is hazing for Clayton Hass. “They’re not only still competing, but they’re competing at the highest level. They’re in contention for the world championship every year.
“It’s hard to maintain that, not only physically but mentally.”
Besides being blessed with good health, Barnes and Cooper — a Gardnerville resident who made his acting debut in the 1972 John Wayne film “The Cowboys” when he was 11 — both said the key to their longevity has been their love of the game.
“I enjoy every part of it,” Cooper said. “I enjoy the preparation and the practice, working with my horses. I enjoy the competition, and I enjoy winning. You don’t win every time, so when you do win, it’s a thrill.”
Barnes said traveling is the biggest challenge the friends face in their 50s.
“The hardest thing for us in this deal is just the grueling schedule,” he said. “We compete at 75 rodeos a year. Being our age, that takes a toll on you.”
However, Barnes said he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he wasn’t roping.
“That’s all we know,” he said. “We grew up roping. It’s been part of my life ever since I can remember. It’s something you don’t get out of your blood. (Clay’s) the same way. We were basically born to rope.”
Besides the big increase in prize money since 1985 — when the total purse doubled to $1.795 million from the year before in Oklahoma City and has more than tripled since, to $6.375 million this year — Barnes said the biggest change has been how Las Vegas has embraced rodeo’s Super Bowl.
“Before, Vegas wasn’t a rodeo town. Now, it’s the biggest rodeo town there is,” he said. “Everyone wants to come to Vegas in December to come and watch the NFR.
“When they were talking about moving it last year, it was kind of disappointing. I’m glad that it’s stayed here. This is a special place for me.”
Berry remembers a lot of empty seats at the first NFR in Las Vegas.
“A lot of people around town didn’t know what was going on and what all the cowboys were doing here,” he said. “It’s changed dramatically. The first year out here, December was always kind of the deadest month for Las Vegas. Now it’s one of the liveliest.”
Coincidentally, when Berry won the world and average titles in 1985 in his first NFR, he did it on a Horse of the Year called Cadillac. This year, Hass also is competing in his first NFR on a Horse of the Year called Cadillac. If Hass wins the world title, he and Berry might have a new sponsor.
Feild, who won the first two of his five gold buckles in 1985, was in attendance at his 30th straight NFR on Thursday. He was watching his son, three-time defending bareback riding world champion Kaycee Feild, win the first round with a 84.5-point ride on Cactus Juice.
Beaver, who won the first of his eight gold buckles in tie-down roping as a rookie in 1985, was at the event as a TV commentator.
While Cooper and Barnes are still competing at the highest level, there are some things they can’t do anymore.
“I don’t have any desire to go out on the town anymore. That’s changed,” Cooper said. “I’m a little more low-key. I don’t need the nightlife anymore.”
Barnes said he’s all business as well and that he learned a long time ago his best bet at making money in Las Vegas is at the NFR.
“I’m not much of a gambler or a drinker,” he said. “When we were young, I used to try to gamble a little bit, but I figured out they don’t build these things off winners.”
■ NOTES — Rookie bull rider Joe Frost won the first round, pocketing $19,002.40, for his 85.5-point ride on Rattler. Frost, a 22-year-old from Randlett, Utah, is the second cousin of renowned bull rider Lane Frost, the 1987 world champion who died in 1989 after a ride at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. Lane Frost was immortalized in the 1994 rodeo movie “Eight Seconds.” … The NFR’s 28-year sellout streak continued Thursday with a capacity crowd of 17,591. … The NFR will be televised at 7 p.m. daily through Dec. 13 by the CBS Sports Network (Cox Channel 333).
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.