I wasn’t there to see the 1985 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo—the first of 30 in Las Vegas now—for myself. I was still in college at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. But to a person, every one of the 1985 world champions went on to become a ProRodeo Hall of Famer and very special to me over the course of the 28 NFRs I’ve worked since then.
Lewis Feild, the 1985 world champion bareback rider and all-around cowboy, won his first two of five gold buckles that year, and went on to raise a beautiful family, including son Kaycee, who’s won three straight world bareback riding crowns and is the leader of the pack heading into this year’s Finals.
Ote Berry, the 1985 world champion steer wrestler, was just 23 when he won the NFR average and his first of four world titles that year. Pretty cool and persistent for a kid born in South Dakota who had callouses all over his hands from working the hay fields in Nebraska, after not winning a penny as a PRCA rookie in 1982.
Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper were the 1985 world team roping titlists back before a world champion header and heeler were crowned separately, and also back before team ropers earned equal money at the NFR and so many other rodeos. The dream teamers’ identical earnings for the year made them the co-champs, in their first world championship year of seven.
Brad Gjermundson won three world saddle bronc riding titles in Oklahoma City before winning his fourth and final gold buckle in Vegas in 1985. You never heard how great Brad was from him, but his riding said it all loud and clear.
Joe Beaver, the 1985 Overall and Tie-Down Roping Rookie of the Year, accomplished the rare feat of winning the world as a PRCA and NFR freshman. To this day, the Thomas & Mack is often called “The House That Joe Built” in honor of the eight gold buckles Joe B won under that roof.
The first time I ever saw 1985 World Champion Bull Rider Ted Nuce ride was at a high school rodeo in Oakdale—California’s Cowboy Capital of the World. I remember him wearing a funny looking, short-brimmed, silver-belly hat, and it wasn’t just me.
The powers that be weren’t buying that it was even a cowboy hat, so they wouldn’t let him ride in it when we got to the Junior Grand National high school rodeo at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
What a class of world champs we had in 1985, and that includes my more than amazing barrel racer friend, Charmayne James, who won her second of 11 world championships in Vegas aboard her bay bomber, Scamper, that year. Scamper made his way into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1996 after winning all our hearts.
The NFR payoff basically doubled from $901,550 in 1984 to $1,790,000 when it hit Cowboy Town in 1985.
I asked each of the ’85 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association champs three questions about that first year in Vegas 30 years ago. Here it is, in their words.
When you think back on the 1985 NFR, what stands out most to you now?
It sure doesn’t seem like it’s been 30 years ago. The bareback riders stayed at the Sands down toward old town that first year. They gave us all suites, and they were free. It seemed like we had the whole hotel to ourselves, because we were the only ones there. It wasn’t very busy in Vegas during December back then. The city was a lot smaller, and there wasn’t a lot of action around town that time of year before the rodeo moved to town.
None of the cowboys had ever been there before, so what stands out most to me was the unexpected and not knowing. All we’d heard was second-hand hearsay about how small the arena was and that we were basically going to go compete in an arena the size of a basketball court in the Runnin’ Rebels’ building. It was my first Finals. I’d watched the Finals in Oklahoma City in 1983 and ’84, and I really felt like I got robbed not making it to Oklahoma City because I think it would have fit me like a glove. The size of the arena and the conditions—fresher cattle and a longer score—in Oklahoma City would have fit me better than that little arena in Las Vegas. I considered myself more old school when it came to catching and sliding bigger, fresher cattle, and I’d had success at big outdoor rodeos like Cheyenne and Salinas. It was a long week for me there in ’85, because back then it was just four moneys in the round and I didn’t place until the seventh round. I ended up setting the record that year for the fastest time (49.3 seconds) on 10 steers. Whoever won the average was supposed to in that smaller building. It was just a long week for me, because I hadn’t won any money after six rounds. And every day you go without placing and winning money works on you mentally. I ended up winning the ninth and 10th rounds and the average, and was the high money winner out of the bulldoggers. As slow as the start was, the ending was like it was scripted for a movie. It came down to the last steer for the world championship, and it couldn’t have gone any better. I traveled out there with Roy Duvall, and Roy, Ricky Huddleston, Rod Lyman and me had all been in the same rig all year. The total bulldogging payoff at the Finals that year was $262,000, and the four of us won $131,000—exactly half of it. Ricky, Rod and me were all NFR rookies in 1985.
It was finally a dream come true. When you first start out, you’re just glad to make the NFR. The reality of actually having an opportunity to finally win a world championship was a big deal. It was pretty overwhelming to get it done. It was the first year in Las Vegas, and the money was a lot better. Clay roped calves back then, and was in contention for the all-around that year. What a lot of people don’t remember is that he was the runner-up by less than $4,000, and that we weren’t roping for equal money in the team roping at the Finals in those days. When we went to Vegas, they treated the cowboys like stars. They made a big deal out of us. The different hotels hosted the cowboys in different events. The hotel rooms were free, and the prize money was incredible compared to what it had been.
Clay O’Brien Cooper
It was the beginning of a new era when the Finals moved to Vegas. The prize money increased significantly. It wasn’t equal in the team roping back then, but was a tad bit more than half the other events. From the point of that move, the Finals took on a whole new atmosphere. Las Vegas is the premier entertainment town, so the rodeo just had a whole glitzy atmosphere and took on a different face when it moved there. It was kind of a changing of the guard, as well, in all of the events. Bulldoggers like Ote Berry, John W. Jones Jr. and Steve Duhon became dominant from that point, Joe Beaver took over in the calf roping, and the Lane Frost, Tuff Hedeman and Jim Sharp era in bull riding all happened in Vegas. It just seemed like a whole new page in the new chapter of rodeo history was about to be written. Jake and I had such a good year that we went into the Finals $20,000 in the lead. It was our first really good chance at a world championship, and that was what we had worked hard for for so long. Everything about the Finals was new and different and exciting when we moved to Vegas.
The go-rounds went from paying $4,000 in 1984 to $8,000 in 1985. In Oklahoma City, everyone who was in town that week was there for the rodeo. In Las Vegas, most people still didn’t know the rodeo was in town in 1985. They didn’t sell it out then like they do now. People wondered why so many hats, and what are the cowboys doing here? It took a few years to be the big thing of the month there. There were a lot of perks with the move. The saddle bronc riders stayed at the Tropicana, and it was brand new that year. The airport and the Tropicana were out there kind of alone, but close to the Thomas & Mack. I had goals set when I went there, and wanted to get them accomplished. That was the biggest jump in the payoff in my career. Riding for twice the money from one year to the next was huge.
Winning the first round at my first National Finals really stands out. That kicked off my whole career and told me how it was going to be. That made me think, “Maybe I’m in the right place.” That was one of the most important runs I ever made. To win the round at the first one you ever go to is special. I can remember what a ghost town Vegas was that year and the first couple years. That’s when the big stars took their vacations and the big casinos painted, put in new carpet and did their remodeling. Roll forward a few years and look at what the Finals did to Vegas in December. Some people were talking about history and nostalgia. All I cared about was where the big money was.
It was such a great move for the PRCA with the money doubling. People asked me what I thought about that small arena, which obviously doesn’t affect the riding events as much as the timed events. I remember telling them that for $8,000 a round I’d ride bulls in a box stall. It was just so much more exciting. Vegas is such an entertainment capital of the world. All the bright lights made it a very exciting year in a very exciting place.
Thirty years later, which 1985 NFR ride is most memorable?
After I rode my 10th-round bareback horse, I knew I had the world bareback riding and all-around championships won. I needed to hold my positions to get that done, and those were my first world championships. I remember as my feet hit the ground off of the pickup man, at that point I was a world champion. I’d dreamed about that for a long time and wondered what that feeling was supposed to be. Should there be stars and stripes and bombs going off in your mind? I remember it being a satisfying and comforting feeling. I wasn’t a better or different person, but I felt good about being able to accomplish that. I remember (1981 World Champion Bareback Rider) J.C. Trujillo told me one time, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-time world champion or a 20-time world champion, once you’ve won the world you’re a world champion forever.”
I’d have to say the 10th go-round. It was the second year in a row for me that it came down to the last horse at the NFR to be the world champion. I think there were about three or four guys who could have won it that day. I had Bennie Beutler’s Good Times. For me, he was the perfect draw in the 10th round and when I was needing to win, like I did. You could win on him, but he was still rider friendly.
I would say my last ride on No. 189 of Bradford Ivy’s. I’d been on him once before, and he bucked me off. I drew him in the 10th round and needed to ride him to win the world championship. I’d ridden eight of my first nine bulls, and ended up riding nine out of 10 that year. It was like I was in perfect time with him. It was one of those rides you want to make to win the world championship.
What did you ride at the 1985 NFR?
I rode Bill Duvall’s bulldogging horse Cadillac, and Bill hazed for me. Cadillac was the 1985 Horse of the Year, and his scoring was what made him great. The score was short in Vegas, so it didn’t come into play as much in that little building, but it’s like he knew the start everywhere we went. Ricky and Rod rode Cadillac at the Finals that year, too. He was an ex-head horse that pinned his ears and watched cattle. It seemed like the more aggressive you rode him, the better he worked. And that fit my style.
I rode a bay horse I called Bullwinkle. He was a pretty unique horse. He was one of the fastest horses I’ve ever ridden, and going to Las Vegas in that building was right up his alley. He was a really strong horse. He didn’t score the best, but the score was so short, the steers were big and he faced really good. So it was right up his alley. Those horses that Clay and I had at that time—you always think of the individuals winning the world championships, but our horses went hand-in-hand with what we won. I had Bullwinkle and Clay had Blue, and it was kind of like when Speed (Williams) and Rich (Skelton) had Viper and Roany. At that time, we roped big, strong cattle at the Finals, and they just fit Bullwinkle. What was unique about Bullwinkle is that he had so much run that you could reach on him and he never got short. He finished (faced) really good also. He could really take ahold of those big cattle. I didn’t have to reach every time, because he was so fast and caught up so quick. Drawing steers that ran was almost in my favor. My biggest fear was getting out of the barrier on him. Luckily, the score was short. Several of the bulldoggers at that time were eyeing him, because Bullwinkle had bulldogging speed. He kind of had an attitude in the box, but the score was so short it let me get by on him. If I could get him out of the barrier and keep him from getting out of there too quick, his speed could make up so much ground.
Clay O’Brien Cooper
I rode a horse I called Blue. I bought him at the beginning of that year, just before Tucson, and that’s when Jake and I kind of went on a rampage and won everything. It was almost impossible to miss when I was riding him, because he was just in the perfect place at all times. Blue’s probably my favorite horse of all time, for that reason. He was just perfect in every way. He was gorgeous to look at, and the way he moved he was so smooth. He had the perfect stride, glided on top of the ground and used his hind end to slide to a stop just perfectly. He was the prototypical perfect heel horse, in my estimation, and as far as his disposition went he had perfect manners. You just couldn’t fault him anywhere. Blue was the total package.
I rode Pat, a dun horse that was kind of a Mustang looking son of a gun. His tail dragged the ground, he had a foretop that was so long I tucked it under the noseband and his mane was so long I tucked it under the breast collar. I’d wanted him forever, but he wasn’t sound. I bought him in May of that year for $10,000, which was a lot of money for a horse no one thought would last six months. Dr. Charles Graham in Elgin, Texas, told me, “If you can win on him, I can keep him going.” Pat had navicular, but he had a huge heart. I ended up riding him through the ’91 Finals. Pat fit that setup in Vegas, so I figured I could get him paid for right there. And I more than did.
What are you up to these days, and where will you be during the run of this year’s Finals—the 30th annual NFR in Cowboy Town?
I have a trucking company in the oil fields in North Dakota. It’s not that romantic, I can promise you that, but there’s a lot of opportunity. I spend a week or two a month up there. I’ll be in Vegas the day before the Finals starts, and stay until the day after it’s over. My main purpose there is to watch my son Kaycee ride, and I’ll be filling in a little here and there with some roping and some appearances and autograph sessions around town. I’ve never missed a year since the Finals moved to Vegas.
I’m back on the road hauling a team of horses, hazing for and mentoring some young bulldoggers. I’ve had the opportunity to get back to what I love doing this last year thanks to my friend and partner Brandon Turney, who used to rodeo with me. I haven’t been to the Finals since I last bulldogged there in 2000, but I’ll be back this year hazing for Clayton Hass and I’m looking forward to it. There’s nothing like the atmosphere at the NFR. It’ll be great to get back in that building and be a part of that, knowing I have the opportunity to haze for a gold buckle. Clayton’s a good hand and a good cowboy, and he’s riding the horse of the year, whose name is Cadillac just like the horse I won my first championship on in 1985.
This is my 26th NFR—my 21st NFR in Vegas—and I’ll be heading for Brazilian Junior Nogueira, who’s this year’s Rookie Heeler of the Year. My rookie year was in 1980, and 34 years later I’m going again. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. It seems like just yesterday I was going to my first NFR. It goes by so fast. I’m hoping it’s not my last. The NFR isn’t just a rodeo. True rodeo fans go to the NFR from all over the United States, and tickets are almost impossible to get.
Clay O’Brien Cooper
This’ll be my 28th NFR, and No. 24 in Vegas. I’m at a different stage of life now, but the Finals is still a stressful workweek. Every single day I’m busy all day long. The only time I really get is about an hour and a half every morning, when my wife, Alisa, and I have coffee and wake up, then at night when we get done, have dinner, get to go to the room and relax for an hour or two. The rest is just non-stop going. You have to prepare yourself mentally for that two weeks, because if you’re not prepared for it it can overwhelm you. I’m grateful to get to compete, because of the opportunity, but it’s not an easy week. It’s all part of the battle.
We have a cow-calf operation in North Dakota. We calve in April, and because of the seasons up here we put up a lot of hay in the summertime. My son, Kane, and his wife, Justene, ranch with Jackie and me, and our daughters, Hali and Jori, help out, too. We’re going to try to make it out to Vegas the last few days. There aren’t too many times during the year I get to see so many people I traveled with and rodeoed with in the same place. You can’t walk 10 feet in Vegas that you don’t run into people you haven’t seen in a while, and that’s fun.
I’m a lot busier now than when I was rodeoing. I do a lot of TV commentating, teach schools and put on junior ropings. It’s been a great change walking away from what I did and into what I do now. I’m still busy, and I still travel. I’ll be there in Vegas doing the TV, which I really enjoy. I’m trying to help new fans understand what they’re actually watching. I want them to know why guys are and are not winning. I also want to entertain the people who know more than anyone about our sport. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s a big and fun challenge. I tell it straight up and I tell it like it is. I’ve never held anything back.
I invest in the stock market and real estate. I have two young boys, Wyatt, 8, and Westyn, 6, so we do something fun every day. So many cowboys live in Stephenville, a lot of them I rodeoed with. Stephenville feels like Oakdale used to about 20 years ago. I run into guys like Cody Ohl and Ty Murray, and Jim Sharp’s got a little boy he brings over to swim with my boys. We have a blast. I’ll be in Vegas for a few days during this year’s Finals, and am looking forward to seeing a lot of my rodeo friends.
Courtesy of PRCA