It took the final rodeo run of the regular season for Clif Cooper to wrangle his ticket back to Vegas.On the morning of Sept. 30, after failing to place at a rodeo in Kingman, Ariz., Clif booked it the same day to San Bernardino, Calif., for an evening rodeo that proved to be a night of destiny.
“I had a pretty good year,” Clif said. “Towards the end of the year I got started on a down spell. It came down to the last rodeo of the year whether I was going to make the finals or not. I had to win the very last rodeo of the year.
“I knew the exact dollar amount I had to win. And it had to be first place.”
Atop a 17-year-old gelding named Money, who his wife, Terryn, had just transported the night before from Decatur, Clif went out for his final run of the regular season. He dominated. He captured the first prize purse with a smoking time of 7.5 seconds. The $1,818 was just enough to leap Clif into the elite top 15.
“It was the last rodeo and last run of the year. I wanted to be the last one to go so I knew what time I needed to beat. We rodeo all year long. It’s a long year and a long season. It’s crazy it came down to one run.”
The win gave him $66,369 and just enough to squeak into 15th place in tie-down roping. He ended the regular season with a mere $298 more than Ace Slone of Cuero.
“I experienced the entire range of emotions,” Cooper said of that final night. “I got tested, and I got pulled, strained, but I kept my faith and it worked out for me this year. It was amazing.”
The 24-year-old Decatur cowboy will make his third consecutive trip to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The finals run Dec. 6-12 at the Thomas and Mack Center. Only the top 15 in the world PRCA rankings earn a shot at the world championships.
“The NFR is the Super Bowl of rodeos,” Clif said. “Everybody who is in the industry is there. Your emotions get amplified. I like the big stage. I like the bright lights. I like the butterflies in your stomach and having to suppress that and then going to perform.”
Clif won’t be alone on the trip. Besides his wife and baby girl, Seattle, his younger brother Tuf is looking to seize back-to-back world championships in the tie-down competition.
Tuf, 22, also of Decatur, sits at second in the world with $124,421. With 10 days to rope in Vegas, he’s well within reach of the top spot currently held by Justin Maass of Giddings, who goes into the NFR with $144,001 in winnings.
It’s the fifth time Tuf has qualified for NFR. He’s finished in the top four in the world every year since he first joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in 2008. After finishing second in 2009 and 2010, he stole the show and captured the tie-down world championship in 2011. Now he’s headed west again to defend his crown.
“These next weeks are going to be a lot of hard work,” Tuf said. “I want to go into the finals to win it, and that’s not going to be easy.
“It’s the best 15 in the world that year. There’s not much room for error. But I’m still roping for myself. I just try to go out and make the best throw I can. All I’m worried about is doing my job.”
After slipping in the rankings midway through the season, Tuf found his stride at just the right time.
“The winter was good,” Tuf said. “It was a little rough in the middle of the year. I got things going again here at the end. I’m not going into the finals in first. I haven’t been in the lead all year. But I want to win the average and the world championship.
“It’s one calf, one run, a night. It’s the biggest 10 nights of your life. If you can get into a zone you can win a lot of money.”
His older brother is a bit more of a long shot, but he is eyeing the same prize.
“The main goal is to win the gold buckle,” he said. “I also want to win the average at the NFR. And I want to show the world what I’ve got. I’ve kind of got a chip on my shoulder because I haven’t performed as good as I can yet. And so I’m ready.”
But tie-down roping is such an individual sport, competitors tend to focus more on themselves than the other guy – even if it’s their own flesh and blood.
“At the NFR it really gets brought to the point,” Clif said, “but when I’m roping I just try to do the best I can do. I don’t try to beat just one specific person or a specific time. I just try to be as fast as I can be on the calf that I draw.
“Roping you have to kind of do it by yourself. But I try to practice with Tuf as much as we can so I can feed off of him and try to get to that level of competition.”
As Clif talks, calves bellow in the background in their dad’s dusty arena. Located in the rolling hills just outside Decatur, the arena provides the perfect breeding ground for today’s rodeo stars.
Their father, Roy Cooper, is an eight-time world champion himself. He qualified for the NFR a staggering 32 times and has been in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame since 1979.
“My dad’s the Michael Jordan of calf roping so it’s hard not to be around it,” Clif said.
“I’ve been roping ever since I was in diapers,” Tuf echoed. “I remember getting started tracking a slow calf around the arena on a slow horse. At 6 years old I’d just track a calf around in circles.”
Growing up and riding with the best seems to bring out the best. The family arena is in the shadow of living legend Trevor Brazile, who’s on track to win a monumental 10th all-around world title.
“I’ve got the best ropers in the world that live in the same place I do,” Clif said. “I got to put down my pride and listen to what they have to say even if it’s not what I want to hear.”
“At a young age I knew if I wanted to be the best at something in the world, it was going to be roping,” Tuf said. “I knew I had the best resources in the world. It’s exciting to see the best in the world is your family. It motivates you to go work hard and be better than them.”
Texas and Decatur ropers dominate going into the tie-down competition at NFR. Ten of the 15 ropers that qualified are from the Lone Star State, but Decatur is the only town with more than one cowboy making it.
Overall, four Decatur cowboys will compete in NFR. Others include Brazile, who enters the event ranked first in team roping, and K.C. Jones, who is ranked 10th in the world in steer wrestling.
“I always saw myself at the NFR,” Clif said. “I’ve worked really hard at it, and I’m just waiting for the fruits of my labor to pay off. Rodeo is a hard way to make an easy living is what my dad says. There’s the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. You’ve got to stick with it and ride the course and be strong.”
Right now, he and Tuf are experiencing the highs. And instead of stepping out of the shadow cast by their father and Brazile, they are expanding it – and helping cast Decatur’s shadow over the entire rodeo world.