By: Kendra Santos
Rodeo’s Bubble Boys. They’re the guys on both sides of the Top-15 cut for Rodeo’s Super Bowl with their guts in knots coming down the final fall backstretch. After a grueling yearlong marathon of all-night drives—and physical and financial exhaustion—they grind it out to the finish line of the regular rodeo season, which officially ends on September 30. Coming up just short of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo cut is tough stuff for any full-time rodeo contestant who’s all-in. Thankfully, the World Champions Rodeo Alliance has provided some bright blue sky for two of this year’s close-call cowboys—Isaac Diaz and Paden Bray—who just had their NFR bubbles burst.
At 16th in the 2019 world saddle bronc riding standings, Diaz finished in this year’s literal heartbreak hole.
“I’ve actually missed the NFR more than I’ve made it,” said Diaz, 33, who lives in Desdemona, Texas, has qualified for six NFRs so far and came up just $1,000 short of his seventh trip to Las Vegas this year after suffering a serious injury earlier this season. “I’ve been 17th, 18th, 19th and now 16th. It’s kind of a hard pill to swallow. It came all the way down to the last day of the regular season, and things just didn’t go as planned. I thought I had good horses, but it just didn’t work out.”
Diaz’s faith and family is helping heal the hurt.
“Reality hit pretty hard when it was over,” he said. “It was bugging me pretty bad. Then I just took a minute and thanked God for where he’d brought me from with my injuries. I have to trust in God’s plan, and give it all to him. I’m apparently not supposed to be in Las Vegas in December this year. Being there sure gives a guy a chance to pay more bills. Things don’t always go our way, but God always ends up making it better on the other side. I’m excited to see what He has planned for me next.”
His 2019 season really has been a roller coaster ride after Isaac and his fellow NFR veteran wife, barrel racer Britany, welcomed their baby girl, Whitlee Grace, into the world on December 27, 2018. Then there was Isaac’s $62,500 windfall win at the WCRA’s $1 million Windy City Roundup in Chicago in January. That particular bountiful blessing saved the financial day for the Diaz family in 2019.
“To start the year off with that kind of cash—that’s a life-changing amount of money—just goes to show that God finds a way to take care of our needs,” said Isaac, who won $89,786 during this 12-month regular rodeo season. “$150,000 is a good year, even without the NFR.”
Naturally, Diaz would have loved to compete at another NFR. And there’s no telling what his bank account might look like right now had he been able to go on to the WCRA’s $1 million Title Town Stampede in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he was scheduled to compete in June before an injury timeout forced him to the sidelines.
Diaz strained his groin at a rodeo in Texas in March. He nursed it along and thought it was getting better when two months later—on May 19—he felt and heard a pop. He couldn’t walk, and was in so much pain while being packed out of the arena that he thought he might pass out or puke. Diaz had suffered a sports hernia, which he described as “the muscles in my lower abdomen and groin tore away from my pelvis.” He underwent surgery on May 30 in Philadelphia, and was out until his August 2 return at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo in Sidney, Iowa.
Diaz had a lot of catching up to do, so it’s actually borderline miraculous that he about made the Finals.
“There’s a lot to be thankful for,” Diaz said. “I had a good financial year, and I feel 100 percent again. It took the better part of August to get back in the swing of things and feel like I was at full strength. I was only healthy about the last five weeks of the season or so. Before that, I hurt every time I nodded my head. But my health is good now, and I’m happy about that. And there’s progress in rodeo, so I’m happy about that, too. It took $90,000 to make the NFR this year. The first year I made it (in 2007) it took $55,000 or $60,000. You don’t have to make the NFR to make a living in rodeo anymore.”
The WCRA’s recent announcement of the WCRA Triple Crown of Rodeo—an annual $1 million bonus that’s up for grabs to any athlete who wins any three consecutive WCRA $1 million major rodeos—is the latest example of real-deal rodeo progress. If multiple contestants get it done, the million will be divided equally.
“What an amazing concept,” Diaz said. “Some might consider it far fetched, but Wade Sundell proved at The American that it can be done by winning that three years in a row. All kinds of new money has come into the rodeo industry in recent years. Progress is being made, and lives are being changed. People will win that million. How cool is that?
“And how cool is it that everybody has an equal shot at it? The circuit guys—who choose to stay home because they have jobs and families—are so tough today, too. Those guys can nominate rodeos close to home now, and have the same shot at the big money as the rest of us without having to be out there on the road full time.”
At the other end of the arena, 20-year-old team roper Paden Bray came up about $4,000 short of qualifying for his first Finals this year, after finishing 17th in the world on the heeling side.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Bray said. “My last rodeo was my home-towner (in Stephenville, Texas), and I rode out of the arena knowing I wasn’t going to make the Finals, which was pretty hard to swallow. The last week of the regular season was the only week I got skunked all year. Ending up 17th in the world is a letdown. I didn’t achieve my goal. But we had a great year. Not quite good enough, but it dang sure motivates me for next year and makes me even hungrier.”
Like Diaz, Bray has blessings to count and blue sky to look forward to. For starters, the junior business major at Tarleton State University in Stephenville is the 2019 Resistol Rookie Heeler of the Year. He’s also the leader of the WCRA heeling points pack, and if he can maintain that position will automatically advance alongside the leaders in each event to the next WCRA $1 million major, the February 28 Royal City Roundup in Kansas City, Missouri.
Since April, Bray’s heeled for 2017 World Champion Header Erich Rogers, who will head for Kyle Lockett at this year’s NFR. Bray, who roped with Tanner Green earlier in the year, won about $67,000 during the 2019 regular season. Bray needs only look to Diaz’s $62,500 night in Chicago for incentive to nominate events toward WCRA advancement.
“I’m a big fan of the WCRA,” Bray said. “Erich and I placed at the WCRA Semi Finals (at the Lazy E Arena) in Guthrie (Oklahoma) earlier this year (in May), and qualified for Green Bay, where we won third. We got $1,400 for showing up and won $8,900 for third, so that’s $10,300 apiece for winning third against 10 other teams. That’s pretty easy rodeo math.
“So yes, I am nominating rodeos to try to get a straight bye into the final round at the next major in Kansas City, where first will pay at least $50,000 and second will pay $25,000. Erich and I have won $17,000 at WCRA events this year. We’re high on the WCRA. They’re really trying to make a difference, and they’re for the cowboys. My goal for 2020 is to make the NFR and go to every big WCRA event there is. The odds of winning good money at WCRA events are great. It’s stacked in the cowboys’ favor.”