BY: KENDRA SANTOS
The National Finals Rodeo Switchenders Club is so exclusive that only nine cowboys in history have managed the rare rodeo feat of qualifying for the Super Bowl of Rodeo as both headers and heelers. It’s fitting that the winningest header of all time—Eight-Time Champ of the World Speed Williams—has advanced to the performances at American Bank Center at both ends right here at the World Champions Rodeo Alliance’s $553,000 Rodeo Corpus Christi. The ultra-cool twist on this little team roping tale is that Hall of Famer Williams is getting it done at 54, and three other cowboys—Casey Hicks, Joe Mattern and Blaine Burleson—will join him by also backing in the box both ways. Oh, and Burleson is only 15, so at opposite ends of the roping-career spectrum from Speed.
Fate stepped in for Florida native Williams, who qualified to head here for his son Gabe, who’s also 15 and a friend of Burleson’s. Speed, who now lives with his family in Comanche, Texas, got a call from old neighbor and friend Alex Muratori on his drive down to Corpus.
“Alex used to live in Llano (Texas) when Rich (Skelton) and I roped (Speed and Rich won a record eight world team roping titles together),” Williams explained. “Alex came and roped with us at Rich’s as a young kid.
“Alex’s planned partner turned out when Alex was halfway here, so he had to get a partner who was already entered and asked me to heel for him. I told him I hadn’t heeled one in the practice pen in quite a while, but that my son would have a horse and a rope I could borrow, so it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Speed headed for son Gabe on a big sorrel horse he calls Green Light. He heeled for Muratori aboard Gabe’s horse Romeo. There were some unexpected glitches, and Speed stopped the clock in just one of the two qualifying rounds with each partner.
“For Gabe, I ran right up in the middle of him, took an extra swing and bounced it off of him,” he said with his signature Speed smirk. “My biggest mistake ever in my roping career was running through the barrier when I was high call at the BFI (Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic) one year. That was a lack of focus, and it took a long time to get over it.
“To miss a cow here at Corpus Christi when all I had to do was catch goes against everything I teach my students. The steer had big horns, so I didn’t think it was possible to wave it off. But when I watched the video, I could see I didn’t really do anything wrong. It’s just one of those things that happens. When I was heeling for Alex, I popped it off the (saddle) horn then lost my dally. Gabe and I were 7 on our first steer. Alex and I were 7 on our second steer. The bad news is, I made two mistakes. The good news is, I made it back by roping one out of two steers with both partners.”
Williams’ word to the wise for all you young guns out there—“People need to know that it’s not that difficult to make it to the performances, so they shouldn’t be shy or discouraged about throwing their name in the hat,” Speed said. “I watched the breakaway roping qualifying rounds yesterday, and told some of the girls who missed their second one, ‘I can feel your pain.’”
There was a fun little family moment when Speed’s daughter, Hali, roped her first breakaway calf, then missed her second one.
Speed: “Hali, how can you miss the second one when all you have to do is catch?”
Hali: “Really, Dad??”
Nobody’s perfect, and with the top 24 from the average on two in the qualifying rounds making it back to the progressive round, anything’s possible. Those 24 are joined by the second-through-fourth-place contestants from the WCRA leaderboard, and those 27 compete—nine per performance—with two from each perf coming back for Saturday night’s Showdown Round, along with the leaderboard #1.
“You just never know,” Speed said. “You’ve got to play the game in the format you’re given at every rodeo.”
Williams gave up the gold-buckle game years ago. This second coming of Speed is fun watching, and comes courtesy of his kids.
“I can honestly say my son is the worst partner I’ve ever had,” Speed smirked again. “When I roped with Rich and Clay (Cooper, who’s a seven-time world champ), I could take a break. Gabe can’t get enough. We can’t practice hard enough for him. He’s wearing me out.”
But it’s a good tired, and Speed himself created his talented mini-me roping-addict monster.
“For years, he was into baseball and about anything but roping,” Williams smiled. “But since the roping bug bit him, his ‘want to’ has been a non-stop runaway train. I’ve raised him to be this way. Now I’ve got to finish the journey.
“The WCRA gives me the opportunity to rope with my son in a high-intensity situation, and I don’t have to travel like I used to. This is the biggest stage he can compete on, because he’s not 18 yet (and therefore too young to turn pro). The WCRA gives me the chance to teach him, and season him on how he needs to go about learning to win.
“The odds of winning a million dollars (via the WCRA Triple Crown of Rodeo presented by the Lazy E Arena, which goes to any contestant who manages three straight wins at WCRA majors in a calendar year) with my son might be low. But it’s possible. And I’m thankful for these opportunities. The chance to win a million dollars has always meant a million miles or more. Not here at the WCRA. Do the math.”
Williams will head for Gabe and heel for Muratori in Thursday evening’s performance at American Bank Center. Young Burleson—the 15-year-old home-schooled sophomore at Ignite Christian Academy, who’ll turn Sweet 16 on May 30 and calls Waller, Texas home—will heel for 14-year-old Nolan Mayberry of Los Fresnos, Texas on Thursday night and head for
18-year-old Bronc Kothmann of Junction, Texas Friday evening. These kids are proving themselves worthy of world-class competition if given the chance, and took advantage of the WCRA’s DY (Division Youth) to get here.
“I’m good friends with Speed’s son, Gabe, and they’re a great family,” Burleson said. “What an experience to be able to rope here with a guy who’s roped at about every rodeo in America. That’s not an opportunity very many guys my age get. The WCRA is a great chance for people to have fun, rope with the pros and win a lot of money.”
Casey Hicks, 35, of Talala, Oklahoma, is also switching ends here at Rodeo Corpus Christi. Hicks will head for Wagoner, Oklahoma’s Stitches Stanley in the Wednesday evening perf, and heel for Cayden Harmon of Stephenville, Texas on Thursday night.
“I enjoy putting minimal money up to nominate my way into getting to rope at a rodeo of this caliber,” Hicks said. “I circuit rodeo, and my day job is riding and training horses. My end goal is to make the Prairie Circuit Finals every year. The WCRA allows me to stay close to home, and the extra incentive is that up to $10,000 of my WCRA earnings count toward the IPRA (International Professional Rodeo Association) standings.”
Rounding out the four impressively versatile team ropers who made it back at both ends to American Bank Center here at Rodeo Corpus Christi is Joe Mattern of Magnolia, Texas. Mattern—who’s 34, so like Hicks at 35 sits right smack in the middle of Williams at 54 and Burleson at 15—will heel for Tee Luttrell on Thursday, then head for Trey Johnson Friday evening.