LAS VEGAS – About an hour after his final run of the 2011 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Jhett Johnson was sporting some new hardware.
The shiny object glistened with silver, white and gold, a reflection of a fantastic 10 days in the Nevada desert for Johnson and his heading partner, Turtle Powell. The trophy hung on Johnson’s belt just below his belly, and it was for winning the average championship at the NFR. It was the first of two Montana Silversmiths buckles Johnson collected on Saturday night.
Without the average title, the cowboy from Casper, Wyo., won’t be wearing the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle awarded to the year’s world champion. He and Powell clinched their first world titles on Saturday during the final night of the 2011 ProRodeo season.
“It means everything,” said Johnson, who attended Northwestern Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma Panhandle State University on rodeo scholarships. “It means I rodeoed this long, and it wasn’t for nothing.”
It also means his title has changed.
“There is one world champion team ropers, and it’s me and Turtle,” Johnson said. “I’m champ of the world from now on.”
If it weren’t for the challenges and rugged competition that come along with competing in ProRodeo’s grand finale, the reflection of a terrific NFR would be long-lived. The key to the $125,625 10 days in Las Vegas was starting strong and finishing smart. The cowboys placed in eight of 10 rounds, including two victories. They closed out the title run with a 10-second 10th round, which reflected their status heading into the final night of competition.
“It didn’t even have to be a clean run, and we’d win the average,” Johnson said of his thoughts before he and Powell walked their horses into the roping box.
The tandem’s mindset, though, was to continue to press the issue. They moved from 12th in the world standings at the start of ProRodeo’s championship event to win the title.
“We never backed off,” said Powell of Stephenville, Texas. “We kept going at them, and it worked out for us.”
Saturday’s run ended a long day for the ropers, who knew quite well they had a chance to rope the most coveted prize in their sport, the gold buckles.
“It’s been all day,” Johnson said Saturday night. “I have thought all day. It was hard to eat, just the anxiety. Once I got here and got my hands on my horse, my rope, talked to Turtle, then we could get down to business, but the day’s been hell.”
The night was heaven, though. After visiting with media, Johnson, Powell and their families were whisked off in a limousine ride to the Mirage for the gold buckle presentation. That’s where Johnson took off his average trophy, handed it to his wife, Jenny, and fastened that world championship memento to his belt – his three sons, Kellan, Carson and Kress, will wear the three go-round buckles he has earned in his five trips to the NFR.
Of course, winning his first world championship is a memory the Wyoming cowboy will carry with him wherever he goes, but there’s more to this title. The challenges Johnson and Powell faced in 10 nights in Las Vegas were nothing compared to the regular season. Powell’s good horse, Vegas, got sick in July and has been on the road to recovery ever since; Powell’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and she’s been fighting the disease most of the year; and Powell and his wife, Molly, welcomed a son, Layne Edward, this year.
While the latter was a tremendous blessing, it meant time away from the rodeo trail for the six-time NFR qualifier.
“It’s just one more fairy tale deal,” Johnson said. “Like I told some guys earlier, it’s a private club that only Turtle and I are in. It’s been a lot for Turtle and I.”
The two have been friends for a number of years, but they’ve only been roping together consistently the last two seasons.
“It’s amazing, because Jhett and I have been friends for a long time,” Powell said. “He was in my wedding. He’s been a very special friend of mine, so to win it with him, it’s even better.”
Johnson, 40, is looking at slowing down a little on his rodeo career. Though consistently he’s been one of the best in the game, the miles on the road traveling across the country and the time spent away from his home have taken their toll.
“It ain’t time to quit; I’ll never quit,” Johnson said. “But I’d like to spend more time with my boys. If you want to go out on top, I guess I this is top.”
Yes, it is.