EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was written for Tyson Durfey and submitted to Rodeo Athletes, an online magazine. Check out the website’s coverage filled with photos. I am publishing it here to celebrate Tyson’s birthday. Happy Thanksgiving to all you true cowboys and cowgirls, whether it’s because you rope and ride or because you’ve always dreamed of being one.
Long before he won three Canadian championships and qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seven times, Tyson Durfey dreamed of being and rodeo cowboy
“As a kid, I was surrounded by cowboys,” said Durfey, who burst onto the rodeo scene by becoming the first American-born contestant to win a Canadian Professional Rodeo Association title when he earned the championship in 2006. “My dad was a cowboy, my grandfather was a cowboy and my brothers were cowboys. All I wanted was to be a cowboy.”
Durfey looked up to all the cowboys in his life. There were many. His father, Roy, is recognized in rodeo circles as one of the elite trainers of tie-down roping horses and calf ropers. It’s a craft he continues to practice on his land just outside of Savannah, Mo., in the state’s northwestern corner.
It’s in those rolling hills that 4-year-old Tyson Durfey would ride his pony alongside his father and hear the stories of true cowboys. He learned that Jesse James had ridden through the same brush, and he learned all the fine details of being a cowboy: Riding horses is just one thing; cowboys needed to know what it meant to stand up for people who needed it and to live by a strong moral code.
“One thing I still hold onto today is that when I give someone my word, that’s as good as anything I can give them and that I will stand by it,” he said. “For my dad, it was a way for him to babysit me. For me, it was a lifestyle. It was something I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life.”
He watched deer bound across corn fields and cattle feast on grain. He hunted rabbits and squirrels and held tightly those ideals that had been passed along to him through the generations and in his own imagination.
Part of that is being the son of Roy Durfey. Part of it is having two older brothers who also were cowboys and talented ropers. Wes is the oldest, 10 years older than Tyson. Travis is in the middle, five years removed from both siblings.
That was an amazing influence on Tyson, who has taken the competitive edge further than anyone in the family. He won Canadian titles in 2006, ’08 and 2011, and this December will compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the seventh time in eight years.
But his influences are deeper than that. Tyson Durfey recalls watching greats like Joe Beaver and Troy Pruitt inside his home, taking those same lessons he was receiving. He saw the biggest names in the game compete on his father’s horses.
“At a young age, we were at the American Royal in Kansas City, and I was sitting on a horse and saw Fred Whitfield there,” Durfey said. “I had always heard my dad talking about him. Then all of the sudden, Fred Whitfield was walking over to me, this little redheaded kid sitting on a huge horse.
“He stuck his hand up to mine to shake it. It was a massive hand. He looked at me with a really serious look on his face and asked me if I was going to be good. I just nodded my head and said, ‘Yes, sir.’ That was my first chance to meet Fred Whitfield, but it stuck with me all my life.”
Each meeting became a huge blessing and further fueled Durfey’s fire. That ignition switch has paid plenty of dividends over his 31 years. In 2001 and ’02, he earned the Missouri High School Rodeo Association tie-down roping championship. Shortly afterward, he set out on his career in ProRodeo.
Along the way, he has racked up more than a million dollars in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association earnings. That doesn’t include the cash he’s earned north of the border, nor money earned at countless jackpots, amateur rodeos and that cool $100,000 prize he earned earlier this year by winning RFD-TV’s The American.
As a redheaded youngster, he learned the lessons of great horses and what it takes to ride them correctly through each run. He got a front-row seat as Roy Durfey made his name as one of the greatest calf-roping horsemen in the game.
“I wanted to make my name competing, winning,” Tyson Durfey said. “I believe in the horsemanship, and I feel like I’m a work in progress. I continue to work on it every day. If you get to where you think you’re good, then you’re not going to work at getting better. That’s what keeps all of us involved in the sport. It’s a never-ending story that keeps getting rewritten.”
Like any good novel, Durfey’s story line has changed over the years. He was just 23 years old when he won that first Canadian buckle, just 24 when he played in Las Vegas for the first time. Though he called his 10-night run at the NFR a struggle that year, he learned a lot.
“If you would’ve told me in 2006 that I would’ve finished in the top 15 in the world, I would’ve been ecstatic, but instead, I felt like 2007 was a huge letdown,” he said. “I felt a lot of pressure that first year. I was so young and was so structured in the way I did things. I didn’t realize that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
“I just wanted to win and beat them, but at the end of the day, it boils down to being the best person you can be and doing the best you can do every time. I was more focused on trying to win than I was at trying to be the best I could be at the rodeo.”
Durfey’s second NFR went much better. He won a go-round and placed in five others. Most importantly, he finished second in the average. In 2009, he finished third in the 10-run aggregate while placing in seven rounds. He moved up nine spots to finish third in the final world standings. That is his best finish to date.
“The thing about Las Vegas is you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “You can look at everything and expect someone to have a great finals, and it just doesn’t work out that way.”
Those are the ups and downs of being a professional cowboy. Durfey knows the rodeo roller coaster is filled with equal parts queasiness and thrills, whether the ride is in Las Vegas or near the Washington coast.
When he first started making a name for himself, Tyson Durfey traveled the rodeo trail in a stock trailer hauling a borrowed horse.
“Half that year, I slept in the back of my truck,” he said.
Much has changed along his roller-coaster ride. A little more than a year ago, he married Australian-born country singer Shea Fisher, and the couple took its honeymoon shortly after the 2013 NFR. He finds great comfort in having a great home life, despite the gypsy lifestyle that comes with being a rodeo cowboy.
“My life has changed astronomically since I first got started,” Durfey said. “I’m married now, I have my own house, my own place, my own indoor arena. I’ve been extremely blessed. I feel more grounded, more down to earth.”
That comfort has enabled Durfey to live the life he always has dreamed about. He’s a rodeo cowboy, just like his heroes. He has sponsors who not only support him but appreciate that he’s the perfect identity for their brands.
He’s built his reputation through hard work, God-given talent and integrity. It has allowed Tyson Durfey many blessings throughout an already distinguished career. It’s allowed him to chase his gold-buckle dreams, ride fast horses and compete on his sport’s biggest stages every year.
It sounds like an amazing country song, most likely performed by Shea Fisher, who has fallen in love with a redheaded rodeo cowboy that is just carrying on a family legacy.