ROBERTSDALE, Ala. – There’s nothing like an amazing 10 days in Las Vegas in December for a rodeo cowboy.
Kyle Irwin experienced that a year ago, and he’s continued to use that rush through the 2015 ProRodeo season. Now the steer wrestler from Robertsdale returns to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the second straight year when it takes place Dec. 3-12 in Sin City.
“I think momentum was the key this year,” said Irwin, 25, who competed on rodeo scholarships at Western Oklahoma College in Altus and Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva. “Last year’s finals was momentum, and it just carried over. I’d only been to Denver once before this year and did terrible, but I went back this year, finished third and won $7,000 to start the year.
“I won $87,000 at the finals last year, and it just kept going.”
He hopes the drive continues through this year’s NFR, which features the largest purse in the history of ProRodeo’s marquee event. He will battle for his share of the $8.8 million purse, which will pay round winners more than $26,200 each of the 10 nights.
“It means a lot to go back,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of guys say that once you make the finals once, you figure out how to do it. But I’ve also seen guys who have struggled making it back.
“I did put forth the effort, and it paid off.”
He did. In fact, he pocketed more than $76,500 – nearly $17,000 more than he did during the regular season a year ago – and heads to the NFR sitting fifth in the world standings.
“There are people who say you can’t make a living rodeoing, but actually you can,” Irwin said. “If I go out there and if I do the exact same thing this year that I did last year, I will win an additional $61,000; that’s how much the money has changed this year.
“Plus if I don’t mess up those times like I did last year, there are even more opportunities out there. I just need to go out there and take care of my business.”
That’s easier said than done. There is great pressure to compete at a top level, and the NFR is rodeo’s Super Bowl and World Series. The difference is that rodeo contestants have no guaranteed income; they only earn when they finish better than most in the game. Dollars equal championship points, and the contestants in each event with the most money earned at the end of 2015 will be crowned world champions.
Irwin finished runner-up to world champion Luke Branquinho a season ago, propelled by an excellent run during the sport’s 10-day finale. He’d love to move up just one spot.
“It’s especially tough this year because of how the money stayed within the same 25 guys all season,” he said. “It never really separated. Until the last rodeo, I still had the opportunity to move to No. 1.
“It’s a great group of guys that keep you on your game. That shows the level of competition. With the money like it is in this year’s finals, it’s going to be an interesting 10 days.”
That’s what any true championship should be, but it’s not all that Irwin has focused his eyes on this year. No, the cowboy found a cowgirl, and she became a priority. On Nov. 7, he and Randa married. The two have known each other for many years but had been together for more than a year and a half.
“We wanted to kind of do it quiet and go about our business,” he said. “We decided just to do it that way.”
Quiet works well in his private life, but he hopes to make a loud statement inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. He’ll have a great chance by riding Sketch, a talented horse owned by Tyler Pearson. Sketch has been the guiding force behind both of Irwin’s NFR qualifications.
The horse also guided Tyler Waguespack to his first finale; the Gonzales, La., cowboy finished the regular season seventh, while Pearson just missed out on the NFR by finishing 18th.
“We’ve also got Rowdy Parrott and Orinn Fontenot in our rig, and Pearson’s got both Wags and I riding Sketch with Tyler hazing for us,” Irwin said, pointing to Pearson’s key role as an assistant there to keep the steer lined out in the arena. “It was a good team effort this year.
“I’ve always traveled with good guys, the ones that make you better and make you get better. To have those guys in your rig makes all the difference in the world.”
So does Sketch.
“That horse makes a huge difference for me,” he said. “He’s changed my career.”
It all comes together in a nice package. Irwin also realized this season that it takes a great deal of self-confidence to be successful at a high level, especially in steer wrestling.
“I think I learned more about my ability, the God-given talent I’ve been blessed with,” he said. “I’m always real hard on myself and always have been, but I feel good about my ability to win maybe when the odds are stacked against me. Never quit believing in yourself and go back to the roots in the basics that you’ve learned. That will prevail.”
It’s worked so far.