CHECOTAH, Okla. – There’s only one member of his family that Riley Duvall has yet to catch.
“I don’t think I’m going to catch Roy,” said Duvall, 27, who has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo for the third time in his career, one more than his dad, Sam, Uncle Spud and cousin Tom. “I don’t bring that up around the house.”
He laughed at the thought, but there’s a certain pride that rings through the Duvall clan that Riley is continuing on the great tradition of steer wrestlers and holding up to nickname of their hometown; Checotah is known as the Bulldogging Capital of the World.
“Of course, there’s a 21-time difference between Roy and me,” he said.
Roy Duvall is a three-time world champion and 24-time NFR qualifier who earned his gold buckles in the 1960s-70s. His great-nephew is carrying on the family business through its third generation and doing a bang-up job in the process.
“I’ve never felt pressure by that,” Riley Duvall said. “Ever since I first got in the practice pen, I’ve had the best guys in the world helping me out. I learned not to ever be intimidated by those guys. You show up at a rodeo, and you don’t worry about who’s there. It’s just bulldogging.”
He earned his way by finishing the regular season with $85,963, seventh on the money list heading into ProRodeo’s grand championship, set for Dec. 5-14 in Las Vegas. He had some key wins – Burwell, Nebraska; St. Paul, Oregon; and Sikeston, Missouri, for example – but his biggest money-maker came in March at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, where he pocketed just shy of $13,000.
“I hadn’t won a check in almost six weeks, and I broke a barrier in the final round to win it all,” said Duvall, who posted a 3.8-second run in the championship round, but the 10-second penalty for not allowing the steer an appropriate head start pushed him to fourth instead. “That jumped me back up in the standings. That boosted my confidence back up to where I was ready to roll and get back after it.”
Before his spring slump, he was well on his way to returning to Las Vegas. He won the 2018 Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo average title, pocketing more than $5,000 in the process. Then he kept building through the winter months. In fact, 2019 was the best year of his career, and it’s not over.
“It was really a weird year,” he said. “I started off hot. I had $20,000 won going into February, then all the big rodeos came and went, and I didn’t win a penny. When I did win, it was a good check, but it wasn’t consistent until the summer. I had a good enough start to the winter that I was still a step or two above where I’d been in years past.”
A key factor in was his horsepower. He competed primarily on two bulldogging horses this year, Gray, owned by Charlene Neal, and Houdini, owned by one of his traveling partners, Denver Berry. In April, he purchased Cash, which served as the team’s haze horse.
“Gray is owned by my wife’s aunt,” said Duvall, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, Wrangler, Purina, Stierwalt Superflex, Cowhorse Supply, the Mirage, Rodeo Vegas and Best Ever Pads. “Gray is 18, and he’s really quick across the line, real sharp out of the corner, and he runs a tight pattern. My percentages of catching went up on him.”
He knows how important that is, which is why he will ride Gray at the NFR. His father, Sam, will ride Cash and will haze, helping keep the steer lined out. Over the years, Sam Duvall has hazed hundreds of runs inside the Thomas & Mack for many cowboys.
It’s a family tradition; Riley’s grandfather, Bill, hazed for Roy for nearly every run he made at the NFR. Before he qualified, Riley was a sought-after hazer who helped cowboys to big wins in Vegas.
“Dad hazed for me in ’16, the first year I made the finals,” Riley Duvall said. “I haven’t had a hazing horse that I thought would make it out there. I bought Cash from Brady McFarren, and I think he’ll do well.
“Dad likes him. He thinks he’s fast. He feels confident on him, so that’s big.”
Confidence is key in any run at a championship, and Riley Duvall is feeling it now more than ever. Though he considers the last two trips to the NFR less than successful, he earned just shy of $120,000 combined in those ventures to the Nevada desert. In 2016, he placed in four rounds, including at least a share of two round victories.
A year ago, he placed in just one round, but the bulk of his money came by placing fourth in the average; that was worth nearly $32,000.
“With this being my third time, I’ve figured out what to do and what not to do,” he said. “I’m going to have a different attitude and a different mindset and just go at it.
“Last year I was so nervous, I could hardly sleep at the end of the week. I think if I can get off to a quick start, that’ll loosen some things up and make a big difference. I’m going to go at it every round. I’m going to try to win every round, stay positive and not let as many things bother me.”
That’s easier said than done. The NFR is the sport’s marquee event, and every cowboy that has ever played the game wants to compete inside those famous yellow gates at the Thomas & Mack Center. It features a $10 million purse, with go-round winners earning $26,231 each night.
There also is something special about the environment and the fact that Las Vegas becomes a cowboy town for two weeks in early December.
“For me, the best part is the fulfillment that you put in a whole year’s work into this,” Duvall said. “Then there’s the fact that you’re out there competing against the best in the world. I didn’t make it in ’17, and I could hardly bring myself to watch it that year. That’s a terrible feeling, and when you’re out there competing, it’s much better.”
Of course, there’s no greater support than what he has at home. It’s not just a family of bulldoggers that supports him; Duvall has a strong cast of characters with his wife, Megan, and their 4-year-old daughter, Chaney.
“Megan does a great job raising our child, and she’ll do anything I need,” he said, explaining that his wife was opening gates and videoing runs on a recent practice that took place in near-freezing temperatures. “She also motivates me. She was a five-time state champion in volleyball and basketball in high school, so she has a winner’s mentality.
“That helps a lot whether I’m working on things at home or I’m struggling on the road.”
Even Chaney has been instrumental in his practices leading up to this year’s championship. Duvall goes to the gym each morning, then hones his bulldogging skills each evening. He’s had plenty of help.
“She likes to be in the arena, where she’ll sit out there in the chair with her cat and holler the whole time,” Duvall said. “It’s fun with her and having her in Vegas. No matter what happens, I’ve got her and my wife up there watching. They make it great.”