CHECOTAH, Okla. – Riley Duvall had spent an entire year chasing another shot at the coveted world championship.
He had traveled tens of thousands of miles, ridden horses in the cold and the rain and the wind. He’d been sleep-deprived and eaten truck-stop food just to have a little something in his belly to sustain himself for a long day in the saddle and wrestling steers.
He dealt with all that, and his hope of qualifying for his fourth National Finals Rodeo came down to the final weekend of the regular season at the California Rodeo Salinas on the country’s West Coast. He made four runs on a borrowed horse, and as the dust settled on the final day near the coastline of Monterey Bay, he’d secured his bid for a fourth trip to Las Vegas and ProRodeo’s grand championship.
“When the year started out, you had plans to be in the top 10,” said Duvall, the fifth member of his eastern Oklahoma family to play on the sport’s biggest stage, joining great uncle Roy, father Sam, cousin Tom and uncle Spud as NFR qualifiers. “As the year got on, I got to hanging out in the 25th to 30th mark in the standings, so I made some special trips to make sure I had enough rodeos for the tour count.”
Salinas was the home of the ProRodeo Tour Finale, and in order to advance to that high-paying event, contestants had to compete in at least 35 tour rodeos spread across the country. With just a couple weeks left in the regular season that ended Sept. 30, Duvall was 30th in the standings, and only the top 15 on the money list in each event advance to the NFR. When he arrived in Salinas, Duvall was 21st.
“To be honest, I hadn’t thrown in the towel, but I was just going to go to the ones around the house,” he said. “I didn’t enter Pendleton (Oregon) or Albuquerque (New Mexico). I put all my eggs in one basket. I’d kind of slowed down and was just getting ready for next year, and they threw a curve ball, and I happened to hit it.
“I missed one in the short-go at Puyallup (Washington), and I thought it was game-over for me.”
It wasn’t. In Salinas, he placed in the first round and made a solid run in the second. He finished fifth in the two-run aggregate, earning a third run, then he won the semifinals round with a 6.0-second run to advance to the four-man finale. He won that, too, with a 5.6-second run, his fastest of the week and the most beneficial to his pocketbook and his place in the world standings.
In all, he pocketed $16,249 and moved up eight spots to 13th in the world standings.
“That was, without a doubt, the most excited I’ve ever been,” said Duvall, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, Wrangler, Purina, Stierwalt Superflex, Cowhorse Supply, Herring Custom Hats, Best Ever Pads and the Mirage. “To come from that far back, I could hardly sleep for three days after that.
“I had adrenaline for two or three days. I would wake up at 5 a.m., and that would be the first thing I would think about.”
There was much to digest. In a spectacular run of events, Duvall came from out of nowhere to be in the mix for the coveted Montana Silversmiths gold buckle, awarded to the world champions in each event. It is the highlight, so far, for a pretty good career for the 29-year-old father of two who has been among the elite for several years.
“That was a landmark moment for me,” said Duvall, who borrowed a quick-footed bay horse named Rockhouse, owned by California cowboys Tucker Allen and Luke Branquinho. “I drew great steers, but to do good at a rodeo of that caliber is something you dream of. I’ve always wanted to win Salinas anyway, but to do it when my whole season was on the line sure was fun.”
He showed his early prowess by being the Oklahoma High School Rodeo Association state champion bulldogger from 2008-10; he also added National High School Rodeo Associatiin two national titles in 2008-09 before taking his show to ProRodeo like so many friends and family members before him. He was raised in the community of Checotah, dubbed the Bulldogging Capital of the World.
His last name is Duvall, and he accounts for four of the family’s 34 NFR qualifications. Roy Duvall, the brother of Riley’s grandfather, Bill, is a three-time world champion who earned 24 trips. Riley Duvall now has twice as many qualifications as his dad, his uncle and his cousin, and he continues to be one of the most respected steer wrestlers in rodeo.
When he arrives in the Nevada desert, he will ride Dr. Pepper, a horse owned by Trever and Cierra Nelson that Duvall’s ridden most of the season. He will also lean on his longtime friend and traveling partner, Shane Frey, to serve as his hazer and keep the steers lined out inside the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Trever went with us a little bit, but he let us use the horse all year,” Duvall said. “He knew he had a good horse and wanted to have the horse out there on the road. A bunch of guys rode him this year, and there’s been a lot of success on his back.”
Frey and Dr. Pepper won’t be the only members of the team supporting Duvall. Checotah is a town of 3,100 people, and a good portion will be either in Las Vegas or keeping tabs on him from their Oklahoma homes. He will also have his parents, Sam and Tami; his wife, Megan; and their two children, Chaney, 6, and Cruze, who will be 6 months old when the first round begins.
“My family is very important to me, and with the kids, that’s what’s putting a slow down to my rodeoing,” Duvall said. “With Cruze at home, it’s been hard being gone. I’ve missed a lot of Chaney’s life. It’s made it to where I’ve got two or three years left, so I want to take advantage of it while I can.
“My wife is a semi-super hero. She handles everything when I’m gone. She goes to bed at 10 and get sup at 5 every morning and never complains. Without a woman like that behind your back, it would be even harder to rodeo.”
Riley Duvall earned his first trip to the NFR in 2016 and returned in 2018 and 2019. His best finish was that first year, when he closed out the campaign eighth in the world standings.
But he knows already that this qualification came with a little late-season magic. He wants to parlay that into a winning hand during those enchanting 10 days in Las Vegas.