ROBERTSDALE, Ala. – Each time steer wrestler Kyle Irwin looks down the lane at a bowling alley, he sees 10 pens lined up in the shape of a triangle.
The main purpose, as always, is to knock down all the pens. In order to make it happen, though, Irwin’s focus is on one individual sliver of waxed wood. If he hits that mark just right, he knows a strike is likely.
That’s the same philosophy Irwin is using a she approaches his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s premier championship set for Dec. 4-13 in Las Vegas.
“My goal at the NFR is to make money, not necessarily win the world title,” said Irwin, 24, of Robertsdale. “If I make the money, I’ll win the world. My job is to not mess up. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
“All I can do is go as fast as I can with the steer I have each night. It’s important that I don’t leave any money on the table. If the cards weren’t in there to win the average or the world, that’s fine, but I want to have maxed out on every steer I have.”
That’s a solid outlook for the young cowboy, who will wrap up the best season of his career over 10 December nights in the City of Lights. In 2014, Irwin earned $59,736, finishing the regular season 10th in the world standings. Only the top 15 contestants in each event earn the opportunity to compete for the biggest pay in the sport in Las Vegas.
“Going to the NFR is something that every guy in my position, every kid that’s 11 years old, dreams about,” he said. “I’m very grateful and very proud to be going.”
Irwin’s NFR marks the first time in eight years that an Alabaman has qualified. The last was heeler Cole Bigbee. Before that, bull rider Tyler Fowler qualified in 2000 and ’01, while steer wrestler Victor Deck qualified in 1996-97. As the state’s only representative in Las Vegas, he will carry the flag each night during the NFR’s opening ceremonies.
“That flag’s going to have some dust on it; it’s hasn’t been used since 2006,” Irwin said. “I hope they’ll play ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ every night I back in the box. It’s so cool getting to represent the state.”
He also is representing his family, from his dad, Ken Irwin, to his mom, Ruthie Campbell, to four sisters, Karissa, Brittany, Laney and Raylen. He also carries a flag for a number of top-notch steer-wrestling cousins and dear friends, all of whom who have been beneficial in Kyle Irwin’s bulldogging career.
“My immediate family grew up farming, working cattle, cowboying,” he said. “The atmosphere was there for me. I played sports from elementary school … baseball and football every year. When I was 11 years old, I started chute-dogging and junior rodeoing.”
Chute-dogging is the precursor to steer wrestling. Instead of jumping off a sprinting horse onto a running steer, chute-doggers get ahold of the steer right out of the timed-event chute. It allows them to learn the proper techniques.
“When I was 13, an eighth-grader, I was getting ready to start jumping steers in high school rodeo,” he said. “My cousin, Bo Campbell, owns a rodeo company and is a big-time bulldogging fanatic. He keeps Mexican cattle in his pasture.
“My cousins had me running steers all day every day. I roped calves and team roped, too, but we made sure we bulldogged first.”
As he progressed, the young cowboy had a distinct focus, which carried him to scholarship opportunities – first at Western Oklahoma College in Altus, then to Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva.
“The competition and watching my buddies and my older cousins drive and succeed kept the passion there,” Irwin said. “Then I realized my talent with it. It was all a goal and a dream. I knew they bulldogged in Oklahoma, so that’s where I went. I knew I wanted to go to Oklahoma. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity in Alabama that I did in Oklahoma.”
He did pretty well, too. In high school, he won the Alabama High School Rodeo Association twice and was the runner-up once. Irwin was a four-time qualifier to the College National Finals Rodeo, finishing as the reserve champion in 2011. In fact, his stay in Oklahoma became an amazing starting point to his pro career.
Each of the past two seasons, he has finished as the reserve year-end champion in the Prairie Circuit – both times, as it worked out, he finished just behind Stockton Graves, Irwin’s coach at Northwestern. In 2014, Irwin won the average title at the Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo, securing his second straight qualification to the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, where he will defend his national title.
“All year, I’ve said the key to my season was winning the Ram National Circuit Finals,” he said of the April victory. “I wasn’t going to rodeo unless I did very well there. It unfolded perfectly, winning $10,000 cash and a voucher for a Ram truck.
“It gave me the confidence I needed. I really believed in what I was doing this time. The maturity I gained from the last two years of rodeoing helped me tremendously, and it all worked out this year.”
When he arrives in Las Vegas, Irwin will enlist the help of fellow bulldogger Tyler Pearson, a 2013 NFR qualifier from Louisville, Miss. Pearson will serve as Irwin’s hazer, while Irwin also will ride Pearson’s great horse, Sketch.
“I don’t have any worries as far as horsepower or hazing,” said Irwin, who has sponsorship support from Cinch, Black and Blue Quarter Horses and Southwest Trailers. “When I back in there every night, all I will have to worry about is Kyle; that’s enough.”
That’s taking care of business. Irwin knows, just as in bowling, he needs to keep his focus on the things closest to him. If he does that, the big prize will be waiting for him soon enough.
“In my career, I’d like to win the world, and I’d like to win the average at the finals,” he said. “I’d like to make my family’s life a little bit easier. I’d like to set myself up that when I’m done, I can look back one day and say, ‘My rodeoing gave me this.’ ”
Irwin is well on his way.