LAS VEGAS – A year ago, Kyle Irwin won at least a share of three go-rounds at the National Finals Rodeo.
His biggest 2014 go-round check was a little more than $19,000, which came when he won the third round all by himself. He earned more than that Thursday night with his second-place finish in the opening round of the 2015 grand finale. Irwin, a steer wrestler from Robertsdale, Ala., dropped his steer in 3.5 seconds to earn $20,731.
“I could win second here every night for the rest of the finals,” said Irwin, who finished just a tenth of a second behind round winner K.C. Jones of Decatur, Texas. “It’s going to play a huge role. It’s great to see what that kind of money is doing for our industry and to see the sport growing like it is. That kind of money is going to change how guys do this. It’s exciting and good for us.”
He moved up three spots to second in the world standings by pushing his 2015 earnings to $107,317. He trails the money list leader, Ty Erickson of Helena, Mont., by about $8,000. Irwin could move into the lead in the world standings by finishing fourth or better during Saturday’s second go-round.
Irwin – who attended Western Oklahoma College and Northwestern Oklahoma State University on rodeo scholarships – is competing at the NFR for the second straight year. In fact, he finished the 2014 campaign as the No. 2 steer wrestler in the world, thanks in large part to a fantastic NFR in which he earned $88,000.
“I like the momentum that doing well in the first round gives you,” he said. “You know because of how little this arena is that you can go to the back end of the arena and still be fast. I felt sharp and felt really good about the work we’ve done getting here. I hope it leads to even better things.”
The first round was exceptionally fast. The top six cowboys were separated by just half a second.
“That group of steers was the Flying U herd of California, and we knew they were going to be the fast-handling, smaller-framed steers,” he said. “It makes for a fast bulldogging, and I like that. We’ll run those steers three more times. They were the favorite steers for all of us.”
Of course, being matched with great steers is just one thing for the cowboys. It still takes tremendous skill to finish so fast in the pressure-packed atmosphere that is ProRodeo’s grand finale. A big part of success falls on the rest of Irwin’s team: hazer Tyler Pearson of Louisville, Miss., and Pearson’s bulldogging horse, Sketch; the hazer’s job is to line the steer out and keep the animal in good shape for the steer wrestler.
“In my run, I heard Tyler talking to me like he does at other rodeos; he really didn’t do that at last year’s NFR,” Irwin said. “It chilled me out, and I just threw that steer down. The horse worked great and got a heck of a start, then Tyler put him in my office like he always does. It was fun.”
It was a great way to kick off the sport’s 10-day championship.