CHECOTAH, Okla. – When a Duvall is born in Checotah, chances are he’s going to be a steer wrestler.
Riley Duvall is proud of his heritage, and he will carry it with him to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas. It’s his first qualification to ProRodeo’s grand finale, but there is a distinct Duvall history at the NFR.
“I love rodeo, and I’ve got good horses and good traveling partners who make it so much fun,” said Duvall, whose father, Sam, qualified for the NFR in 1987 and ’88. “There’s no better feeling than on a short-round Saturday night and you’re 3.5 (seconds) to win it. That makes it fun.
“I have no idea what it’s like running 10 steers at the Thomas & Mack, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The bulldogging legacy began with his great uncle, Roy, a three-time world champion who qualified for the NFR 24 times, including 21 straight from 1966-1986. Riley’s grandfather, Bill, was Roy’s hazer every year he competed at the finals. Riley’s uncle, Spud, was a two-time qualifier, and their cousin, Tom, has also played on ProRodeo’s biggest stage.
“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.”
It’s something that’s been part of his life even when he was an infant, and he jumped his first steer from a horse at age 14. Now a decade later, he gets to play for the richest payday in the game over 10 nights in the Nevada desert. It’s what dreams are made of for men like Duvall.
The NFR features only the top 15 on the money list at the conclusion of the regular season. He earned $61,177 and sits 13th heading into the first night of the championship, where go-round winners will earn more than $26,000 per night for 10 rounds. He’s been close before. In fact, he finished the 2014 season 17th in the standings.
“I missed it by $430,” he said. “Actually I missed it by one-tenth of a second. On my last steer of the year, I was 4.3 (seconds); if I’d been 4.2, I would’ve made it. That year I made $13,000 the last 10 days and still didn’t make it.”
That close call also added a bit of fire in Duvall’s belly, which is why he’s tickled to have the opportunity to cash in in Sin City.
“It means everything,” Duvall said. “This is my sixth year out here trying, and there were a couple of times when I didn’t think it was going to happen. To get it done, especially with my wife and kid at home, was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Rodeo is how he pays the bills, so it’s vital to have success inside the arena. As a businessman, he handles his tasks well. Like his father and grandfather before him, Riley Duvall has been asked to serve as hazer, the cowboy that rides alongside the steer wrestler to help keep the steer in line.
It’s a job he does often through the rodeo season. In 2013, he hazed in Vegas for Bray Armes, Matt Reeves and Hunter Cure; Armes won the NFR average, and Cure won the world title. Last year, Duvall hazed for Clayton Hass, K.C. Jones and Ty Erickson. He receives a percentage of their winnings as payment for those duties.
“Hazing is a trait I inherited, I guess,” he said. “From the time I was about 16, I hazed steers everywhere I could think of. When I got my PRCA card, I bought a horse from my cousin, Tom. Without making mount money, there would’ve been a couple of times I would’ve had to quit rodeoing.
“A lot of people overlook hazing, but you’ve got to have a better hazing horse than you do a bulldogging horse.”
Hazing not only has paid a lot of bills, but it has afforded Duvall the opportunity to be a big part of the NFR competition. That could make a big difference when it’s his time in the spotlight.
“I sure hope it does,” said Duvall, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, Wrangler, Purina and the Mirage. “I’ve been right there in the middle of a world-title race on the hazing side. I’ve felt more pressure hazing than I have ever felt bulldogging.
“Now I’ve made the NFR, so I can just go relax and have fun for 10 rounds.”
The trip to Vegas is a celebration for a great season, but it’s also the biggest chance to make the most money in a week and a half. For Duvall, it comes back to caring for his wife, Megan, and daughter, Chaney Marie, who is now 13 months old.
“Having a family actually made it harder for me, but I think it helped me more than ever,” he said. “I wanted to be home with them, but if I was going to be out here rodeoing, I wanted to make it pay off. I was going to put forth the best effort for them.
“My wife is very supportive. There’s no way I could’ve made it without her. She takes care of everything back home.”
She also takes care of the mental approach that comes with competition. As a high-schooler in Portales, N.M., she was part of five state championships combined in volleyball and basketball.
“I almost had a mental breakdown in Kennewick, Wash.,” he said, referring to a run that didn’t work out at the Wrangler Champions Challenge event in August. “I don’t think I’d made a check in three weeks, so I called and talked to her, and she got me lined out. I got on a streak the next couple of weeks, and it worked out.”
His wife and daughter will make their way to Las Vegas to be part of the biggest rodeo of his life. He’ll also have other family and friends in the City of Lights to cheer him on.
“As far as I’ve heard, there’s a whole crowd from Checotah going out,” Duvall said. “A bunch of those haven’t been there since Tom made it in ’97. It’ll be good to have everybody out there.
“The amount of knowledge of bulldogging around here is pretty incredible. If you spend one morning at the coffee shop, you can learn quite a bit.”
Whether it’s sipping coffee or running steers in the practice pen, Riley Duvall has taken each lesson to heart. Now he will showcase it on the grandest stage in the game.