LAS VEGAS – Tim O’Connell looked beat up. His eyes told the story. His body felt the punches thrown over 10 nights of riding bareback horses at the National Finals Rodeo.
“You guys wanted to see me in a 10-round fight, and I feel like I’ve been in a 10-round fight,” said O’Connell, who closed out his third straight world championship on Saturday night. “My hat’s off to the other 14 guys. They made me go to a different level. They made me go to a different zone. I left it all out there tonight.”
He was talking about his 10th-round match with J Bar J Rodeo’s All Pink, which he rode for 87 points to finish in a tie for fifth place in another electric round. After the qualifying eight seconds had ended, All Pink got the better of O’Connell, launching him awkwardly to the ground.
“When the whistle blew, I didn’t have anything left in the tank,” he said. “I’ve spent it emotionally; I’ve spent it physically. I knew I had enough to do what I needed to do tonight. I was not going to leave here without being the world champion.”
This was an atypical NFR for the champ, who placed in just four of 10 rounds. Each of the previous two years, he won eight rounds in Las Vegas. This year he split the NFR average title with Nebraskan Steven Dent; both men rode 10 horses for 849.5 points and pocketed just shy of $61,000 for being consistent through the week.
In the end, O’Connell won two go-rounds and finished the championship with $132,551 in earnings, which pushed his year-end total to $319,801. He bested Dent for the world title by more than $65,000.
He also didn’t pull any punches on what this Montana Silversmiths gold buckle means. When he won the first title in 2016, many suspected it was because a number of contenders had left the PRCA for an upstart association, Elite Rodeo Athletes. The ERA closed business after that season, and this was the first where some of its stars had made their way back to the NFR.
“When those ERA guys left, I started winning world titles,” O’Connell said. “There were plenty of people who came up to me and said, ‘What do you think if Bobby Mote, Kaycee Feild and Will Lowe were there; think you’d still come out the champion?’
“No. 3 just proved it for me. I don’t care what anybody else says; deep down, I have a drive for competition. I love riding bucking horses. I love doing it against the very best guys in the world. No matter how this night would have gone, I knew I was going to walk out of this arena with my head held high because I left everything on the table and God is going to take all the glory. That is all I wanted out of this.”
He got much more. In a year that he and his wife, Sami, welcomed their son, Hazen, he closed out the campaign with the biggest prize in the game.
“I think Hazen earns this more than anything,” he said. “He has tested me mentally so much. To have him here, to have him sit on that world champion saddle and take a picture with it means more to me than anything in the world. Those things are going to tarnish. My legacy is going to die someday.
“But a night with my son – less than a year old on a world champion saddle with a world champion buckle (in) the year he was born – is going to mean absolutely everything to me. That is going to mean more than wearing this on my hip.”
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a small army to support a cowboy chasing a world title. He has that, whether it’s from family, friends or former coaches.
“My wife has been such a rock for me,” O’Connell said. “When I didn’t want to get out of bed and put in the work, she pushed me. When I was losing faith of all things and wondering – ‘God, what are you doing to me out here? Why am I drawing these horses? Why am I riding like this?’ – she would always bring me back to Earth.
“She would keep me grounded. I have so many people that have blessed me with spiritual strength to dig deeper, to dig harder. I had to dig deep tonight.”
That faith has been the driving force for O’Connell, and now he has three straight world titles to serve as his testimony.