MIAMI, Texas – Life as Wyatt Casper knew it changed dramatically March 8.
The 2016 intercollegiate national champion saddle bronc rider had been trying to make a living in his game of choice for years, and 2020 had already started as the best season of his professional life. That day eight months ago made everything better.
Casper won saddle bronc riding at The American, which paid $100,000 to the winners of each event. Since he had earned a spot at the unique rodeo as a qualifier, Casper also earned a portion of the $1 million side pot – only 10 or so contestants are invited, so the field that was finalized with cowboys and cowgirls who went through a series of qualifying events.
Only one other qualifier, tie-down roper Shad Mayfield, won; those two cowboys each earned $500,000 in the side pot, and life ceased to be normal for either.
“It was definitely a life-changing event,” said Casper, 24, of Miami, Texas. “Bronc riding is a lot like a roller coaster. There are a lot of ups and downs. In years past, I was getting on horses that weren’t as good as the ones I’m getting on now. I’ve been getting on good horses, and my confidence is through the roof. I’m just out here having fun.”
While he banked $603,000 from Arlington, Texas, in March, only $50,000 of that counted toward the world standings. That’s still a large sum of money, and it propelled Casper to the top of the leaderboard; he never relinquished it through the rest of the season.
In fact, he heads to his first National Finals Rodeo as the No. 1 bronc rider with $145,138. He owns a lead of nearly $34,000 over the No. 2 man, 2017 world champion Ryder Wright.
Here’s the caveat to Casper’s ProRodeo season earnings: Subtract the $50,000 from The American, and he still earned more than $95,000 through the rest of the COVID-infected 2020 campaign; that figure would be fourth on the money list and still give the Texas cowboy what he craves: A shot at the world championship.
“I don’t want people thinking that I just got to the NFR because of The American,” he said. “That dang sure helped, but I still won a lot of money besides that.”
And, of course, he did it in a season that was affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic. The sport came to a screeching halt in mid-March and didn’t return until late May. When it did, rodeo wasn’t the same. More than half the events on a typical schedule were canceled, and many of those were some of the larger events that offered big prize money.
One of the biggest events on the calendar, RodeoHouston, was shut down midway through its March run. Before it closed, though, Casper competed but suffered a compression fracture in one of his upper-back vertebrae. The timing of the break allowed him to heal.
“I took two weeks off and couldn’t lift anything,” he said. “I stated doing more stuff at the third and fourth week, then after that, I was out building horse pens and working around the house. We were in the process of buying some land and putting up a house out there, so I had stuff to do and little time to do it.
“It played out in my favor pretty good. While I was hurt, nobody else was getting on either. By the time I was healthy enough to return, rodeo was just about to get started again.”
By the time it did, he had already secured his qualification to the NFR, which will take place Dec. 3-12 at Globe Life Field in Arlington … just across the road from where he won so much money at AT&T Stadium.
“I think it’ll help that I’ve had success there before,” said Casper, who credits his sponsors – Cinch, TD Angus, MVP Exceed 6 Way, The KingStar Co. and Western Hauler – with helping him get up and down the road. “I think we’ll go in there with the same feeling and have our minds set on one thing, and that’s winning. It will feel a little more at home.”
Home has changed some in recent years. Casper was raised in Balko, a community of around 600 people in the Oklahoma Panhandle, a stone’s throw from Texas. He grew up roping with his family and began riding bucking horses while in high school to increase his chances at winning all-around titles.
“Rodeo is all I wanted to do when I was little,” he said. “My parents didn’t start roping until they met each other, and my dad and grandpa picked it up as a hobby. I’m almost a first-generation rodeo cowboy.”
He’s definitely the first saddle bronc rider. His talent earned him a scholarship to Clarendon (Texas) College, where he was coached by three-time NFR qualifier Bret Franks.
In 2017, he and his wife, Lesley, married. In November 2018, they welcomed a son, Cooper. A year ago, they added Cheyenne, who will celebrate her first birthday while the family is in Arlington and while her dad is battling for a world championship.
“We’re blessed,” Casper said. “Where The American put me money-wise, I was super fortunate to sit at home with my family instead of going out and getting a job during the break from action. I thought it was awesome. It’s actually going to be tough on us next year when stuff starts going full swing and I’ve got to be gone for three months.”
He didn’t have that opportunity in 2020, and he’s OK with that. Still, with rodeo being his primary source of income, he made the best of a tough situation.
“I felt like everything was scattered out,” he said. “We went to a lot of rodeos I never thought we’d enter, ones I’d always look over. We dang sure appreciated those committees for putting on the rodeos and going to battle for us. Without them, we probably wouldn’t be having an NFR.
“We were excited to rodeo, excited that there was something going on.”
Because of that, he has a significant opportunity to cash in on the most coveted prize in the sport: a Montana Silversmiths gold buckle awarded to the world champions.