Lifetime of lessons helped build team roper into a world champ
Pressure makes a steam engine work; as the pressure builds, the engine goes in motion and creates a force that drives the machine’s purpose.
Over 13 years, the pressure continued to build in team roping header Kaleb Driggers. From his first run in 2009 through his nine qualifications to the National Finals Rodeo to his four runner-up finishes to the world championship, his head of steam kept arching toward that red line.
The pressure has often built ever so close to the relief valve, that Montana Silversmiths gold buckle. Time and time again he was on the verge of a reprieve, only to watch it fade away in someone else’s arms. In 2021, he walked away from the NFR with the wearable rodeo trophy.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking when you come so close and don’t quite get over the camel’s back,” said Driggers, 32, of Hoboken, Georgia, now living in Stephenville, Texas. “To finally get that done, it was definitely a little pressure relief.”
He first finished as the runner-up in 2012, his second season to advance to Las Vegas. He followed that up with second-place finishes in 2016-’18 – three straight years of being just behind the titlist. In 2016, he watched his heeling partner, Junior Nogueira, become the first Brazilian world champion in ProRodeo history when Nogueira won the all-around gold buckle.
This past season, though, the longtime partners were able to snag gold together.
“It means everything,” said Driggers, a Cinch endorsee. “A guy is always happy when he wins the world no matter what, but I feel bad for the guys that have split titles because you’ve spent all year roping with your partner and don’t get to enjoy it together. It’s so much sweeter when you can do it together. We’ve been close four or five times, and to finally pull it off is incredible.”
What’s it like being a world champion?
“I don’t know if it ever really sinks in,” he said. “There are times that it hits me and kind of brings a tear to my eye, but it’s a lot of pride.”
He’s not puffing out his chest in any regard. He earned that world title. He and Nogueira entered the NFR second in the world standings, then pocketed $143,896 over 10 December nights in the Nevada desert. They placed in six rounds, including the fourth-round title, and placed third in the average. Driggers finished the campaign with $263,227 and well ahead of his runner-up, Erich Rogers.
“In order to win rounds out there, a guy has to take a little bit of a high-risk shot,” Driggers said. “I was trying to stay away from that; I was trying to take a higher percentage of shots. When you have the best 15 guys going at them, you know you have to stay in your comfort zone but still take a calculated risk when you can.”
He’s learned that through a lifetime of swinging a rope. Driggers was raised around the sport, the son of a horse trainer who roped. Driggers’ uncles and cousins roped, and there were arenas within a mile of his family’s house that allowed plenty of practicing opportunities
“I’d say my dad is the one that probably shaped me, along with my mom,” he said. “They’ve always been there for me. When my dad had to do shiftwork and couldn’t go to the rodeos, my mom made sure I got there. Their support was a huge deal for me growing up.
“Brad Culpepper introduced me to ProRodeo. I was a rookie, and I made dumb, rookie mistakes, and he was the guy that helped me with that stuff. Every partner I’ve had has added a piece to me. There’s not just one person that’s stuck out the most. I try to take a little bit from everyone’s opinions and figure out what works on my own.
“Speed Williams has helped me with my horsemanship. He’s given me tips on how to use my hands and legs better. There have been a lot of people that have impacted my career, even to the people that allow us to stay at their places while we’re out rodeoing and give us a place to practice throughout the year. They’re all important.”
That includes his wife, Nicole, who trains and runs barrel horses. She understands the work it takes and the hours spent practicing and all the other little things that come with competing at a high level.
Along the way, each person has made an impact on who and what Kaleb Driggers is today. Just in ProRodeo, he’s teamed with some of the greatest in the game, from Culpepper to Jade Corkill to Travis Graves to Patrick Smith and now with Nogueira. Each run he’s made with each man has taught Driggers something about himself, about being a cowboy and about being a teammate. In essence, he’s a reflection of them in some capacity.
“There is no substitute for experience,” he said. “Everything you can think of, good or bad, it feels like we’ve done it. We know what works and what doesn’t, and we learn from that. We know in situations you get in that you have to overcome it a little bit. From the first time I made the NFR to now, I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit.”
That’s what makes this gold buckle special. Every experience he’s had played a role in finally winning the war. It’s nice to win battles, because this is how he makes a living, but the world championship is the prize for which they all strive.
“The No. 1 key to me winning the gold buckle was my partner,” Driggers said of Nogueira. “He didn’t make one mistake. He was 100 percent, and that definitely helped us. He helped me keep a level head and treat each steer for what it was and rope each steer from that. I feel like that’s where I’d done a better job this year. I roped the steer for what he was. I didn’t get caught up in the hype of what was winning the round. I think that allowed me to be a lot more consistent.
“You don’t have to second-guess what he’s going to do. He’s a great partner to be with; we both feed off each other. We run a lot of practice steers together and know what the other is going to do. He knows when I run them a little further that he has to take a chance heeling him, and when I’m fast, he can just settle in there and make a good catch.”
In his nine NFR appearances, Driggers has finished among the top five seven times; he was fourth in 2013 and third in 2019. He’s been a contender for the world title nearly every year since 2009, when he was the overall and heading rookie of the year.
In all those seasons in between, the pressure on the Driggers steam engine kept building, picking up momentum from everything it passed and gathering speed to what he hopes is just the first world championship of a fantastic career.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “My rookie year of rodeoing, I ended up 16th in the world. I won San Antone that year and stayed in the top 15. On the last rodeo of the year, Clay Tryan had to win Poway (California). He couldn’t finish second or third; he had to win it, and he did.
“Where would my career be if I’d made it that year? Instead of going to the NFR, I went home and busted my butt, because I didn’t want that to happen again. In the moment, it sucked that I didn’t make it. When you look at it over the grand scheme of things, it’s probably a good thing it worked out that way.”