LAS VEGAS The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo hasn't always been kind to Mike Johnson, but the 18th time turned out to be a charm for the veteran tie-down roper.
"It means everything," Johnson (Henryetta, Okla.) said of winning the 10-round aggregate title and the $36,763 paycheck that comes along with it on the final day of the 2003 Wrangler NFR. "I've had a lot of disappointments out here in the 18 years. It's a dream come true for me to win it this year."
While the focus of the 17,683 fans at Thomas & Mack Center was on the world championship race between Cody Ohl (Stephenville, Texas) and Fred Whitfield (Hockley, Texas), Johnson quietly took control of the aggregate race early on and maintained it throughout the rodeo, even as the pressure mounted.
"To win the average with them at their best, it just means that much more," he said. "They're great competitors and to come out on top of those guys just makes it that much more special."
This is the best year of his career for the 39-year-old Johnson, who finished fourth in the final world standings with $160,992. Like Ohl, he did it after missing significant time with a knee injury.
"The last seven years, when I tore my knee up in '96, I started going downhill," he said. "My wife [Sherrylynn], I got married a year and a half ago, and she has been a total turnaround for me in my life. She has given me confidence and taught me so much."
Johnson also credited Dr. Tandy Freeman, medical director of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team with repairing his knee and getting him physically prepared for the sport.
"After he helped me, I feel outstanding," Johnson said. "Physically, I'm in the best shape of my life."
Cody Jessee (Prineville, Ore.) moved to first place in the bareback riding aggregate with an 86-point ride in the 10th go-round.
It allowed Jessee to finish two points ahead of Royce Ford (Kersey, Colo.) and vaulted him into second place in the final world standings.
Jessee won an event-high $92,139 at the NFR.
"I don't really know how I feel," he said. "The average is something I have always wanted to win. The guy that wins the average here is supposed to be the guy who has ridden the best all week and it is a great honor.
"Next to winning the world championship, it's the best thing there is."
Jessee also tied the Wrangler NFR bareback record for combined score with his 839 points on 10 horses.
"I didn't know I did it, so that is awesome and makes it that much more special," he said.
Jessee, who attended college at nearby UNLV, said he plans to use his winnings to pay off the property he bought last year in Prineville, Ore.
Mickey Gee (Wichita Falls, Texas), the 1999 world champion in steer wrestling, won his second aggregate title at the Wrangler NFR. Gee turfed his 10 steers in a combined time of 47.30 seconds, finishing nearly three seconds ahead of world champion Teddy Johnson (Checotah, Okla.) and winning $36,763.
Gee won $73,757 during the week and finished third in the final world standings behind Johnson and Birch Negaard.
"I've had a great week," Gee said. "We just wanted to stay solid all week and win all the money we could."
Making things special for Gee was that his father, Dennis, served as his hazer during the NFR. "He taught me everything I know about bulldogging," Gee said. "It was a great honor to have him here and be part of my team."
Matt Tyler (Dennis, Texas) and rookie Patrick Smith (Midland, Texas) had never roped together before being paired for the Wrangler NFR.
They proved a deadly combination, staying ahead of roping legends Jake Barnes (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and Allen Bach (Weatherford, Texas) and world champions Speed Williams (Amarillo, Texas) and Rich Skelton (Llano, Texas) even as the pressure mounted with each go-round.
"Other than a world title, this is something you dream of," Tyler said. "It's taken me 18 years here to finally get it and I just want to praise God for the opportunity and being with me all week. I had a great partner that roped consistent all week. This is his first time here, so that says a lot about Patrick."
Smith was equally elated.
"It is awesome," he said. "Matt roped awesome all week. It's the first rodeo all year where I won first. It's just overwhelming. I'm loving it and can't wait to be back."
Saddle Bronc Riding
Rod Warren (Big Valley, Alberta) won the second NFR average title of his career by being the only rider to successfully complete all 10 rounds.
The $36,763 paycheck also helped him to finish in sixth place in the final world standings.
"A lot of it is luck," Warren said. "You have to draw some good horses. There are some pretty rank pens of horses. It's a combination of luck and I felt I got off to a real good start. I got things rolling and I started riding real good."
Warren said winning the average was the highlight of his year along with winning the $50,000 bonus round at the Calgary Stampede over the summer.
"It's probably been one of the most awesome years I've had," he said.
Janae Ward (Addington, Okla.) and her horse, DeeDee, didn't meet until July, but they put together an awesome summer run to qualify for the Wrangler NFR in 14th place and an even better run to vault to the aggregate title and the world championship.
"She can just fly," Ward said of the horse, which is owned by Jud Little.
"I just tried to take it one round at a time and it worked out for me."
The 21-year-old Ward is a third-generation Wrangler NFR barrel racer. Her grandmother Florence Youree and mother, Renee Ward, also competed at the NFR.
"It's awesome," Ward said. "I've been around it all my life and I never dreamed that this would happen. It's unbelievable."
Australian Greg Potter (Whitt, Texas) clinched the average before the 10th round of the Wrangler NFR even started. He was the only cowboy to ride six bulls coming in and his next closest competitor had ridden only four.
Potter was bucked off his 10th round bull, Black Jack of the Rosser Rodeo Company, but still prevailed in the average.
"I'm a long way from home and I came over here to ride bulls," Potter said. "I'm not going to sit at home. I'm here to win money."
He said overall he was pleased with the way he rode this week.
"It's tough," he said. "A lot of the guys were getting hurt. You just have to suck it up and keep going. That's what it's all about."
On winning the average, Potter said it was a longtime goal.
"It's what everyone dreams of doing," said Potter, who finished fifth in the final world standings. "You come here to ride 10 bulls and then you just go from there. I've just had a great week."
Guy Clifton covers rodeo for the Reno Gazette-Journal. He can be reached at 775.788.6337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.