LAS VEGAS At this time last year, Joe Beaver, an eight-time world champion, and Luke Branquinho, the 2004 World Champion Steer Wrestler, had to resign themselves to watching the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo from the broadcast booth, sharing time serving as color analysts for the ESPN broadcast crew and ProRodeo radio respectively.
Both made their way back to the dirt of the Thomas & Mack Center following successful 2006 regular seasons and left the analysis to someone else. On Thursday, each made a triumphant return, winning their rounds in tie-down roping and steer wrestling, respectively, as the 10-day event kicked off in front of 17,227 fans.
For Beaver, a five-time world champion tie-down roper and three-time world champion all-around cowboy, Thursday's go-round title was bittersweet. On Oct. 6, his father, Walter, passed away at the age of 70 after a bout with cancer. Beaver (Huntsville, Texas) spent much of his 2005 season focused on his father's health, but this year refocused his efforts on rodeo as he qualified for the Wrangler NFR in two events at age 39.
"Everybody knows I've kind of had an up-and-down year," said Beaver, who was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in the all-around category in 2002. "This is the first time since 1985 that I haven't gotten a call from my dad before the rodeo. Since he passed away, I kind of waited for that phone call tonight and I didn't get it. But it turned out that I had a little extra drive in me."
Beaver roped his first-round calf in 7.7 seconds, topping reigning World Champion All-Around Cowboy Ryan Jarrett, by just one-tenth of a second. The effort gave Beaver a check worth $16,022 after he came up empty with a no-time in team roping earlier in the night.
Branquinho (Los Alamos, Calif.), who missed most of last season with a torn pectoral that required surgery, downed his steer in 3.7 seconds and took a victory lap in his first round back in Las Vegas since claiming his first world title.
"I walked around the arena before, but I didn't feel any jitters," Branquinho said. "I just felt like I needed to go out there and take care of business and try to defend a world title that I didn't get to defend last year."
Branquinho, who entered the Wrangler NFR in fourth place, moved into second after earning $16,022 and trails leader Dean Gorsuch by almost $11,000.
Another cowboy who watched from the sidelines last year, only to rebound in a big way on Thursday, was bull rider B.J. Schumacher (Hillsboro, Wis.). Schumacher, who qualified for the Wrangler NFR in 2005, but had to withdraw after suffering a broken collarbone late in the season, rode Southwick, Robertson and Wilson Rodeo's Texas for 91.5 points < just the second qualified ride on that bull this season.
Saddle bronc rider Jeff Willert (Belvidere, S.D.) the reigning world champion, battled through a variety of injuries during his title defense year and barely qualified for the Wrangler NFR, doing so ranked 14th in his event. On Thursday, he rediscovered his championship touch after scoring 86 points on Burch Rodeo's Tokyo Massage.
Bareback rider Wes Stevenson (Kaufman, Texas) had the top score of the night, an 89 aboard Classic Pro Rodeo's Wise Guy, while a new team roping tandem and a barrel racer making her Wrangler NFR debuts started in style.
Travis Tryan (Billings, Mont.) and Jhett Johnson (Casper, Wyo.) turned in the top team roping time of the night, a 4.3-second run, to win the round by six-tenths of a second ahead of the team of Speed Williams and Clay O'Brien Cooper. Barrel racer Shelly Anzick (Livingston, Mont.) completed the cloverleaf pattern in 13.96 seconds, taking the victory lap after her first-ever run at the Thomas & Mack Center after finishing three-hundredths of a second ahead of two-time and reigning World Champion Kelly Kaminski.
The Wrangler NFR, an annual Las Vegas event since 1985, is the world's premier rodeo. Only the top 15 contestants in each of rodeo's events qualified for the event, which will crown world champions at its conclusion on Dec. 9.
The event resumes with Round 2 on Friday at 9 p.m. (ET).