Better late than never

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LAS VEGAS — When D.V. Fennell walked into the locker room at the Thomas & Mack Center last Thursday night for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, he was greeted by an unexpected surprise.

There, in the center of the room, was a rocking chair adorned with a sign that read simply, "Dad."

"I just rolled with it and made 'em all sign it so I could take it home when it's over," laughed Fennell, who at 36 years of age is the most senior cowboy in the bareback portion of this year's WNFR, and was clearly the victim of a good-natured prank by his fellow competitors.

For Fennell, who bought his PRCA card back in 1994, this first WNFR of his 15-year career has been more than just a long time coming — it's been everything from the dream of a young boy who had begun to doubt it would ever materialize, to the obsession of a family man who refused to hang up his spurs, to the light at the end of an injury-plagued tunnel for a grizzled veteran.

And now that he's finally made it?

"When you're 19 or 20 it seems like the greatest thing in the world, and it's still an awesome feat and I'm so thankful for it," said Fennell. "But the most important thing is I've got a beautiful wife and two beautiful kids — that's number one.

"I'm just glad I got to be here and take part in this before my body got wore out."

In 2005, that's exactly what Fennell thought was happening. He was back on the amateur circuit, his body was breaking down in a sport notorious for taking its toll on a cowboy's physique, and in his words, "It was going nowhere."

Fennell turned to his best friend and told him he was through. Fortunately for Fennell, his best friend just so happens to be fellow bareback rider Justin McDaniel. And there was no way McDaniel was going to let his best friend hang it up just yet.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Well, come on, let's go rodeoing,'" Fennell remembers.

That year was the best of both men's careers up to that point. Fennell finished the year 22nd in the world with $44,140 in earnings, winning two rodeos along with the title of Prairie Circuit champion. As for McDaniel, the then 19-year old won the PRCA Rookie of the Year award in bareback riding, earning $30,271 along the way.

Since that pivotal year, both cowboys have steadily built on their success, culminating with McDaniel's world championship in 2008. But a WNFR qualification still eluded Fennell, who was sidetracked for part of 2007 and almost all of 2008 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff — an injury that had nagged him for no less than seven years. The experience of sitting on the couch with his wife Julie, watching the man who he calls "my little brother, my best friend and my traveling partner all rolled up into one," win a gold buckle in front of a sold-out crowd in Las Vegas had a profound effect on him.

"I turned to my wife and I told her that day that if I was going to rodeo, I would not miss that rodeo in Vegas again," Fennell said. "Watching him win that was awesome."

Fennell hit the rodeo circuit in a frenzy in 2009, winning or tying for first in no less than eight rodeos. Before he knew it, he had finally qualified for the WNFR — at 36 years of age and 15 years into his career, no less. And joining him in Las Vegas would be his best friend, reigning world champion and traveling partner, Justin McDaniel. The pair came into Vegas ranked 10th and fourth, respectively, with Fennell earning almost $70,000 on the season — the most of his career.

"My mindset's been different this year," Fennell said. "I set out to win a gold buckle. You can look at the dollars coming into here and you can tell there's no way I can catch Clint Cannon (Cannon was more than $160,000 ahead of Fennel prior to the start of the rodeo), but it was that mindset all year long that persevered and made me bring my A-game every day."

Through four rounds at the Thomas & Mack Center, Fennell has only pocketed one check (in Round Two), but his second and third place split on that evening earned him $11,887 and boosted his season earnings to $81,815.

With six rounds left, Fennell has more than enough time to earn a go-round buckle — not to mention a prime seat in the locker room even if he doesn't.

"Maybe we'll get one," Fennell said, "'cause I'm gonna come a-clocking every time."

The WNFR will be televised nightly on ESPN Classic and ESPN2. At the conclusion of the 10th performance on Dec. 12th, the contestants with the highest earnings in each event will be crowned as the 2009 world champion.

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