COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As shocked as he may have been about what he had just done, bull rider Tyler Willis still had the presence of mind to call home from the arena of the Heartland ProRodeo Championships Oct. 17.
"My mom had been a nervous wreck all week," Willis said, "so I knew making that call was the first thing I had to do."
Willis' parents, Don and Tammy, had made it down to Waco, Texas, for the early rounds of the rodeo from their Wheatland, Wyo., ranch and were awaiting news on whether Willis had gotten past his Vernon (Texas) College teammate, Taylor Cowan, and won the PRCA Bull Riding Rookie of the Year Award.
When Willis finally called, it was with a double helping of good news. Not only had he won the rookie award, but he had won the ornamental buckle that goes to the Heartland ProRodeo champion.
"It was a pretty wild week," Willis said. "(The rookie race) went back and forth until the semifinal round. I knew I had that won when Taylor got bucked off in the semifinals. He just walked right over, shook my hand, and said, 'Congratulations.' He took it a lot better than I would have.
"After that, I was just having fun. I couldn't ask for anything else. I wasn't thinking about winning the (Heartland) title. I never really thought I had a shot until I got to the short round."
For that four-man final he drew Andrews Rodeo's Slick Willy, "a bull that doesn't get ridden much," and who had twice bucked off one of Willis' travel partners, Sam Wyatt. But Willis was equal to the challenge. He had the only successful ride of the finals, earning 84 points on Slick Willy.
Willis earned $7,500 for that ride, pushing his total for the week to $12,522 and allowing him to jump from 24th to 19th in the final regular-season PRCA World Standings.
Had Willis not lost more than a month of the season to an injury he suffered at the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days, he might well have qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Willis was knocked unconscious, had his cheekbone broken in three places and broke his eye socket in the wreck, requiring a plate and six screws.
Clint Cannon added more luster to his history-making season in Waco. He tied the arena record held by Dave Worsfold and Steven Peebles with an 89-point ride on Carr Pro Rodeo's River Boat Annie in the finals to earn his 17th title of the PRCA season.
The $12,143 he banked for the week pushed his season total to $233,457, a PRCA regular-season earnings record for any individual event. It also sends Cannon into the Wrangler NFR with a lead of more than $63,000 over second place Bobby Mote.
Also greatly improving their position for the Dec. 3-12 Wrangler NFR were tie-down roper Ryan Jarrett and saddle bronc rider Wade Sundell.
Jarrett, the 2005 world champion all-around cowboy, moved from ninth place to third in the world standings after winning the Heartland final in 8.7 seconds and collecting $12,771 for the week.
Sundell tied his own arena record with an 89-point ride, set six days earlier, on Gold Buckle's Special Time in the final. His rodeo-best earnings of $16,985 lifted from 12th place to fourth in the PRCA World Standings with $88,901.
The other Heartland ProRodeo champions were team ropers Luke Brown and Martin Lucero ($14,028 each) and steer wrestler Chancey Larson ($16,542).
The only competitor who was able to use the Heartland ProRodeo Championships to move into the field for the Wrangler NFR was steer wrestler Matt Reeves of Pampa, Texas. The $2,200 he earned in the first round at Waco jumped him all the way to 12th while bumping Gabe Ledoux out of the 15th — and final — spot in Las Vegas.