Back in the 1988 World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson — who could barely walk but hobbled to the plate as a pinch-hitter — hit one of the most iconic home runs of all time, in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 against the favored Oakland Athletics. The call by Jack Buck was equally iconic.
“I don’t believe what I just saw! I don’t believe what I just saw!”
On Saturday night, as the 10th go-round of the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo wrapped up at the Thomas & Mack Center, Buck’s call crept into my mind. Because I don’t believe what I just saw over the past 10 days.
I saw Ryder Wright, an 18-year-old rookie saddle bronc rider, do something no other rookie has done at the Wrangler NFR: win five go-rounds, including the first four in a row. I saw Ryder’s 39-year-old father, Cody Wright, score 90.5 points aboard Wound Up to grab the first-place check in the final go-round, almost a poetic ending — son wins the first round, dad wins the last.
I saw Zeke Thurston win the NFR average in saddle broncs, allowing him to claim the gold buckle as the season-long world champion by a relatively razor-thin margin of about $3,000 over defending champion Jacobs Crawley.
I saw Tyson Durfey enter the final night of the NFR at eighth in the world standings, and stunningly end it in first place, claiming the tie-down roping gold buckle by about $3,500. His second-place finish in the NFR average — worth $54,577 — put him over the top.
I saw Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler become the first Canadian team roping duo to qualify for the Wrangler NFR, and they then went on to win the world championship, after the two threw down a time of 4.30 seconds to split first in the final round. I saw Tim O’Connell claim the gold buckle to cap a dominant bareback riding season, finishing with a record $374,272 on the year — about $134,000 ahead of his closest pursuer, Jake Vold, who had a great week in Vegas.
I saw Sage Kimzey show tremendous resolve and fight his way to a third straight world championship in bull riding. Kimzey’s third-place score of 83 aboard Battle Born on Saturday night proved enough to hold off a huge surge by good friend Brennon Eldred, who won three go-rounds this week. Kimzey finished the year with $311,451, and Eldred was second at $287,803.
I saw Tyler Waguespack finish off a stellar steer wrestling season to comfortably claim his first gold buckle, with season earnings of $298,676.
I saw Brazilian cowboy Junior Nogueira do just enough over the week in team roping to eke out the most prestigious title of all, that of all-around world champion cowboy. He finished the year with $231,728, edging Clayton Hass by about $3,600. Nogueira made history as the first Brazilian to not only claim the all-around gold buckle, but any PRCA gold buckle.
And last, but certainly not least, I saw Mary Burger win the barrel racing world championship — at 68 years of age! Burger finished the season with a whopping $277,554, yet had to hold off the hard-charging Amberleigh Moore, who finished second in the world standings at $266,760 after piling up nearly $188,000 over the 10-day NFR.
Afterward, during the awarding of gold buckles and championship saddles on the arena dirt, Burger’s quote could have applied to any of the big success stories at the 2016 Wrangler NFR. As the sellout crowd roared its approval of the oldest world champion in history, Burger said:
“God has his plan, and I liked his plan.”
Yeah, I liked that plan, too. All week long. I don’t believe what I just saw.