BILLINGS — Clay Tryan freely admits when he first started, it was all about him.
When he turned pro in 1997, he was a “Have rope, will travel,” cowboy.
Tryan thought nothing of loading his trailer and pointing his pickup in the direction of the next rodeo or team roping jackpot.
Now, less than a year shy of turning 40 and with a wife and three active sons, Tryan is a bit more meticulous with his planning.
“It’s just life. You have more things now pulling you in different directions,” said Tryan. “Normal life for other people.”
That doesn’t mean his goals have changed. He just has to work a little harder.
That work paid off with a 16th qualification for the National Finals Rodeo, Dec. 6-15 in Las Vegas.
The three-time world champion team roping header (2005, 2013, 2014) will ride into the Thomas and Mack Center fourth in the world standings with $96,990 won for 2018. He trails Clay Smith of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, by just $18,354, less than a go-round win.
“The National Finals Rodeo, this is why we do it,” Tryan said. “This is why we rope for a living. Any time you make it to Las Vegas, it’s an accomplishment.
“With the NFR, this is where you win the world title. Where you win the gold buckle.”
Tryan is roping with Travis Graves, of Jay, Oklahoma. The two roped together at the NFR in 2010, 2011 and 2012, placing in 14 rounds together.
The two will be walking that fine line of aggressive roping to win round money and smart roping to stay in the high-paying average.
“The world title is always the goal,” said Tryan. “But every NFR is different. To win the NFR, you’ve got to be in control the whole time and I’ve only done that a few times. The first day affects the last day. You want to rope a good rodeo. It sounds simple, but it’s not.”
The two overcame a sluggish start and steadily climbed the standings during the summer. They earned $5,973 at Greeley, Colorado, during the Fourth of July run and vaulted into the top five of the world standings. They won at Dillon for $2,750 and were second at Filer, Idaho, for another $3,113.
Their biggest check of 2018 was a win at Puyallup, Washington, for $12,789.
“If you want to win the world title, you’ve got to win some of the big rodeos,” Tryan said. “We didn’t get that many big checks, but we had a lot of weeks where we would get three, four in a row."
Tryan also trimmed back his roping schedule and replaced it with baseball, basketball and ropings with his sons Tyler (12), Braylon (11) and Dash (4).
“I want to go to all my kids’ events,” he said.
Tryan added his two older sons have shown an interest in roping and their father has traded competing in jackpots for time in the practice pen to remain at his world-class level.
“I’ve always been a grinder,” he said of his work habits. “Now that my sons are older, they see dad working and see what it takes to be a successful roper. And they see that hard work pay off.”
Tryan will bring both his horses, 13-year-old Johnson and 19-year-old Dew, to Las Vegas. He rode Johnson at the NFR in 2017.
“I’ll take both of them and see how it plays out,” he said. “Now that I’m older, I have to work harder at this.
“One day I’ll be sick of it and walk away. But that’s a long way off.”