BILLINGS — Sam Levine watches them.
He sees it in their eyes. The go-for-broke approach on every event, the unbridled enthusiasm just being around their friends.
And Levine sympathizes with their highs and lows on the rodeo road.
“I remember being that age,” said Levine of the next generation of cowboys. “Being hungry and with good horses.
“I was one of those kids. I was the same way.”
The Wolf Creek cowboy, a little older now, goes into the Northern Rodeo Association/Northern Women’s Association Finals leading both the all-around cowboy and team roping heeling standings.
The NRA/NWRA Finals are the showcase for the Mountain Health Co-op Tour for 2021.
Only the top 10 in each event qualify to compete at Majestic Valley Arena in Kalispell, Oct. 28-30. There, the year-end champions will be rewarded for a summer of hard work and long miles.
With big payouts awaiting, no standings lead is safe.
That includes Levine.
Levine and team roping partner Ian Austiguy of Dillon both have leads of $2,770 over Dustin Datisman of Arlee (headers) and Ronan’s Josh Harris (heelers).
That makes Levine a realist entering the Finals.
“My priority is being a team roping heeler,” said the 34-year-old Levine. “I really don’t care about the all-around. I know it will be tough to win. I am there for Ian.”
Nipping at the heels of Levine’s cowboy boots are passel of young cowboys, four who have qualified in multiple events.
Levine has a lead of $408 over Bozeman teenager Brice Patterson. The University of Wyoming sophomore leads the bareback standings and is fifth for steer wrestling. Third place in a go-round pays $444.
Caden Camp of Belgrade, just 22, will have the most opportunities to cut into Levine’s lead. Trailing by $1,066, Camp has qualified in a Finals-high three events: steer wrestling, tie down roping and team roping.
Caleb McMillion of Jackson (tie down roping, bull riding) and Anaconda’s Bucky McAlpine (bareback, bull riding) have each qualified in two events.
A sweep in an event — placing first in all three rounds and the average — is worth $4,043.
And Levine is no stranger to winning gold buckles.
He has won three team roping titles (2008, 2012, 2017), a tie-down roping championship saddle in 2008 and the all-around cowboy crown in 2012.
“I want to rope good and see what happens from there,” Levine said.
He and Austiguy roped plenty well in the latter part of the summer. The two were partners last year and qualified for the NRA/NWRA Finals, which were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We didn’t have any set goals going into the season,” said Levine. “We thought we’d ease into the season and see how we were doing.
“Around July Fourth, we decided we were going to pick it up if our bank accounts weren’t too bad.”
The pair had a NRA-best four wins in team roping, being the quickest at Ennis, Red Eye Daze in Deer Lodge, Darby and Helmville. They also had second-place finishes at Three Forks, Boulder and Hamilton.
Levine and Austiguy earned $2,250 the last five weekends, including $1,364 on Labor Day weekend at Hamilton and Helmville. The win at Helmville, the last rodeo of the regular season, lifted Levine to first place in the all-around.
“We’re on the same page for roping steers and horses,” Levine said of Austiguy.
Levine earned tie-down roping checks at Conrad, Choteau and Deer Lodge.
“I ended up getting lucky, catching a few to get into the all-around race,” he said.
Levine also had help from his wife Whitney, who will be competing in the breakaway roping.
“She did all our scheduling,” said Levine. “She is very, very good at scheduling. We are here because of her. Whitney got us entered in open, NRA and PRCA rodeos. She did all the work and set us up pretty well pretty much everywhere we went.
“She is the reason for all of our success and it all ended perfectly.”
It will be a family affair for Levine. Along with his wife, niece Payton Levine, and nephew Royce Levine are competing. Payton Levine is second in the breakaway roping standings and leads the junior breakaway roping. Her time of 1.9 seconds at Eureka, against the adults, is the fastest time this year.
“I just have to see what is in the cards,” Levine said of the Finals. “See what I draw, see what I can do and rope my steer.”