Tyson Durfey woke up in the back seat of his pickup truck, stationed somewhere in Alberta, Canada, 1,800 miles from the life he left behind in Savannah, Mo. His bank account was $200 from empty. He was in mid-20s and owed nearly $30,000 to credit card companies.
He couldn't break his cycle. The pursuit of a rodeo career, which began under the tutelage of his father, had robbed him of his life savings, but he continued to convince himself it was worth it. That it remained too early to give up. And so he traveled to rodeos every weekend, racking up expenses and falling deeper into financial debt.
"I'm a red-headed, pale-skinned Irish kid, and I believe that if you want something bad enough, you should be willing to sacrifice everything for it," Dufrey said. "That's how you become a champion.”
Or at least that's the path he took a National Finals Rodeo championship last weekend.
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The alarm whistled before 4:30 a.m. every day, often as early as 4, and Durfey plopped out of bed to begin a practice regimen. By the time he was 13, he lived away from his parents inside a barn that contained a small apartment, overlooking property his father owned in Savannah.
The motivation to practice — riding horses, swinging ropes, tying calves — was largely his own. All the days started in this manner before Durfey went to school, returned home to work on the ranch and then practiced again, with his father providing advice.
When he was 14, Durfey picked out the rodeo career path, and in a town of 5,000 tucked into the northwest corner of Missouri, he was already quite good.
"I thought I was going to be the best thing since sliced bread," said Durfey, now 33.
The rodeo occupation was a pricey endeavor. Travel required costs for fuel, overnight stays and meals on the go. The events had entry fees. So Durfey began saving money. At 18, he had $30,000 to his name, enough to cover the costs for his rookie season.
A year later, it was gone.
All of it.
Durfey failed to win the competitions, which would have included prize money. He was broke.
The next chapter — the only real option — was a return home. Durfey started a welding business in Savannah, and after two years, he had worked his way out of the financial hole.
"I was finally in a good spot, so I thought, 'Well, let's try this again,'" Durfey said.
With even greater commitment, Durfey moved to the Pacific Northwest and found a job working on a ranch. It was merely a practice hub, and he spent the majority of his time traveling to rodeos, many of them in nearby Canada.
But once again, he wasn't winning.
In less than a year, the money his welding business generated had run dry. He added $30,000 in credit card debt.
The plan to move from the red to the black was actually quite simple.
Late in 2005, with the help of a man he called his mentor on the Washington ranch, Durfey surmised that his mental approach was a primary hurdle. He was often bothered by the little things that didn't go well during a rodeo. He would dwell on bad performances for weeks.
But a day after his overnight stay in the truck, an unusual thing happened — he started to win some prize money. He placed second in the tie-down roping competition of his next rodeo, which included a prize of $4,000. In every week for the remainder of 2006, he left events with more cash than when he arrived. He highlighted the run by winning the Canadian Finals Rodeo championship in tie-down roping.
"Everything just kind of clicked," Durfey said. "But the biggest thing is that I was finally able to forget about the past and prepare for the future instead."
The long-term future proved even better. Durfey, who now lives in Weatherford, Texas, with his wife and three-month old daughter, qualified for nine National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas — an annual competition referred to as the Super Bowl of rodeo.
On Saturday, he won it.
Durfey captured his first world championship in tie-down roping, completing the event in 7.4 seconds to win the gold buckle. His family watched from its home in Savannah.
"My dad doesn't believe in carrying a cell phone because he's an old-school cowboy, but he texted me to tell me he was proud," Durfey said. "To my knowledge, that's the first text message he's ever sent in his entire life. Now that's when you know you've done something special."
The 10-day event included a cash prize.
Durfey's cut: $148,000.