The way Tyson Durfey went above and beyond for one fan will inspire anyone.
"That's it, dad!" 15-year-old Eli Woodyard said excitedly from the back seat of the SUV. The teenager's excitement was palpable as soon as we got off the highway.
I was in Weatherford, Texas, to write a feature on 2016 world champion tie-down roper Tyson Durfey and Polaris RANGER. Woodyard and his family were there for the experience of a lifetime.
Tyson had partnered with Polaris RANGER to create the "Ultimate Rodeo Experience" in Texas to celebrate RANGER's 20th anniversary, and Woodyard's mother Tana was the grand prize winner.
Polaris flew Tana, her husband Darrell and Eli in from Max Meadows, Virginia, to visit Tyson, his wife, Australian country music singer Shea Fisher, and his daughter Praise Royal at their Texas ranch.
It was pretty clear Eli spends a lot of time on Tyson's popular social media channels. He recognized the corrals and training arena of Tyson's property from over a quarter mile away. Eli participates in team roping events at junior rodeos currently. He won his first buckle during the summer, but he wants to get serious about tie-down roping.
This was actually the family's second time meeting Durfey. The last time they met was in 2016 in Las Vegas. Durfey didn't immediately recognize Eli on this reunion, but that was probably because the teenager has grown a foot or two in the last couple years.
"I'll be danged. He's grown up a little bit since then," Durfey exclaimed upon seeing a photo taken during that first encounter. "You've grown this much since 2016? Oh my goodness. Insane."
Darrell then told Durfey just how meaningful the encounter was, especially since there were lots of other rodeo stars there.
"No one else gave (Eli) the time of day," Darrell said. "That night you waited around and you came over and you spoke to him. That meant a lot."
Durfey started with almost nothing and had to work relentlessly to get to the top of the professional rodeo scene. He obviously hasn't forgotten where he came from, nor has he forgotten what it's like to be a young man looking up to the superstars of the pro tour.
"Well, we all put our pants on the same way. That's the way I look at it," Durfey responded. "I've been doing this a long time and you can always tell, you know, if somebody wants to, but is just maybe shy or whatever. A lot of times you can make their day just going up and talking to them and visiting."
Grades are important
Durfey took our group around his property and showed us his training arena where his office is located. The walls are lined with buckles, competition numbers, framed photos and program covers featuring Tyson wearing his signature pink shirt, which he began wearing in support of breast cancer research. But, what Eli really wanted to see was the world championship gold buckle Tyson won at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2016.
"That's right here," Durfey replied, showing that he was wearing it, something he doesn't do very often.
Just as quickly, Durfey turned attention away from his world title buckle to point out a smaller award on his wall that he received for making the honor roll in high school. Durfey dealt with a number of learning disabilities in school. He credits his dad pushing him to graduate with honors.
"How well do you do in school?" Durfey asked Eli with a sly grin on his face.
"I do all right," Eli replied with a laugh and a sheepish grin of his own.
It quickly became obvious this day wasn't just about fulfilling a contractual obligation for Durfey. He really wanted to make a positive impact on every aspect of this young man's life. For every question Eli had, Durfey had two of his own follow-ups to ask Eli in return.
"Have you ever seen me post a video where it didn't go right?" Tyson asked him.
"No," Eli replied.
"Yes you have!" Durfey shot back, brining up a 2003 video he'd posted on his Instagram account a few months back.
This particular video shows Durfey on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Tour in his rookie year. On this run, absolutely everything went wrong. Durfey lassoed a calf, but for the next 10 seconds or so, the cowboy couldn't get the calf on the ground or its legs tied. It simply refused to go down and ran him over a couple times.
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This is me in 2003 my rookie season in the PRCA. I’ve came along way to say the least. There were a lot of ups and downs to get to where I’m at now. I went broke twice, begged for, and borrowed pretty much everything I needed to make my dream come true. I lived in the back seat of my truck for a while and slept on friends/family couches. There was constant struggle and lack for most of my first 30years of life. The one thing I never did was give in or give up! You must keep looking for new angles to get to your goal! If your going through hell just keep going! You already in the pain. Keep pushing and get a reward for your sweat and tears. “The man who persists in the face of adversity will achieve his goal if he never quits.” @pegasustherapy @zoetisus @polarisorv @corralboots @corralbootspro @cinchjeans @nutrenafeed @priefert_rodeo_ranch #hesstonhayequipment #recordrack #outbackcustoms #fsrcattlecompany #nikkoworkedgreat
"The man who persists in the face adversity will achieve his goal if he never quits," Durfey said. "That's the most important thing you can do to differentiate yourself from the other guy."
He also noted that social media rodeo highlights don't always reflect the reality of the situation.
"You don't realize they probably shot that 150 times to get that one catch that they could post on Instagram," Durfey wisely advised his young fan.
Advice from the best
The tie-down roping champion got even more one-on-one with Eli as he showed us a portion of his training regime where he uses a saddle on a propped-up barrel to practice roping a dummy from a stationary position. After a few minutes showing off his skills, Tyson let Eli hop on to try as Durfey critiqued his technique.
"I'd like to improve my speed," Eli said.
"One thing you can do is to practice two swing throws and three swing throws," Durfey replied. "It's really not about who can have the most swings by the time they get out of the box. It's about getting into position and being ready to throw when the opportunity presents itself.
"Learn the basics as best as you possibly can. Once you have the basics mastered then you can start disposing yourself to reaching a lot or really getting your rope going fast."
Eli was trying to absorb all he could. Most of his answers to the champion tie-down roper were a simple, but very respectful "yes, sir."
Tana said they would be sure to make Eli a stationary practice roping setup like Tyson has at their own ranch in Virginia.
A fan of the idea, Durfey again stressed the importance of Eli learning the basics down pat before trying to get super fancy with his rope.
"Your foundation is good enough to really grow," he said.
As Durfey brought out his two horses, Mitch and Nikko, for a roping demonstration and explained the hardships he had to endure after leaving his native Missouri at the start of his career. How he maxed out credit cards and found himself having to live out of his horse trailer and pickup while touring rodeos in Canada. At one point, he wasn't even sure how he'd return to the United States. Durfey told his young fan how he made his living shoeing horses and cleaning barn stalls in exchange for a place to live.
He notes that shoeing horses is a good way for someone Eli's age to learn more horsemanship skills while also making some good money.
Eventually, Durfey won the Canadian Finals three times, but he still had hardships for a long time. He explained his struggles to find sponsors and how long it took him to elevate his roping to the level that has him consistently near the top of the PRCA world standings these days.
All of these stories had a point in demonstrating Durfey's simple philosophies on success.
"Putting in the work never ends," Durfey said.
He believes you may fail and fail again, but after a while, the small wins start to add up and will eventually help propel you to the top.
"I'm a firm believer in the man that learns to fail the fastest is the one who will win the most," Durfey said.
What he means is that he believes everyone endures hardships, but they can be overcome if you're willing to work and learn from them.
After a while, Durfey told his young fan, "it gets easier to win and it gets easier to stay on top. But you've got to put in the work to start with.
"If you want to be good in the rodeo business, quitting should never be in your vocabulary," Durfey said.
By his own admission, Durfey says a championship-winning rodeo formula of training can be hard to keep up. He advised Eli to find a way to enjoy every aspect of the rodeo life, from the simple cleaning of the arena to the actual winning runs in competition.
"One thing I told myself is I just have to learn to enjoy the process and to not attach my self-worth or what I felt like I was capable of, just to the outcome, but attach it to the process of becoming what I wanted to be," he said.
Those words can apply to every aspect of life, not just champion calf-roping.
The rodeo champion's trust in Eli was hard not to notice. Durfey didn't hesitate in putting the teen to work in helping to prep his horses for a roping demonstration. As they brushed Nikko and Mitch, Durfey started to touch on things like underage drinking and partying. Durfey told the young roper he doesn't drink.
"The persona that being a wild, partying cowboy will make it to the top, that's not reality anymore," Durfey said. "Yeah, you can go out and have fun with your friends. You've just got to keep it in check."
After a few roping demonstrations with his back-up horse Mitch, the Polaris RANGER and a plastic tough calf, Durfey decided it was time to run with his first-string horse and big-money winner, Nikko.
The best day ever
Most professional athletes will talk about a pivotal moment when they were younger that helped inspire the rest of their career. If there was one for Eli, it had to be when Durfey asked him to take Nikko around the arena to warm up.
"Yes, sir!" he responded enthusiastically.
As Eli rode several laps around the arena on the WNFR-winning horse, the smile on his face said it all. Of course, in typical teenage fashion, after a few laps he had to whip out his phone for a few Instagram photos, too.
After Durfey did some more roping demonstrations with Nikko, it was time for some tying practice. Once again, Durfey took great interest in giving Eli lots of little pointers.
"No, no you've got to get your hands up high and fast like this," he said while demonstrating. "The timekeeper might not stop the clock if he doesn't see you do that."
It was clear Durfey enjoyed teaching the intricacies of calf-roping to others. He was so focused on his lesson with Eli that he lost track of time, not realizing it was time for our scheduled trail ride.
As our evening ended on the banks of the Brazos River on the back side of Durfey's Texas property, he was still treating the Woodyards like old friends, even though this was only their second time meeting.
Fun and games
The following day was the second part of the Ultimate Rodeo Experience. Polaris sent out three brand new 2019 RANGERS to the Bridgeport ORV Park for a test drive with Durfey and the Woodyards. On the drive over, Eli's phone was blowing up after Durfey tagged him on Instagram. In one night, the teen gathered over 100 new followers.
When we reached the quarry, Eli got the only bad news he had all weekend. Because he was only 15, he wouldn't be allowed to drive them. After some awesome riding that really saw us put the side-by-sides through their paces, we drove down into an abandoned quarry with some standing water.
Eli, who'd been riding with his parents, took this opportunity to jump into a RANGER with Durfey. The champion roper then showed the teenager it isn't always all business for a pro rodeo star.
After a couple laps around the quarry, Durfey piloted the machine straight into the standing water as fast as he could. This particular RANGER, a 20th Anniversary Edition, didn't have a windshield. The two ended up completely soaked. From Durfey's laugh, it was pretty clear he'd done it on purpose.
As we wrapped up with our test ride Durfey joked, "I can't wait to go home and tell my wife how hard I worked today."
From the way Durfey talked about Eli, it seems he may have seen a little of himself in the teen.
"It was really cool to meet Eli and see a young guy with a fire that is inside of his eye and a hunger to just go out and get it every single day," Durfey said. "He's going to have a great future and I hope I can instill a few things in him that will carry him to future success in the rodeo arena."
Tyson Durfey certainly inspired us throughout this whole experience. We can only wait and see what the future holds for young Eli Woodyard. But, if this weekend was any indication, it's going to be something special.