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Kaleb Driggers and Walt Woodard won the 2018 James Pickens Jr. Foundation Charity Roping in Clovis, and were presented $6,040 a man plus Coats Saddles by Producer James Pickens, Jr. – Sal Owens Photo

By Lane Karney
Special To Ropers Sports News

California’s spring rodeo run is pretty sweet these days, thanks in part to all the ropings held in conjunction with the biggest, best rodeos the season has to offer in the Golden State. Kaleb Driggers and Walt Woodard capitalized on one such bonus opportunity at the 2018 James Pickens Jr. Foundation Charity Roping.

Held April 24 at the Clovis Rodeo Grounds, the 87-team five-header was worth $6,040 a man to Georgia native Driggers and California cowboy Woodard, both of whom currently call Texas home. Not a bad day’s work on a Tuesday afternoon for the 2017 reserve Pickens champs, who stepped it up a notch to take the win this year.

“I love all the ropings out here in the springtime,” said Woodard, 62, who heeling for Matt Sherwood is on a mission to make his 21st NFR in 2018—the first 20 spanned 1976 through 2011. “That’s one of the reasons I spent the spring here. I like the long scores and the hard-running steers. I have a great horse, and the harder and tougher the conditions, the better he shines.

“In Texas, guys can almost always reach. Things are set up so you can ride a Shetland pony and still catch ’em. Today, you could not reach the steer with your rope without riding a good horse. They were running too fast and they were too far away. The faster they run, the harder they are to head and heel. A roping like this is a true test.”

That blue-roan horse of which Walt speaks is his beloved Blueberry, 10, who’s the handiwork of Walt and son Travis Woodard, who won the 2003 BFI heeling for Mikey Fletcher and roped with Sherwood at the 2015 NFR. The last two generations of Woodards followed the recipe of the two before them—Walt’s dad, Sheldon, and granddad, Harry—and are proving those methods work with great pride.

“My father and grandfather were great horsemen,” Walt said. “We applied what we learned from them, and this horse is the finished product of our system. Travis and I are the only two people who’ve ever touched him.”

He means it. Walt even shoes this horse himself. And as high as he is on the horse, he’s just as proud of his Pickens partner. 

“I was roping with the best header, and I was riding the best horse,” said Walt, who won the world in 1981 and 2007, and won the 2008 BFI heeling for Clay Tryan. “Driggers is the best header, and Blueberry is the best heel horse. Driggers and Junior Nogueira have been the best team the last two or three years, and Kaleb’s been the best header. Who’s better than he is? No one. All they need (to get the gold buckle) is a little luck in Las Vegas.

“This horse does not do anything wrong. He doesn’t cheat, shoulder, or check off, and he’s not pulling on you going down the arena. He’s just a great horse. He didn’t make a mistake all day long, and neither did Driggers.”

Driggers and Woodard roped five steers in 34.08 seconds, and won the roping by a tenth of a second over reserve champs Riley Minor and Travis Graves. Driggers rode a sorrel horse he calls Ole Son, who’s 13. He bought him last fall from Zac Small, who won the 2016 BFI with Wesley Thorp.

“I love all these spring-run ropings,” Driggers said. “And this horse makes jackpotting really easy on me. If you’re going to be gone from home, you want to be roping and competing. It keeps you sharp and gives you something fun to do.”

The Pickens roping was go three times, and because Sherwood was home with his family for a few days, Walt roped with Driggers, Cody Snow, and Andrew Ward. Kaleb roped with Junior, Kollin VonAhn, and Walt, who rotates with Jade Corkill as Driggers’ third partner. 

“It’s unbelievable to be out here at his age and still second to none,” said Driggers, 28, who was born eight years after Walt won his first world title, and is 34 years younger than Woodard. “It takes a lot of determination to still have the fire Walt has in him. He heeled every steer before the second hop today. 

“I broke the barrier for Junior and Kollin on our second steers, so my goal for the rest of the day was to get out of the barrier and turn ’em for Walt. He never one time was out of position, and he never one time took a bad shot. He did an outstanding job.”

Driggers has left a mark on this roping over the years. He’s placed several times, including second with Walt last year, and won it heeling for Luke Brown in 2015. He also says he’s learned a lot about all aspects of the game from Walt.

“He’s so intriguing to talk to,” Driggers said. “He’s such an intelligent guy. I like picking his brain. He’s been there and done that—and done it twice. I like to learn and I like to get better. A lot of it’s mental. Being able to talk to him and ask him about things he knows all about is awesome.”

Walt was born and raised in California—home of the original Cowboy Capital of the World in Oakdale—and now lives in the modern-day Cowboy Capital of the World in Stephenville, Texas. He and wife Darlene still own property in Stockton, so the spring run serves as a homecoming.

“I love California,” Walt said. “The weather out here is beautiful. I bought some fresh strawberries, and they were wonderful. The drivers here hate me, for some reason. I’ve counted this trip, and have gotten the finger three times so far. I don’t know what I do, but I somehow offend people here with my driving. 

“But I love it here. I went by and saw my mom and dad’s place, where I grew up on one acre. I went to skid row and had Chinese food. It’s kind of dangerous down there, but I like it.”

The James Pickens Jr. Foundation Charity Roping is a labor of love for Cleveland-born Pickens, who stars as Dr. Richard Webber on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. “The Pickens,” as the cowboys call it, combines two of Pickens’ passions—mentoring young people and the cowboy way of life. Pickens and his wife, Gina, formed the James Pickens Jr. Foundation “to bring increased value to the lives of people of this generation and the generations that follow.” He also loves to rope when he’s not on set in his scrubs.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the West,” said Pickens, who calls Jake Barnes his “biggest cowboy influence.” “Growing up in the city I didn’t have the occasion to be around horses. When I moved to California, I made some relationships with some stunt and transportation guys who roped. One of them kept a roping dummy in his trailer. I watched him rope that thing, and I was intrigued. Roping has been a great escape from the fast-paced, high-pressure Hollywood lifestyle. Roping is a real adrenaline rush, and it’s a great hobby for me.”

His time is tight, but Pickens team ropes every chance he gets. Why did he decide to produce an open roping for his cowboy friends?

“I do it because of my passion for team roping, and also for kids and trying to recognize and bring attention to where kids are in our society today, where we should elevate them to, and how we should celebrate them and recognize their value,” he said. “To celebrate our young people and couple that with my passion for the Western lifestyle is reason enough to do it. I thought acting was hard, but it’s nothing compared to what a professional cowboy’s life is like. These guys are amazing, and Kaleb, Walt and the rest of the guys put on a great show for us today.”

The cowboy crowd is grateful to the likes of Producer Pickens.

“It’s pretty cool to get to come rope for this amount of money on a Tuesday between rodeos,” Driggers said. “And there are a lot of chances to win. It also pays good money on down through fifth. That’s one thing about an open roping that we really appreciate and enjoy—not just top-loading first and having the big headlines about how much it paid. Roping’s gotten so tough now that if you stub your toe on one steer, you’re going to end up winning third or fourth in the snap of a finger. Placing here today paid good money on an 87-team roping. I like that a lot.” 

“Roping with this guy is like buying a lottery ticket and getting to look at the numbers before you buy it,” Woodard said of Driggers. “When you rope with him, he tells you a lot—“Great shot. Great save.” That gives me energy. It’s like, ‘Hey, this guy believes in me.’ He believes he’s going to win, and he makes you believe it, too.

“I admire all these guys I’m roping against. They are amazing ropers, and these are good guys. I’m a 62-year-old #10 heeler. I think about winning all the time. Where do I fit in? I don’t do this for the money. I do it for the challenge. I love this lifestyle.”

2018 James Pickens Jr. Foundation Charity Roping Results ($10,000 added; entry fees $350 a man)

Results are as follows: payoffs are per man.

Open Roping: 87 teams.

Round 1: 1. Garrett Rogers and Russell Cardoza, 6.17, $1,510. 2. Coleman Proctor and Billie Jack Saebens, 6.28, $1,006.

Round 2: 1. Andrew Ward and Kollin VonAhn, 6.25, $1,510. 2. Joshua Torres and Cody Hogan, 6.42, $1,006.

Short Round: 1. Jr Dees and Nano Garza, 5.91, $600.

Average: 1. Kaleb Driggers and Walt Woodard, 34.08, $6,040. 2. Riley Minor and Travis Graves, 34.18, $5,034. 3. Andrew Ward and Kollin Von­Ahn, 35.45, $4,026. 4. Jeff Flenniken and Jonathan Torres, 36.37, $3,020. 5. Aaron Macy and Wyatt Cox, 38.27, $2,013.

Pro Am Roping: Payoff for this roping is 60/40

32 teams (pro headers, amateur heelers):

Fast time: 1. 6.02, Chad Masters, $160, and Kyle Mahon, $240. 2. 7.13, Spencer Mitchell, $160 and Zane Denio, $240.

Average: 1. 23.93, Kelly Barker, $694, and Bryan Johnson, $1,040. 2. 26.28, Luke Brown, $416, and Shawn Small, $624. 3. 27.10, Chad Masters, $278, and Will Cowden, $416.

67 teams (amateur headers, pro heelers):

Fast time: 1. 6.33, Buster Berna, $240, and Kasper Roy, $160. 2. 6.90, Dave Carrico, $240, and Chase Tryan, $160. 

Average: 1. 24.69, Robert Kitchell, $1,952, and Russell Cardoza, $1,302. 2. 26.13, Sonny Cowden, $1,464, and Cesar de la Cruz, $976. 3. 26.35, Brandi Smith, $976, and Jake Long, $650. 4. 26.44, JR Marshall, $488, and Ty Arnold, $326.