When I pulled up to Trevor Brazile’s gate in Decatur, Texas, this spring, I called his cell to ask for the gate code.

“You don’t have it?” he asked, surprised. He seemed to expect that everyone in the rodeo world must have it by now and gave it to me.

I punched it in, and as the electronic gates inched open, my anticipation rose. The curtain was being lifted, and I would finally meet the man behind the persona. Trevor Brazile won the first of his nine world all-around titles in 2002, the same year I began my career as a rodeo journalist. We came up together, so to speak, but on opposite sides of the fence—him performing, me watching. I’m one of many journalists who have interviewed him dozens of times, watched hundreds of his runs, and written thousands of words about him. And despite giving intelligent interviews and not being especially camera shy, Brazile does not come alive in front of the media. Quiet by nature, he retreats a bit. After a decade, I could not say I knew him.

In all my years around the sport, for example, I’d always heard people comment on what a funny guy he is. Yet I’d never heard him tell a joke. This was my chance—a trip to his house as part of the reporting for a six-month training series with Brazile and American Cowboy’s sister publication, Spin To Win Rodeo [for which Bob Welch is the deputy editor]. The increased face time with Brazile would reveal the secret Brazile, or so I hoped.

“Here, ride this one,” he said and handed me the reins to a backup calf horse. “Don’t let him buck you off. Let’s go gather the steers.” Later, I found out that he lets his son Treston, 5, ride that horse…

In every situation, Brazile is the alpha male. Extremely private, he’s not hungry for attention, but he doesn’t hide in his bus at rodeos either. (Just this fall, in Walla Walla, Wash., I saw him sign autographs for every rodeo queen in the grand entry and spend about a half hour visiting with a local committee person trying to get him to participate in a mounted shooting event.) He’s polite and accommodating and revered by his peers, yet he always seems to keep his distance. That’s part of the newsmaker/media dance—each uses the other for his own end—but there was something else. Rodeo is so small compared to other national sports. I felt like there was much more to the man than I had seen, and I was betting that this trip would reveal it.

As his clothing and tack brand implies, Brazile is a man of “relentless” energy. He practices obsessively. And like all rodeo cowboys, he travels constantly. The difference is that Brazile competes in three events [instead of the usual one]: steer roping, team roping, and tie-down roping. He has to juggle a lot more as a result, and he still wins regularly in all of them. He’s won three steer roping world titles, one team roping, three tie-down, and nine all-around. And while I thought I was getting a glimpse behind the curtain, it turns out that I got caught up into the tornado.

“To keep from getting overwhelmed with each rodeo or each event, the best way is to keep everything in perspective—as far as life goes,” says Brazile. “You hear people say a certain rodeo is a must-win, or whatever you want to call it. But really, it’s a rodeo that you prepared for. I’ve been to rodeos where I thought I had to win, and didn’t, but it turned out everything was still OK.”

Brazile is beyond busy. His guys had the arena worked, horses fed and caught when we got to the barn. They started saddling, and Brazile checked every inch of his tack, clipped a horse’s mane here, punched a hole in a headstall there. As he saddled, he remembered about his idea for a line of cinches (with narrower buckles than most), so he snapped a few pictures and sent them off to Cactus, the company that produces his licensed tack.

By the time cattle were gathered, a representative from Wrangler (one of his primary sponsors) was there to rope, too. Not long after, a friend in the industry, who was looking for a new head horse, stopped by to try one of Brazile’s. All the while, our cameras were snapping away, and Brazile bore down as if they weren’t. His legendary practice schedule and work ethic are well founded. The guy never lets up. He “tuned on” horses and made rodeo runs.

I was reminded of an old story I’d heard about Brazile not wanting to go to school. He wanted to stay home and rope, and his dad, four-time National Finals Steer Roping Finals qualifier Jimmy Brazile, had to strike a deal with his only child. If he would agree to go to school, Jimmy would come to the playground every day at recess with the roping dummy, so his son could practice. It worked.

“His granddad built him a little roping dummy when he was two years old,” says Jimmy. “When it wasn’t his turn, he’d push [other] boys off that dummy for his turn. He never let up.”

Kory Koontz, a 19-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) heeler, adds: “I roped with Trevor at the Junior World Championships when he was about 12. You could tell then he was serious about it. He roped really, really well for his age.”

This summer, as we developed the article series, it worked out that he and partner Patrick Smith needed a ride from the airport to Greeley during the Fourth of July run. I picked them up, but before heading to the rodeo grounds or conducting the interview, Brazile and Smith had me stop off at an arena just outside of town to freshen up their horses. They ran five steers, scored about that many, and we did the interview in the truck on the way to the rodeo. (They won that performance, by the way.) And when I ran across Brazile in Walla Walla, Wash., he found a local arena to turn a few steers and try out a new horse between steer roping slack in the morning and the evening performance.

Back at Brazile’s ranch on that windy March day, the flow of distractions never stopped. His dad swung in to talk horses. His mother, Glenda, was there to help Brazile’s wife, Shada, with the kids. When the family came down to the arena and hung out for a while, Treston helped bring the calves up the alley, and Brazile took daughter Style, 2, on his horse. It was clear that when his kids are around, practice, photo shoots, and visiting stop. He gives them his full attention.

“He’s an incredible dad,” says Shada. “He knows everything about his kids. He’s always there when I need him, and he’s very attentive to me.”

At lunch, which Trevor had organized at a local Mexican joint, he prayed over our enchiladas and led a discussion about an uncomfortable encounter some cowboy had had with a ProRodeo official. And after lunch, more practice. At one point, his brother-in-law Tuf Cooper, who lives just around the corner, came down for some team roping pointers with his friend, reigning PBR world champion bull rider Silvano Alves. Trevor shook Alves’ hand and introduced himself but stayed focused. Later, he asked Tuf, “Who was that?”

All that day, one of Brazile’s workers, Jared Bates, needled his boss about his wrestling prowess and challenged him to match. The stakes? Whoever pinned the other first got to shock the loser with the Hot-Shot. Rodeo scuttlebutt at the time was that Brazile was nursing a sore back. I didn’t see his practice runs suffer, but he clearly didn’t want to engage in much horseplay. Brazile rebuffed him, but Bates wouldn’t let it go. Finally, he relented, and they stepped into a horse stall. Not one to raise eyebrows for sheer athleticism, Brazile did play on his high school’s state championship basketball team, and he pinned Bates in under five seconds. Of course, he made the poor guy squirm before finally giving Bates the juice. We all howled, and someone caught it on video.

“Life’s too short not to enjoy what you’re doing for a living, whether you’re doing good or bad,” says Brazile. “It doesn’t mean you’re not serious about your work. I love life, and I want the people around me to love life, too.”

Later that afternoon, we were conducting a formal interview when his cattle supplier pulled up to pick up some old steers and drop off some fresh ones. Brazile jumped right in the pen to push them in the trailer. It was evening by now, and his days clearly continue into the night. As we continued to work through our six-month article series, it was often midnight before Brazile would have a free moment to talk on the phone.

Some people have sniped that Brazile has a contrived public persona meant to develop a bland, non-controversial image in order to market products more effectively (and lucratively). Sure, he’s leveraging his success for himself and his family, but greed does not seem to drive him in any way. Most of his luxuries are designed to help him win more (better horses and fancy arenas) or to endure the rigors of rodeo (a tour bus and hired help). From what I saw, the man behind the curtain is very similar to the man in front of it. He just loves to rope, wants to be the best, and does what it takes to win. What you see is what you get. People respect that, and most everyone in the industry has a Trevor story: the time he roped sick as a dog in a pro-am somewhere to follow through for a sponsor; when he stepped in to head for Kory Koontz at the NFR, after Jake Barnes had lost his thumb in the fifth round; his horsemanship; how respectful he is.

His heeler, Patrick Smith, knows him better than most. On that trip from the airport to Greeley, the two of them shared more inside jokes than college roommates.

“To me, Trevor has been one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” says Smith. “It’s neat to have a partner that’s always encouraging. If I’m in a slump, he encourages me rather than worrying about when I’m going to be out of it. He’s one of the only people I’ve been around that has let success better him… He’s not a preacher, but he’ll sure stand up for his faith and his relationship with the Lord. I think success changes a lot of people for the worse, but he’s used it to make his family and career stronger.”

Brazile’s 2012 tie-down roping season was abysmal. For the first time since 1999, he’ll miss making the NFR in that event. And as we conducted an interview about mental toughness, I asked him how he’s dealt with what he’s called “the worst tie-down season of my career.”

He looked directly in my eyes, and with a straight face and defensive tone, replied, “What do you mean?”

As he watched me squirm, a big smile broke out across his face. He threw his head back and laughed a short laugh then answered the question thoughtfully. If humor is any indication of comfort level, maybe I had actually earned a little trust.

The lessons I learned behind Trevor Brazile’s gate are not as profound as I expected. Really, he’s a simple cowboy living a complicated lifestyle. He has earned everything he’s got—the luxuries of his sport and the respect of an industry. He loves his family. He hates to lose. He practices hard. He’s quiet. He’s busy but also helpful and accommodating. And Brazile’s business demeanor and private nature should not be confused with arrogance.

“He never ‘big leagues’ it,” says Jim Bainbridge of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “He’s always accommodating, and he does things that nobody ever sees. He knows what he’s accomplished, and that it’s come from working hard. He never takes it for granted.”

Brazile says that he wants to be remembered as a great cowboy. There was a time when I thought that just applied to arena triumphs. Like his competitors, of course, he wants to be known as a winner, a great roper and great horseman. Now, though, I understand that being a “great cowboy” means more than that. Perhaps more so, Brazile wants to embody the highest ideals of the American cowboy: honesty, self-sacrifice, toughness, hard work, and faith.

To him, that seems to have been self-evident all along. The rest of us are now coming around, too.

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