LAS VEGAS – The turning point of Matt Bright’s 2012 season came in early August.
“I had decided that if I didn’t win a pretty significant amount of money, I’d have to go home and get a job,” said Bright of Azle, Texas.
Bright won the first round of bareback riding in Dodge City, Kan., that week and finished third in the two-ride aggregate. In all, he pocketed $3,824 in southwest Kansas, and his ride down the rodeo trail continued. It’s a good thing, too.
Now the Tennessee-born cowboy is returning to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the third straight season, finishing the 2012 campaign 12th in the world standings. He finished with a flourish, including a share of the event championship in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., in late August.
“By September, thinks were kind of rolling again,” Bright said.
That was important for the 29-year-old cowboy.
“I’m going to call this a blue-collar year for me,” he said. “Last year, it seemed like I got healthy, then I got on a roll through the summer. Winning was coming easy for me, and I was having fun. This year was a lot different story for me. I felt like I had to work for it a lot more. I had a pretty solid winter, but the summer through July and the first part of August was slow.”
That’s where the worry and stress came in to play, but Bright leaned on his experiences to guide him through the tough times.
“I can tell that I’ve matured as a bareback rider,” he said. “In 2010, that was really my first year going; that was my breakout year. I’d only been rodeoing for a living since 2008 because I waited until I got out of college before I hit it hard.
“Having two more years after that under my belt seasoned me a little bit. I’m a little older guy, but I feel like I’m coming into my age.”
That feeling will come in handy at the NFR, set for Dec. 6-15 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. It’s a rugged 10 straight days of competition featuring the top 15 bareback riders in the world and the best bucking horses in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. It’s a true test of each finalist’s mettle, but it should be.
It is ProRodeo’s grand championship.
“This is a dream come true,” Bright said. “Every time I keep adding an NFR back number to the wall, it’s a good deal.
“Anytime you do anything, most people want to be the best they can be at whatever they’re doing. If I was playing football, I’d want to be playing in the Super Bowl. If I was playing baseball, I’d want to be playing in the World Series. If I want to be a professional bareback rider, then I want to be riding at the National Finals.”
Each night, cowboys will battle for about $60,000 in prize money, about $18,000 of which will be paid to the winner in each of the 10 go-rounds. There’s a lot of money to be won in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Bright hasn’t fared very well in the Nevada desert: He’s placed in just two go-rounds in two years.
It’s time for a change.
“I’m not afraid to say I had a bad finals last year, and it affected me for a little bit,” he said. “For the first month of the year, it was almost like going to work every day instead of riding bareback horses and having fun. I think part of that was coming off that bad NFR.
“But you’re going to have your ups and downs, and you’ve got to ride through them. I’m not going to forget how to ride bareback horses.”
Now he wants to show that for the nationally televised broadcast, on GAC network nightly during the NFR.
“This year, I realize there’s just so much money up for grabs that there’s no reason to get uptight about one round,” Bright said. “If a round doesn’t go so well for you, get over it, because there are a lot of other opportunities to go after the money out there.
That’s the right attitude to have in the go-for-broke style that is Las Vegas. There are so many dynamics involved in the sport that the primary focus must remain on individual performances. In the case of the NFR, that means considering each round as if it’s a different rodeo.
Bright considers a big part of his revised reflection on his profession on traveling with Josi Young, a 2008 NFR qualifier from Kimberly, Idaho.
“We were both on the bubble for the NFR when we started traveling together,” Bright said. “I think we complimented one another. We can ask each other’s advice, and we can shoot pretty straight with each other. I think that helps.”
Yes, it does. Bright now returns to the bright lights of Las Vegas for the third straight December.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he said. “I went to my first rodeo when I was 2 weeks old, and I’ve been around rodeo all my life. I grew up watching the greats, seeing them at the NFR.
“That’s always what I wanted to do was rodeo for a living and go to the National Finals Rodeo. To have that dream realized, not once but three times, is a huge honor.”