Archive for November, 2016

postheadericon Elliott bucking for world title

NANTON, Alberta – The first time he competed at the College National Finals Rodeo, Clay Elliott won the national championship. That was in 2015.

The first time he competed in the open bronc riding at the Canadian Finals Rodeo, Elliott won the Canadian title. That was just a couple weeks ago.

Now he’s ready for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and he has a theme. First he must take care of business during the sport’s grand championship, which takes place Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas.

“It’s a lifetime goal to make it to the NFR,” said Elliott, who was raised in Vernon, British Columbia, and now lives in Nanton. “As I’m accomplishing more things, my goals get higher. I will never be content. I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished, but next is going to the NFR. From there, it would be winning the average and the world title.

“The number of world titles is unlimited, but I’d like to break some records. You can’t be content; there’s always something more.”

Clay Elliott

Clay Elliott

It’s a competitive spirit that has guided Elliott through his young career. He just put the wraps on a championship run during the CFR in Edmonton, Alberta, where he added $42,978 to run away the title with $70,686 in year-end earnings. Not bad for the 22-year-old cowboy, who actually qualified for the CFR three other times: twice in steer riding and once in novice saddle bronc riding.

It was the perfect precursor to Las Vegas, where go-round winners will pocket more than $26,000 a night for 10 rounds. It’s a great chance to cash in, but more importantly, it’s the way to the gold buckle; in rodeo, dollars equal points, so the contestants in each event with the most money earned at the season’s conclusion will be crowned world champions.

Elliott heads into the NFR with $80,048 in ProRodeo earnings. He is eighth in the world standings. Even though he’s more than $92,000 behind the leader, reigning world champion Jacobs Crawley, ground can be made up in a hurry in Las Vegas, especially with the way Elliott has ridden this year.

“I probably placed at 75 percent of the rodeos I went to,” said Elliott, who credits part of his success to the support of his sponsors: C5 Rodeo, The Horse Park, Good Time Party Rentals, Wrangler and Oklahoma Panhandle State University, the school for which he won the college title. “I knew I had to make the good horses look good and make the bad horses look better. It didn’t matter what I got on all year, I tried to make that horse have the best possible trip.”

The secret is in the basics of bronc riding. Cowboys must start their rides with the spurs over the breaks of the horse’s shoulders, then spur in rhythm with the animal’s bucking and kicking action. For the top cowboys in the game, the beginning of that spur stroke can set the tone and actually help the bronc.

“My consistency level was higher than it was last year, and that was the difference,” he said.

Elliott finished the 2015 campaign 17th in the world standings, just missing the NFR; only the top 15 contestants on the money list in each event at the conclusion of the regular season advance to the finale.

“Things just started clicking midway through last year,” he said. “As the year went on, it kept getting better. Halfway through the year, I realized I had an opportunity. I hadn’t made that a goal. But after experiencing that, I dang sure knew what it took. It gave me a better understanding of what I needed to do. It was just building blocks to something better.”

Those blocks first started being built years ago. His family has been around the game since before he was born.

“My dad rode bulls, my brother rode bulls and my whole family roped,” Elliott said. “My family had a Western store, and my dad makes hats. My dad stays in touch with rodeo cowboys, and I really didn’t have any other thing I wanted to do.”

Family is a vital cog in the machine that is Clay Elliott. His mom died five years ago, but he carries her legacy with him in every spur ride and every trip to the pay window.

“Family is the most important thing in my life,” he said. “My dad’s been nothing but supportive and put me around people that knew how to ride broncs. He’s what you’d want in a dad. My brother had success in rodeo. He gave me a path to follow. I have nothing but the best as far as my family goes.”

He got on his first bronc at age 16, then decided to further his education at Panhandle State, which is well known for training some of the best bronc riders in the game; the school boasts of bronc riding world champions Robert Etbauer (now the rodeo coach), Tom Reeves, Jeffrey Willert, Taos Muncy and Spencer Wright.

“I chose Panhandle State because I wanted to learn how to ride bucking horses,” Elliott said. “That’s how simple it is. I knew the school was good. I knew I could accomplish what I wanted to academically. As far as a bronc riding school, there’s really nothing even close.”

That education has paid off quite well, but he also got lessons by a couple of NFR veterans with whom he traveled this year in Chet Johnson and Tyler Corrington. The three of them were joined by rookie Audy Reed, and it made for quite a foursome on the road.

“It was the perfect mix of guys,” Elliott said. “Chet and Tyler had the experience, knowing the ins and outs of rodeo and how to handle winning and losing. You spend a lot of time with those guys that you pick things up.

“With this being Audy’s rookie year, he’s just motivated. He loves to ride bucking horses as much as I do. We had the drive that was beneficial to Chet and Tyler. I think we helped each other without even knowing. Just the atmosphere in the rig was fun. It was very professional.”

It helped Elliott accomplish great things this season. In addition to making the NFR and winning the Canadian title, he also earned the $50,000 prize for winning RodeoHouston, an event that doesn’t count toward the world standings; still that money was a big step in allowing the Albertan a shot at chasing his gold buckle dreams.

But so did his run in Edmonton in mid-November.

“I’m very glad to have a Canadian title under my belt,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to get on some bucking horses and feel good going into the finals. On the other hand, rodeo’s a short-term memory. It doesn’t matter what I did yesterday or what I did last year. It’s a new page. For me, I’m not going to take it with me. I’ll remember it, but I still have to prove on my next horse that I can do it.

“I enjoy riding bucking horses. The more I enjoy it, the better I ride; the better I ride, the more I win. It all falls back to me loving to ride bucking horses.”

That love has him in the right place at the right time.

postheadericon Riley adding to the Duvall legacy

CHECOTAH, Okla. – When a Duvall is born in Checotah, chances are he’s going to be a steer wrestler.

Riley Duvall is proud of his heritage, and he will carry it with him to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas. It’s his first qualification to ProRodeo’s grand finale, but there is a distinct Duvall history at the NFR.

“I love rodeo, and I’ve got good horses and good traveling partners who make it so much fun,” said Duvall, whose father, Sam, qualified for the NFR in 1987 and ’88. “There’s no better feeling than on a short-round Saturday night and you’re 3.5 (seconds) to win it. That makes it fun.

“I have no idea what it’s like running 10 steers at the Thomas & Mack, but I’m looking forward to it.”

The bulldogging legacy began with his great uncle, Roy, a three-time world champion who qualified for the NFR 24 times, including 21 straight from 1966-1986. Riley’s grandfather, Bill, was Roy’s hazer every year he competed at the finals. Riley’s uncle, Spud, was a two-time qualifier, and their cousin, Tom, has also played on ProRodeo’s biggest stage.

Riley Duvall

Riley Duvall

“I’ve never felt pressure by that,” Riley Duvall said. “Ever since I first got in the practice pen, I’ve had the best guys in the world helping me out. I learned not to ever be intimidated by those guys. You show up at a rodeo, and you don’t worry about who’s there. It’s just bulldogging.”

It’s something that’s been part of his life even when he was an infant, and he jumped his first steer from a horse at age 14. Now a decade later, he gets to play for the richest payday in the game over 10 nights in the Nevada desert. It’s what dreams are made of for men like Duvall.

The NFR features only the top 15 on the money list at the conclusion of the regular season. He earned $61,177 and sits 13th heading into the first night of the championship, where go-round winners will earn more than $26,000 per night for 10 rounds. He’s been close before. In fact, he finished the 2014 season 17th in the standings.

“I missed it by $430,” he said. “Actually I missed it by one-tenth of a second. On my last steer of the year, I was 4.3 (seconds); if I’d been 4.2, I would’ve made it. That year I made $13,000 the last 10 days and still didn’t make it.”

That close call also added a bit of fire in Duvall’s belly, which is why he’s tickled to have the opportunity to cash in in Sin City.

“It means everything,” Duvall said. “This is my sixth year out here trying, and there were a couple of times when I didn’t think it was going to happen. To get it done, especially with my wife and kid at home, was a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Rodeo is how he pays the bills, so it’s vital to have success inside the arena. As a businessman, he handles his tasks well. Like his father and grandfather before him, Riley Duvall has been asked to serve as hazer, the cowboy that rides alongside the steer wrestler to help keep the steer in line.

It’s a job he does often through the rodeo season. In 2013, he hazed in Vegas for Bray Armes, Matt Reeves and Hunter Cure; Armes won the NFR average, and Cure won the world title. Last year, Duvall hazed for Clayton Hass, K.C. Jones and Ty Erickson. He receives a percentage of their winnings as payment for those duties.

“Hazing is a trait I inherited, I guess,” he said. “From the time I was about 16, I hazed steers everywhere I could think of. When I got my PRCA card, I bought a horse from my cousin, Tom. Without making mount money, there would’ve been a couple of times I would’ve had to quit rodeoing.

“A lot of people overlook hazing, but you’ve got to have a better hazing horse than you do a bulldogging horse.”

Hazing not only has paid a lot of bills, but it has afforded Duvall the opportunity to be a big part of the NFR competition. That could make a big difference when it’s his time in the spotlight.

“I sure hope it does,” said Duvall, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, Wrangler, Purina and the Mirage. “I’ve been right there in the middle of a world-title race on the hazing side. I’ve felt more pressure hazing than I have ever felt bulldogging.

“Now I’ve made the NFR, so I can just go relax and have fun for 10 rounds.”

The trip to Vegas is a celebration for a great season, but it’s also the biggest chance to make the most money in a week and a half. For Duvall, it comes back to caring for his wife, Megan, and daughter, Chaney Marie, who is now 13 months old.

“Having a family actually made it harder for me, but I think it helped me more than ever,” he said. “I wanted to be home with them, but if I was going to be out here rodeoing, I wanted to make it pay off. I was going to put forth the best effort for them.

“My wife is very supportive. There’s no way I could’ve made it without her. She takes care of everything back home.”

She also takes care of the mental approach that comes with competition. As a high-schooler in Portales, N.M., she was part of five state championships combined in volleyball and basketball.

“I almost had a mental breakdown in Kennewick, Wash.,” he said, referring to a run that didn’t work out at the Wrangler Champions Challenge event in August. “I don’t think I’d made a check in three weeks, so I called and talked to her, and she got me lined out. I got on a streak the next couple of weeks, and it worked out.”

His wife and daughter will make their way to Las Vegas to be part of the biggest rodeo of his life. He’ll also have other family and friends in the City of Lights to cheer him on.

“As far as I’ve heard, there’s a whole crowd from Checotah going out,” Duvall said. “A bunch of those haven’t been there since Tom made it in ’97. It’ll be good to have everybody out there.

“The amount of knowledge of bulldogging around here is pretty incredible. If you spend one morning at the coffee shop, you can learn quite a bit.”

Whether it’s sipping coffee or running steers in the practice pen, Riley Duvall has taken each lesson to heart. Now he will showcase it on the grandest stage in the game.

postheadericon Bringing barrel to the bullfight

Andy North will be the barrelman, an island of protection for the men in the action, during the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Andy North will be the barrelman, an island of protection for the men in the action, during the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. (TODD BREWER PHOTO)

Andy North to serve as barrelman during BFO Las Vegas Championship

LAS VEGAS – The currents that sweep through the river of a freestyle bullfighting arena can be fast and swift.

When in control, the men in the battle can maneuver the rapids well and avoid the jagged rocks. But the bulls can come in on a rush and overtake the situation, and the paddles that propel the bullfighters can be lost in the torrent.

Andy North is the life raft that comes in at the right place and the right time, bringing everything into safety. He’s the barrelman for the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship, which takes place Dec. 1-3 and 7-10 in Las Vegas.

“My sole purpose is to provide protection for the bullfighters,” said North of Piedmont, Okla. “I’m out there to help position the barrel in the arena during the bullfight. Whenever I see a guy in trouble, I have to anticipate where and when the wreck is going to happen.”

The festivities kick off at 2 p.m. Dec. 1st at the Las Vegas Convention Center with the BFO Roughy Cup, a 12-man invitational bullfight. Then on Dec. 2-3, up-and-coming bullfighters will battle to qualify for the BFO Las Vegas Championship, which takes place Dec. 7-10 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Tickets are on sale now at HardRockHotel.com and AXS.com.

“When they asked me to be part of that, it was very meaningful to me,” said North, who spent seven years as a freestyle bullfighter before transitioning to the barrel. “It’s pretty special when you have that group of guys who want you to do it.”

He’s earned the right. He worked seven BFO bullfights this year, including the Cavender’s Cup, which was just the second stand-alone event in Bullfighters Only history.

“I like to think what sets me apart is my ability to anticipate where those guys are going to need me and knowing when I need to be there,” he said. “I don’t want to jump in too early and disrupt a good fight, and I don’t want to get in there too late.”

That’s why his role is so important to the bullfighters. They can utilize the barrel during the fight, and they know the life raft is just steps away if they are swimming for safety. While that’s vital, the best part of the job comes with his vantage point.

“I have the best seat in the house,” North said. “I’m right there with those guys, and I get to see and experience their bullfights with them. It doesn’t have to be a hellacious barrel save. What I like most is getting to witness something glorious, being part of it and being close to it.

“I think the BFO is doing a good job with the product they put out. There’s a lot of excitement with Bullfighters Only, and I enjoy working them.”

Freestyle bullfighting has been around for years, but Bullfighters Only has marketed and produced the game to expand interest in it. It’s working. The Las Vegas events will serve as the one-year anniversary of the first BFO fights, so the interest is there.

Additionally, and maybe more importantly, this year the BFO will crown the first true freestyle bullfighting world champion in more than 16 years. Bullfighters Only showcases the top talent in the industry.

“People will be on the edge of their seats,” North said. “For somebody that’s never seen it, it’s so fast and so electric. It’s action-packed. There’s part of it that’s unknown, and you don’t realize how quickly things can go south. I think that keeps you involved and ready for anything.

It gets even bigger in the City of Lights. Las Vegas is well known for having world-class bouts. Now Bullfighters Only is producing another world-class fight for all to see.

“That money’s big,” North said of the $50,000 purse. “I think the location is a big thing. The venues are awesome. I think being the time of year – during the same two weeks as the National Finals Rodeo – is one of those things that makes it a true highlight. Everybody’s going to come in and be ready to go.

“Being in Vegas at that time pushes everything up. It’s better. When you look at the lineup of bullfighters, those guys aren’t messing around. They’re bringing in some guys that will straight up get after it. I like watching the quality of bullfighting that’s going to be there.”

So will everyone else that makes it part of their time in Las Vegas.

postheadericon Champion eager for NFR to start

THE WOODLANDS, Texas – As a bareback rider, having the right balance is important to Richmond Champion.

As the horse jumps and kicks, Champion needs to have that perfect rhythm if he hopes to have the scores needed to make a living in the game. When all goes well, it’s like a symphony in concert. But there’s more to balancing life as a rodeo cowboy than just staying on and riding well, and the Texas cowboy knows that as well as anyone.

“My mom said it best,” said Champion, 23, of The Woodlands. “She said I needed to balance things out. In 2014, I couldn’t do anything wrong. In ’15, I couldn’t do anything right. I could never put it together. I could never put it together. This year I felt like I had balance.”

He returns to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas, where he will be chasing the biggest purse in the game. Go-round winners will earn more than $26,000 a day for 10 December nights. He last played on ProRodeo’s biggest stage two years ago and had plenty of success: He earned more than $108,000 at the NFR and finished the year third in the world standings with $198,075.

Richmond Champion

Richmond Champion

This year he enters the finale with $69,169, good enough for 13th place on the money list; only the top 15 contestants in each event at the conclusion of the regular season advance to the NFR. But the money available in Las Vegas is even greater than it was two years ago.

“Every single night is life-changing money, and you get to do that 10 nights in a row,” he said. “That’s insane. When you’re at those yellow bucking chutes, you’re going to let it all hang out. Everybody’s put in that work and has gone up and down the road all year long to get to that point.

“With that much opportunity, there’s no looking back. You just step on the peddle and go.”

It worked well at the ’14 NFR. Champion placed in six go-rounds, including wins in the fifth and seventh rounds. While there is a big carrot (more than $67,000) for winning the average by having the best cumulative score through 10 rounds, he plans to chase every round dollar available.

“The fact that there’s that much money every single night up for grabs, you can sit around and play it safe for the average check if you want, but that just sounds dumb to me,” he said.

He didn’t play it safe through the season. He made a business decision to focus on other things early in the campaign. When he chose to hit the road hard in early May, he knew he would have to push if he wanted to return to Sin City in December.

“It was a goal of mine to make the NFR when I made the decision to come back the beginning of May,” Champion said. “It took me a couple of weeks getting back into the swing of things.”

Then in mid-June, he realized there was still enough time to capitalize.

“Right around Reno (Nev.), it hit me that if I keep going at them, take every re-ride they give you, take every chance you get that I could make this deal,” he said. “I had enough time, but I had to do certain things in that time to make it a reality.”

His simplified plan to his rodeo approach was to find the good in everything that could happen. Because animals are selected through a random draw, he made a weekly outline of how he would handle each one he had been matched with.

“I would look at the list and say, ‘There is my standout, now how am I going to win on animals that normally just get placed on?” he said. “It seemed like that if I went in there and did my job and helped some of those horses as much as I could, I ended up winning money. I was fighting for those little checks that make the difference.”

That meant strapping himself to horses that he didn’t necessarily care to because he needed every penny. In rodeo, dollars equal points, and the contestants in each event who finish the season with the most money are crowned world champions. In order to reach those goals, though, cowboys must qualify for the NFR.

Champion traveled the rodeo trail with Mason Clements and Jessy Davis, and they were all making up ground.

“Jessy got hurt last December, and he came back the same week I did,” Champion said. “We all had to go. We all had the same game plan. I’ve never entered so crazy all my life. There were three weeks I know of that we got on at least seven horses in seven days.”

Davis qualified for his seventh NFR by finishing just behind Champion in 14th place. Clements finished 18th, missing the coveted 15th spot by less than $7,000. And even though they trail world standings leader Tim O’Connell by about $110,000, there’s still a grand opportunity awaiting Davis and Champion once they get to the City of Lights.

A year ago, Oregon bareback rider Steven Peebles earned $224,055 in Las Vegas in route to his first world championship.

“My goal is I want to leave Vegas as the world champion,” Champion said. “My game plan for that is to go in and enjoy every single second that I’m there and keep it simple. It’s always different getting on there, but my game plan will not change. I will be more nervous on the back of those yellow bucking chutes.

“There’s a ton of ground to make up on the top three, but it would be dumb to say it’s impossible. You can’t worry about the guys ahead of you or the guys behind you. You just have to take care of what you’re doing.”

He also wants to take care of those closest to him, including his parents, Greg and Lori, and his older brother, Doug, a former bareback rider. All have supported him from Day 1, including Doug, who had to quit riding because of a serious back ailment. Now Doug Champion owns CrossFit HVille in Huntsville, Texas, and serves as one of his brother’s trainers.

“My dad looks at my draws every single week,” Richmond Champion said. “He loves looking at the numbers, and he’ll guess where I’ll be just based off the horse score. That’s fun, but it’s amazing to have them so involved. My mom and dad flew up for Cheyenne, and they both came to Calgary. Doug is busy at the gym, so he doesn’t get to come as much.

“Words can’t express what it means to me that they take time out of what they’re doing to come see me, especially since I can’t go home. Doug’s on me about working out every day. He has no pity for me, but it works.”

That support is great, but so is that of his sponsors – Chevy, Nocona Boots, Roughy and Yeti – who help make sure his needs are met as he travels down the rodeo trail. Now he can head to ProRodeo’s grand championship with his mind focused.

“My confidence is through the roof,” he said. “Me in November of ’14 didn’t know what to do and didn’t know what he was getting into. I was under-prepared in some areas, over-prepared in others. I went last year and watched, and I’ve got a bigger fire this year. I’m probably more focused, more focused on the riding and making the rides I want to make every night.

“It’s the coolest thing. It doesn’t matter what horse you have; it doesn’t matter if you’re first out or last out, because that level of energy inside that building is insane. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.”

And it starts next week.

postheadericon Larsen is living in a dream season

INGLIS, Manitoba – Even grown men believe in fairytales.

Orin Larsen has looked back at his 2016 rodeo season, and he knows they’re true. The Inglis cowboy won some of the biggest championships in the sport over the last 12 months and returns to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo as the No. 2 man in the bareback riding world standings with $138,296 in regular-season earnings.

“It has literally been a fairytale year,” said Larsen, who spends much of his time in the Gering, Neb., home he shares with his fiancé, Alexa Minch. “I’ve been really fortunate and blessed to have things go my way since Day 1 of the season. To say I’m blessed is an understatement. It’s been an amazing year for me.”

From San Antonio, Texas, to Tucson, Ariz., to Cheyenne, Wyo., and all points in between, Larsen earned 12 event championships. Even when he wasn’t taking the top spot, he seemed to be placing at just about every rodeo in which he competed. Only one bareback rider, Iowan Tim O’Connell, had a better season and leads Larsen by about $40,000.

Orin Larsen

Orin Larsen

But they’re about to embark on a journey to the largest payout in the game. The NFR features a purse of $8.8 million. Go-round winners will earn more than $26,000 each night for 10 rounds during the finale, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas. That means Larsen can make up a lot of ground in a hurry if things go his way.

“That’s a lot of money for me,” said Larsen, who competed in his first NFR last year and finished the season with more than $114,000; that just shows how much has changed in a year. “I’ve always wanted to be successful in rodeo. That’s my main goal. When you actually look at those numbers, it’s kind of amazing.”

Several things have contributed to his success, but most of that had to do with his mental approach to the sport.

“I think it’s more about just having fun,” said Larsen, the middle son of three boys born to Kevin and Wanda Larsen. “I know I struggled tremendously last year at the NFR. I wanted to win the world title all in one night instead of focusing on the task at hand. I was really focused at the Canadian Finals Rodeo; I walked in there like I had nothing to lose.”

He earned $42,662 at the CFR in Edmonton, Alberta, a couple weeks ago to more than triple his season earnings in the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. Now he and several other CFR qualifiers are making their plans for the Nevada desert. Larsen is one of eight Canadians who have qualified for the NFR, the most in several years.

“I’ve always told everybody that Canada is full of great talent,” he said. “Like me, it might take a little while for it to surface. To see this many makes me even more proud to be a Canadian.”

Even the proudest Canadians make their way south of the border to prepare themselves for the rigors of ProRodeo. Larsen spent three years at the College of Southern Idaho before following in the footsteps of his older brother, Tyrel, and transferring to Oklahoma Panhandle State University; younger brother Kane rides bulls at the college in Goodwell, Okla.

Orin Larsen took to his education well. He won the 2013 and ’14 college championships, the first while attending school in Idaho, and the second while at Panhandle State. Now he’s transitioned nicely into ProRodeo.

Last December, he earned more than $32,000 while in Las Vegas. While that’s respectable earnings for 10 days of work, it wasn’t what he had hoped.

“I had to come back and redeem myself,” he said. “My main goal this year was to make the NFR so I can make a true explanation point to my ability. Hopefully I’ll be able to prove that going into Vegas.

“You just have to take it one horse at a time. You have to have a better attitude to take care of business, and luckily it just worked out for me this year.”

As an athlete, part of the business of riding bucking horses is maintaining the best health possible. Bareback riding is the most physically demanding event in rodeo, and Larsen knows he must maintain his strength and conditioning to be prepared for 10 straight days of world-class competition.

He has a strong game plan that includes running two and a half miles every morning and about an hour of a stringent workout routine at home.

“I’ve been working out hard since the end of the season, and I’ve got my own routine and my own diet,” Larsen said. “I wake up every morning at 5:30 and have a good breakfast; my fiancé gives me hell about not eating well enough, so she makes sure I do.

“I also have a positive-thinking book that I read every morning. I think that’s helped me a lot, too.”

He’s surrounded by positivity, from his family to his fiancé. When he separated a rib the final week of the rodeo season, he took advantage of his time out of the arena by proposing to Minch on Sept. 23.

“We went up in the mountains in Colorado, and we were taking pictures up there,” he said. “I took a couple selfies with the ring when she wasn’t looking. I didn’t even really ask her. I just froze still on one knee. I guess she knew what I was asking.”

They are planning their wedding for next October.

“She helps keep me positive when I’m in a slump or if I’m not doing well,” Larsen said. “She’s always encouraging me. She helps me keep my self-confidence and keeps my head on a swivel. She takes care of everything when I’m gone. She’s a huge help and a huge part of my life.”

And even though they live many hours away in a different country, Larsen leans on his family. They helped instill a strong work ethic and helped develop a true talent.

“Family, for me, is everything,” he said. “I can’t thank my parents enough for the support and sacrifices they’ve done for me, Tyrel and Kane throughout our careers, whether it was driving all night to a rodeo or giving us a little bit of money while we were in college because we were starving. My parents and my grandparents are our No. 1 fans.

“I’m in a debt of gratitude to them.”

It could be the only debt he possesses after such a strong season. Now he carries all that support with him to the biggest rodeo in the world and a chance to cash in even more.

“All I’m really focused on is riding my best each night,” Larsen said. “I can only do my job. I have to ride the best of my ability, say a prayer and go on to the next one.”

It’s a winning mentality that has worked well so far.

postheadericon Bringing the heat to Vegas

Spitfire of 12x and Costa Fighting Bulls will be one of the great animal athletes in the mix at the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. (KIRT STEINKE PHOTO)

Spitfire of 12x and Costa Fighting Bulls will be one of the great animal athletes in the mix at the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. (KIRT STEINKE PHOTO)

Stock contractors excited to be part of BFO’s Las Vegas Championship

LAS VEGAS – Darrell Diefenbach may have hung up his cleats but when he saw an opportunity to be involved in Bullfighters Only, he jumped at it.

Deifenbach has been face to face with some of the nastiest bucking bulls in rodeo, but now he’s in the fighting bull business. He and his partners – Maunel Costa and Trever Hamsher – have some of the best. Only the best will be in Las Vegas.

They will be one of the premier stock contractors during the Bullfighters Only’s Las Vegas Championships, set for Dec. 1-3 and 7-10.

“Bullfighters Only speaks for itself,” said Diefenbach, an Australian turned American, now living in Hermiston, Ore. “It’s taken off by leaps and bounds. I love extreme sports, and I have seen the way extreme sports have taken off.

“I think the timing of the BFO is perfect. There’s nothing more extreme than a 1,200-pound bull in the mix. That’s what makes bullfighting attractive. You never know who’s going to win, the bull or the guy.”

It’s either a heck of a wreck or a whale of a score, and that is a driving force behind both extreme sports fans and rodeo fans alike. It’s what’s attractive about having Bullfighters Only as part of the Las Vegas landscape in early December.

“What’s not to like about this?” said Chase Love, owner of WAR Fighting Bulls. “You’ve got a group of guys that are bringing the hottest bulls we can bring against the best bullfighters that have ever walked.”

In a man-vs.-beast competition, the bulls have a lot of say in what happens inside the pen. With scores based on a 100-point scale, men can earn up to 50 points per fight based on their ability to exhibit control and style while maneuvering around or over an animal; a bull can earn up to 50 points based on its quickness, aggression and willingness to stay with the bullfighter.

“With the bulls we’ll have in Las Vegas, if a guy can get around them, they’ll be 90 points,” Love said. “If they can’t, it’s going to hurt.”

The festivities kick off at 2 p.m. Dec. 1st at the Las Vegas Convention Center with the BFO Roughy Cup, a 12-man invitational bullfight. Then on Dec. 2-3, up-and-coming bullfighters will battle to qualify for the BFO Las Vegas Championship, which takes place Dec. 7-10 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Tickets are on sale now at HardRockHotel.com and AXS.com.

While the seven days of bullfighting will feature outstanding bovine athletes, there are some that are the cream of the crop.

“The hottest bull we have might be Zombie Express,” Love said. “He’s real short and muscled; he’s just the opposite of scary looking, but he’s a bad dude. We also have a blue ball called Wolverine, Simply Wicked and Chute Boss, and they’re all premier bulls.”

Diefenbach also has a solid top-flight team of bulls, from Spitfire to Naked and Afraid to 21 Jump Street.

“They’re all very good bulls,” Diefenbach said. “Spitfire is a dangerous bull, very mean, and Naked and Afraid is definitely building a big reputation. We also have Little Foot, a little black bull of Manuel’s. He’s everything a fighting bull should be, and we have a bunch of Little Foot brothers.”

It not only makes for phenomenal competition, but the Las Vegas Championship will be a true showcase befitting the city.

“I think everything exciting and extreme should be in Vegas,” said Diefenbach, who was selected to fight bulls at the National Finals Rodeo 12 times in his career. “The town has the hype, the atmosphere. People love Vegas. There are so many events going on, and I think Las Vegas and Bullfighters Only are a match made in heaven.”

Both Diefenbach and Love got into the fighting bull business because of Bullfighters Only. It is allowing both men and their associates to expand on their businesses.

“I buy and sell bucking bulls and haul bulls all over,” Love said. “When we saw what the BFO had, we jumped head first into it, and it just exploded. It’s pretty dang cool.

“I made 10 to 15 calls a day and was getting nowhere. I got ahold of Manuel Costa, and he helped me do all the dirty work. He sent me a text about midnight on a Saturday night, and by Sunday night we were on the road to California. We ended up with 30 bulls from that trip.”

Costa was also instrumental for Diefenbach, which is why the retired bullfighter extended the partnership to the bull man.

“There’s really nobody up here in the Northwest with fighting bulls, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get on the contract side of the business,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of outs on our bulls up here. We’ve traveled as far as Wyoming and Nevada, and we have a lot of events.”

Now he’ll add Vegas to his list.

“We’re ready for freestyle bullfighting to return; everybody’s ready for it,” Diefenbach said. “Nobody wants to see a wreck, but if there is one, nobody wants to miss it.”

While he focused more on cowboy protection, Diefenbach has high admiration for men who tangle with fighting bulls.

“These bullfighters are 10 times the athlete that I ever was,” he said. “That’s what makes BFO so great. We have the greatest bullfighters exclusive to Bullfighters Only.

“We have, bar none, the best fighting bulls going too. That’s a great mix.”

postheadericon Newlywed Aus ready for the NFR

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. – With just a month and a half left before the biggest rodeo of the year, Tanner Aus turned his focus on something other than bareback riding.

He married his longtime girlfriend, Lonissa, on Oct. 15. It was a memorable day with lots of friends, family and smiles, and it was the perfect time to turn his attention toward his bride.

Besides, he’d earned the break. Aus had just finished ProRodeo’s regular season with $112,684 in earnings and sits fourth in the world standings. With that, he has earned his second straight qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand finale set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas.

“It’s just another part of the dream by making multiple appearances to the finals,” said Aus, 26, of Granite Falls. “I couldn’t be more thankful for the season I’ve had to get to this point.”

Tanner Aus

Tanner Aus

Now he has a chance to make it even better. The NFR will pay out more than $26,000 per night to go-round winners for each of the 10 rounds. Those that finish with the best cumulative score after 10 rides will earn the average championship, valued at more than $67,000.

With that much money on the line, it is a grand incentive for cowboys to not only qualify for Las Vegas but to cash in. Each night is pressure-packed, partially because of the purse and partially because the cowboys are facing the greatest bucking horses night after night.

“Some of my success this year was luck,” said Aus, who competed in college rodeo at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. “When a season goes that good, you have to draw good. I’ve done almost more preparation this year than I ever have.

“A lot of determination comes from success. It’s addicting. You put your heart and soul into something, and it pays off. But then you want more.”

It certainly will be a feat if he were to topple where he finished last year, but Aus is well on his way. He pocketed $83,756 in Vegas a year ago, but he has an opportunity to do even better. He earned that much placing in just three rounds and sixth in the average. Now he heads into the championship as one of the top 5 bareback riders in the world.

“Having success at the finals last year was a huge monkey off my back,” said Aus, who earned $100,000 this year by winning the non-Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association called The American. “That’s what everybody dreams about and works for. To be able to carry that NFR gear bag and wear that coat, it was huge for confidence.

“Feb. 28 (the date of The American) was a day that changed my life. I’m recently out of college, and I have a girlfriend that I want to get engaged to. I have student loans to pay off, a ring and a wedding, and I make the four-man in Arlington (Texas). I know it pays $20,000 for second place, and I just hope I can get that.”

Instead, he won The American by a quarter of a point. Though that money didn’t count toward the PRCA world standings, it proved to be a comforting sum to an athlete who has no guaranteed income – in addition to riding bucking horses to make a living, Aus also must cover his own expenses that come in rodeo. Cowboys also must pay an entry fee in order to compete, and that money is part of the purse.

“My plan for life was changed that day,” he said. “It gave me the freedom to rodeo how I wanted all season. I could focus on what made me a better bareback rider. Winning that rodeo might have been something that changed my season.

“I just placed at a lot of the big rodeos this winter, and it wasn’t flashy. But I made money in San Antonio, Tucson (Ariz.) and Denver. It all added up pretty quick in the winter and gave me a good start to the summer. I was thankful for that.”

That kind of consistency is a major part of the success he faced all season. He found his way to the pay window often. Not only does that add up in the bank account, but dollars equal points in ProRodeo. Only the top 15 money-earners in each event at the conclusion of the regular season advance to the NFR, and the contestants with the most money won at the finale’s conclusion will be crowned world champions.

It should be a great race over the final 10 days of the 2016 season. Aus is one of five bareback riders who have earned more than $100,000 this season.

“I think it’s a testament to the growth of the sport and the interest in bareback riding,” he said. “I’m thankful we get to do what we do. To have that many guys make over $100,000 in bareback riding is amazing.”

It’s a quick reflection of the number of times all cashed in this season, including Aus. He found his “zone,” and he let it be a guiding force.

“It’s especially nice when you get to placing consistently,” Aus said. “When it gets rolling and you show up to a rodeo, all you have to do is strap yourself on. You don’t have to worry about anything. You just not your head, and it all goes well because you’re prepared.”

Make no bones about it; the Minnesota cowboy works diligently on his craft.

“Tanner has just set his mind to being good now,” said Ty Breuer of Mandan, N.D., who, with Breuer’s brother, Casey, is one of Aus’ traveling partners. “He always had the ability, but he’s worked so hard at it the last couple of years. It sure shows.

“Tanner has stepped up his game so much. All he craves is bareback horses, and that keeps us all going.”

Ty Breuer is 12th in the standings and returns to the NFR for the second time. Their other traveling partner – Ty’s brother, Casey – finished 20th in the regular-season standings and just missed his chance to join the others in Vegas.

“I wish Casey had made it there, and he’s been so close,” said Aus, who credits a big part of his success to his sponsors, Granite Falls Dairy Queen, Jug Waterers, Windham Weaponry, Phoenix Performance Products and Wrangler. “It’s awesome that Ty and I get to go together this year. Your dreams are in front of you, and you’re reaching for them together. When you can go in there together, it just makes make the NFR sweeter.”

Of course, this is the place Aus had always believed he would be since he first began riding bareback horses at age 9. That’s what happens to the son of a ProRodeo cowboy.

John Aus rode bareback horses for years and earned titles all along the way. Now his father joins mom, Rae Ann, and younger sisters, Dani and Braelee, as a big-time support system. They’ve all been cheering from the sidelines from Day 1.

“There were times in my career when I thought I was done riding bareback horses,” he said, referring to a major groin injury that sidelined him from the game for many months. “Here I am going to another NFR, sitting fourth in the world and feeling great.”

It’s a true testament to his talent and passion for the game. It’s also a statement that bringing it all together can pay off in a big fashion.

postheadericon Jarrett excited for his 8th NFR

COMANCHE, Okla. – There’s no “been there done that” approach to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

It’s the sport’s premier championship, and the Thomas & Mack Center is a cherished place for 10 December nights. From NFR rookies to its veterans, there is great anticipation for the race to the world titles Dec. 1-10.

“Roping in that arena is something I’ve thought about for a long time,” said Ryan Jarrett, a nine-time NFR qualifier from Comanche. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the 10th time, it’s always exciting to go there and rope.”

Jarrett has been there, and he’s done that. He’s had great NFRs, and he’s had ones he’d like to forget. That’s the nature of rodeo in general; win a championship one day and miss the loop the next. In 2005 during his first appearance, he won the most coveted title in the sport, the all-around world championship, after a terrific finale in both tie-down roping and steer wrestling, his first two qualifications.

Ryan Jarrett

Ryan Jarrett

He returns to the NFR for the eighth time in his career. It’s a special moment.

“I would just like for it to go a little better than the 2015 finals did,” he said. “We had the biggest increase in the payout, and I won less at the NFR than I ever have. I was a little disappointed.”

He was more than a little frustrated. It lit a fire in him, and that’s what boosted him to earn $73,400 to finish this regular season 10th in the world standings. Jarrett found his way to the pay window often, from south Texas to north of the Canadian border.

He started off the season on a hot streak and actually had one of the best winter runs of his career. That put him in the lead in both the all-around and tie-down roping world standings the first of May and served as the lighting rod to a strong season – he finished the season with nearly $12,000 earned in other events, but the bulk of his income came in tie-down roping.

“I had the right success at the right places,” said Jarrett, who lives in Comanche with his wife, Shy-Anne, a professional barrel racer. “Probably the biggest one came in Austin, Texas. It was good, and it put me in a good spot at the right time.”

Jarrett finished the tournament-style rodeo second but pocketed more than $12,000 along the way in the Lone Star State’s capital city. That money is vital in rodeo. Not only do they help pay the bills, but dollars equal points. That means the contestants in each event who earn the most money by season’s end will be crowned world champions.

A key to his ingredient toward Vegas came in the Wrangler Champions Challenges, a series of lucrative events that feature only the top contestants in the game. Jarrett won the tie-down roping titles at Champions Challenges in Kissimmee, Fla., and Rapid City, S.D., but he also caught some big payouts at other events.

“I would say drawing the right calves and having lots of confidence are important when you get on those rolls,” he said. “If you have the confidence then draw the right calf, I know I can tie him easy to win firs tor second, and you feel good about it. You don’t go in there thinking your back’s against the wall.”

He’s hoping that roll continues in Las Vegas. The NFR boasts of an $8.8 million purse, and go-round winners will earn $26,000 per night for 10 nights. Because he’s had such great success in the Champions Challenge events, he’s taking a similar approach to each performance inside the Thomas & Mack Center.

“Those Champions Challenges are all just one-headers,” he said, pointing out that contestants make one run or one ride, and the fastest time or best score wins the lion’s share of the money. “That’s why I’m excited about the NFR. It’s just 10 one-headers.”

While there is plenty of incentive maintain consistency – the best 10-run cumulative time will win the coveted NFR average championship and more than $67,000 for doing so – Jarrett looks at those round payouts as a way to earn his way to the top. He trails world standings leader Marcos Costa by $52,123, but he pass Costa with two round wins.

“I don’t really put a goal out there as far as dollars or number of go-rounds that I want to win,” Jarrett said. “I just want to hopefully draw good and stay healthy. If you can do that and make good runs, they’ll pay you.

“We’re the top 15 in the world, so you have to get close to the barrier, get them tied up fast, and a guy’s going to win his fair share. A guy’s just got to do it 10 nights in a row.”

There are a number of factors that come into play, even with the greatest tie-down ropers in the game. It takes skilled ropers and talented horses to help make fast runs, which are necessary in the small arena in Las Vegas.

“I’d say having the horsepower is key to having success out there,” he said. “When you have the right horsepower, things feel good, I feel confident and it makes the winning a lot easier. It’s going to be a fast-paced roping.”

While at the NFR, he will have his solid sorrel gelding, Barney, the horse Jarrett rode while earning a big bucket of money this season, including for the Austin title. He also will enlist the services of T.J., a gray horse owned by Logan Bird of Nanton, Alberta. Shane Hanchey placed in four go-rounds on T.J. last December, and Jarrett placed in the 10th round on the 13-year-old gelding. Just two weeks ago, Bird won the average championship on T.J. at the Canadian Finals Rodeo.

“I rode him at the CFR last year and at several Canadian rodeos in 2015,” Jarrett said. “I rode him this year to win Tucson (Ariz.) and the Champions Challenge in Rapid City.”

That winning formula is another reason why the Georgia-born cowboy is excited for this year’s NFR. He’s traveled tens of thousands of miles across North America in order to make a run for the biggest payday of 2016.

Now he’s ready for it to pay off.

postheadericon Breuer excited to return to the NFR

MANDAN, N.D. – The year 2013 seems ages ago for bareback rider Ty Breuer.

That was the last time the Mandan cowboy qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. In the three years since, he has battled injuries and some misfortunes that come in what many consider the roughest event in rodeo. Through surgeries and rehabilitation and just taking time off the rodeo trail, he remained one of the best in the business.

Now he returns to the sport’s grand finale, which takes place Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas. It’s his chance to showcase the talents that have maintained his status as one of the top 25 bareback riders in the world standings every year since.

“It means a lot to go back to the finals,” said Breuer, the 2010 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champion and PRCA Bareback Riding Rookie of the Year. “I was pretty disappointed that I haven’t made it the last couple of years due to injuries. I wasn’t able to rodeo the whole year in either 2014 or 2015, and I still came close.”

Ty Breuer

Ty Breuer

He finished the 2014 campaign 18th in the world standings and was 21st last year, but only the top 15 contestants in each event earn the right to compete for the biggest pay in the game at the NFR. Considering that he spent several months on the sidelines because of injury both seasons, it serves as a keen reminder of the talent Breuer possesses.

“He’s athletic, but he’s just so tough,” said Tanner Aus, one of Breuer’s traveling partners and the No. 4 bareback rider in the world standings. “He works his butt off when he’s home, because he ranches. I’ve spent enough time there to know that it’s sun up to sun down every day.”

While ranching developed a strong work ethic, there’s true athleticism that runs through his body. He credits his success to his grandfather, father and uncle with developing his character and a few other things.

“My dad taught me about bareback riding,” said Breuer, who also was trained in the finer details of the game by 1992 world champion bareback rider Wayne Herman. “Dad told me if you want something, you have to work for it.

“My first rodeo school I went to was Wayne’s. He came up to me and said, ‘When you make it to Vegas, I want a ticket.’ So when I made the finals the first time, I got him a ticket. He has helped me a lot in critiquing my riding. When I get in a slump, I can just call him, and he can guide me in the right way.”

Those are just a few things that help make Breuer one of the best in the business. In addition to his powerful work ethic and noted toughness, he found his way back to Las Vegas through key victories over the course of the season. He won seven championships during the campaign and earned more than $71,000 in the process. He will arrive in the City of Lights 12th in the world standings.

He also will have that 2013 experience in his back pocket.

“I was pretty green that first year,” said Breuer, 26. “I focused all year on making the finals, then when I made it there, I didn’t have a game plan. The first round went good, then I was trying to over-ride my horses way too much. I was trying to make more of the horse than it was, and I wasn’t finishing like I wanted to.

“This year I’m sure going to be healthier going into it and more focused.”

The NFR is the sport’s super bowl, and just like the championship football game, there are plenty of distractions that come with it. Standing on the back of the bright yellow bucking chutes not only is the thrill of a lifetime, but also it can be the most nerve-racking experience young cowboys face. Even veteran qualifiers understand the jitters that come to the game inside the Thomas & Mack Center.

The incentives are great – the purse is $8.8 million, with go-round winners earning more than $26,000 a night for 10 rounds – but the pressure is just as great. Not only will Breuer be among the field of the 15 best bareback riders in the game, they will be matched with the greatest bucking horses from the season.

“His dad got him started, and Wayne taught him how to spur buckers,” Aus said. “He’s as determined as anybody. Sometimes he doesn’t have a lot to say, but he’s got his heart and soul into this.”

Some of that determination is genetic, some is through having a great support system. Aus and Breuer travel the circuit with Ty’s younger brother, Casey, who finished 20th in the world standings.

“What’s great is we get along so well,” said Ty Breuer, who also appreciates the support of his sponsors: Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse in Pierre, S.D.; Boeckel Angus Ranch in Hazen, N.D.; Rio Nutrition; Phoenix Performance Products; B. Tuff Jeans; and SweetPro Feeds. “Casey and I have worked together our whole lives on this ranch, so it’s pretty nice when you get to travel with somebody like that.”

One of the biggest changes in Ty Breuer’s year was marrying Kelli on Oct. 29. The two had dated for five years, and she has always been a constant part of his life even as he was away from her while making a living on the rodeo trail.

“She can take the pressure off you just by calling home and talking to her,” he said. “The last month of the season, Tanner had already made the finals. There were two weeks left, and I was pretty burned out. When I called her and told her I was thinking about calling a season, she stopped me.

“She told me that I had been gone this long that I needed to finish out the season. I ended up winning a rodeo in Mona, Utah. She just pushes me to get better all the time.”

No matter the miles between them, he can always count on her support. It’s the same type of love he’s received from those that have known him his whole life, those that have resided on the same property in southern North Dakota through four generations.

“I’m pretty excited for my family to be part of this,” Breuer said. “They’ve backed me the whole way. They’re just as excited as I am that I made it, if not more excited. That means the world to me to have people backing you no matter what.”

postheadericon Struxness excited for his first NFR

APPLETON, Minn. – The 2016 rodeo season has already been spectacular for J.D. Struxness.

It might just be getting better.

Now a senior at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Struxness capped off his junior campaign by winning the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s steer wrestling championship this past June. He then utilized that success into an amazing season in ProRodeo for his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

“Being able to have a year like that in my second year is a big confidence-booster,” said Struxness, 21, of Appleton. “Once I got the ball rolling, it just kept rolling, and I kept climbing in the standings until the end of the year.

“I think once I was able to break the top 15 in the world standings, it just made things easier.”

J.D. Struxness

J.D. Struxness

Now the Minnesota cowboy has a chance to become just the fourth man in rodeo history to have won the college championship and a world championship in the same calendar year. If he could muster that incredible feat, he would join all-around cowboy Ty Murray (1989), bull rider Matt Austin (2005) and saddle bronc rider Taos Muncy (2007).

“I think he deserves to be mentioned with those guys,” said Stockton Graves, the Northwestern rodeo coach and a seven-time NFR qualifier. “He’s not there yet, but eventually he will be. He’s been an extraordinary talent since I’ve known him.

“Very few people have made the NFR at 21 in steer wrestling. He finished 19th his rookie year and is fourth this year. It’s a pretty neat deal. We’re very proud of him at Northwestern to be a college national champion. To make the NFR on top of that is just crazy.”

It shows the type of athleticism the 6-foot-2, 240-pound man possesses. As a high-schooler at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison, Minn., Struxness was a stalwart linebacker/fullback on the football team and as a 220-pound wrestler; he was a two-time runner-up to the Minnesota state champion.

He considered a college career in both those sports but opted for grappling steers instead. He was part of the rodeo program at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo., for two years and qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in 2013. He transferred to Northwestern, where he earned the coveted title at the college finale.

“Winning the college championship helps me because I was able to handle the pressure and win when I was supposed to win,” Struxness said. “With the steers I drew at the college finals and the horse I was riding, I was set up to have success. It really helps your confidence by being able to perform in situations like that.”

That confidence sparked a fire in him, and he utilized it through the highs and lows of the 2016 ProRodeo season. Of course, there were more highs than lows, and it resulted in Struxness earning $84,435. He sits fourth in the world standings heading into the NFR, the sport’s premier championship that takes place Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas; only the top 15 in the world standings at the end of the regular season advance to the City of Lights.

“Being able to win that kind of money and going into the finals sitting fourth is pretty special,” Struxness said. “The bulldogging race is close. Going in toward the top of the standings is pretty important. Hopefully I can make a lot of money out there. With it paying $26,000 a night (for winning a go-round), it doesn’t take very long for it to add up into a pile of it.”

Money is vital. Not only is it how cowboys make a living in the sport they love, but dollars also equal points. That means the contestant who finishes the campaign with the most money earned will be crowned world champion in each event. Struxness is just $8,500 behind the leader, Ty Erickson. One go-round in Vegas could push the Minnesotan into the lead.

In fact, fourth place in a round pays $11,000, so many things can happen over 10 December nights in Sin City. The most important part is getting there, and Struxness earned a number of key titles along the way.

“I think winning Cheyenne was the kicker to really get things rolling,” he said of the Frontier Days Rodeo in Wyoming in late July, where he earned $15,643. “I’d been winning consistently and been getting close to the top 15, but Cheyenne was a big jump and started the momentum rolling toward the end of the season.”

That momentum continued. Two weeks after winning in Cheyenne, he earned championships in both Lawton, Okla., and Lovington, N.M., to pad his earnings. But none of it was possible without a strong understanding of his craft and a love affair with the sport.

“I started chute dogging in sixth grade,” he said. “My dad rodeoed in high school. I got to watch the NFR on TV, and I always liked it and wanted to try it. I started bulldogging in about the eighth grade and always took to it. It was always fun to me. With the success I had in it, I just kept climbing up the ladder.”

It’s a good thing, but none of it could be done without his family. His father, Dan, and mother, Missy, are hard-working Minnesotans who have been there for J.D. and his siblings: sisters Kacey and Lauren and brother Colton.

“My family is a big deal to me,” he said. “They’ve been supportive in what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, whether it was football, wrestling or rodeo. Now that it’s rodeo, they’re all in. They’re on the edge of their chairs wanted to know how I do every week.

“Being able to have a family like that means the world to me. Instead of telling me I needed to come home and get a job, they tell me I should be out there living my dream.”

He is living a dream, and it’s been a dream season. Even with his physical size, strength and ability, there’s another intangible that has led to Struxness’ success.

“One of his major strengths is his mental side of it,” Graves said. “Knowing the game, knowing what it takes to win and knowing what horses he needs to ride is important. Knowing the mental aspect of it and not getting ahead of himself is where he’s matured the most.

“He was a winner when he got to Northwestern, but he has matured in the mental game as fast as the physical game. That doesn’t happen very often. That’s where people become great when they can figure that out. He’s learned how to win on a consistent basis. Those that win week in and week out know how to win, period.”

Graves has been a true mentor. During Struxness’ rookie campaign in 2015, the two traveled the ProRodeo trail together, and that learning paid off for the young cowboy.

“Stockton has helped me a lot with getting my career started,” Struxness said. “Now that I’ve made the finals, he’s helped me practice and make sure the horses are sharp and I’m sharp heading to the finals.”

Now he’ll take all those lessons with him to the bright lights of The Strip and the $8.8 million up for grabs in Las Vegas. It’s almost surreal.

“Making the finals is huge; it means a lot,” he said. “There aren’t many guys that make it when they’re young and still in college. It’s a great start, and hopefully we can keep things going for more years to come.”