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Rodeo: A high school sport like none other

Ian Cropp
Vail CO Colorado
SPT Jr. Rodeo2 KA 5-11-07
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EAGLE ” The gate flies open, a horse jolts out, bucking, circling, but Jed Wilson won’t let go.

After the buzzer sounds, signaling the end of the ride, Wilson prepares to dismount.

As he’s about to jump off, Wilson’s hand gets stuck, and he slams his chin on the horse, knocking himself unconscious.

Although the paramedics rush out, Wilson comes to, and with some help, limps back behind the fence, blood coming from his mouth and the next bareback rider in the Colorado State High School Rodeo is ready to go.

“I’ve blown out my knee and been knocked out too many times,” Wilson said Sunday morning in Eagle, a while after his fall. “But I wouldn’t trade it for (anything).”

Next year, Wilson, of Sugar City, will be attending Northwestern Oklahoma State University on a rodeo scholarship. Wilson is on the dream path of most high school athletes. Just like kids who play baseball, Wilson will keep doing his sport through the summer.

“I’ll be hitting open rodeos, and I’m planning on going pro this upcoming year,” Wilson said.

Fellow competitors come over and make sure Wilson is OK. The blood from his mouth is gone.

“My dad wanted me to take off the rest of the day,” Wilson said. “There’s no sense in me getting on a bull and getting hurt.”

After a few bareback riders stay on for the full eight seconds without incident, one horse bucks a rider off early. The boy tumbles to the ground, but gets up right away and scurries away from the horse. Once he’s behind the fence, he takes a seat, letting his forearms rest against his knee. Light brown dirt on his jeans is broken up only by a fresh hole. As he rubs his left hand and wipes off some blood, he grimaces, giving a glimpse at his braces, and then gives a quick smile to a fellow competitor.

In early September, about 300 high school kids gathered in Cortez for the first high school rodeo of the season. Following nine rodeos in the month, the kids took the winter off and started back up again the last day of March.

This past weekend, the high school circuit was in town for a pair of competitions at the Eagle Fairgrounds.

“It’s a pretty good deal ” it gives you an opportunity to go a lot,” said Joel Schlegel, a senior at Soroco high school who lives in Burns. “There wouldn’t be that many rodeos otherwise. If you’re a pro, you can’t get card until you are 18 … and you’d only be riding one event.”

Schlegel, like many of the kids, tries his hand in several events. In addition to the roughstock events (bull riding, bareback riding and saddle bronc riding), there are roping events (breakaway roping, team roping) and riding events (pole bending and barrel racing) and of course steer wrestling ” just like the pro circuit. The girls compete in the roping and riding events as well as goat tying.

Moving between events, competitors ride their horses around the fairgrounds, toting bags of equipment and some with another horse in tow. Some of the high school kids have broad shoulders and facial hair while others still haven’t cracked 100 pounds.

And then there’s the junior high rodeo.

Dustin Goodall made it all the way to the junior high nationals last year, taking 18th in team roping.

“I’m hoping to go to nationals again,” said Goodall, 14.

Two years ago, when Goodall was in sixth grade, the Colorado High School Rodeo added the junior division. While many states have high school rodeo, Colorado offers an extensive junior rodeo schedule.

Kaitlin Jones, a seventh-grader from Savory, Wyo., travels a few extra hours on the weekends so she can compete on the Colorado junior rodeo.

“There are more people competing here,” Jones said. “None of the other kids at my school do the Colorado circuit.”

Jones’ start into the sport is pretty typical: Her first rodeo came before elementary school and her older siblings competed.

Last year Jones went to nationals for pole bending, where she took fourth. Unlike the boys rodeo, there isn’t as much of a jump for girls when they move to high school.

“The competition is tough this year,” Jones said. “Our junior high times are about the same as the high school times, so I don’t think (the jump) will be much different.”

Goodall, one of the top boys competitors at the junior high level, is good-sized, doesn’t know if he’s totally ready for the next step yet.

“Not mentally,” he said. “Some of it is kind of scary.”

You could never tell from the way the kids competed, however. The heart is there, but for some, the strength isn’t.

In the calf roping, a few of the junior high kids roped the animal, then did a strange looking tango around the arena while an agitated calf made its way free.

Coming up even a second short in an eight-second bull ride isn’t OK for these kids.

When a junior high rider got bucked off, he slammed shut a gate, dragged his bells and ripped the straps off his helmet.

For the roughstock competitors, finding a place to practice is tough, not to mention the physical nature of the sport limits how much time they can spend on a giant bucking animal.

“I don’t practice that much because I’m riding every weekend,” said G-Man Norby. “I take a break during the week most of the time.”

In the hour or so leading up to when they finally jump on a bull in the bucking chute, the riders tape their forearms, pace around, simulate the bucking motions and pray.

When it’s their turn, they climb onto the bull, while others agitate the bull. And then the gate opens.

Ty Wallace, all of 13 years old and 100 pounds, broke his leg last year riding bulls. But Wallace wants nothing more than to a pro bull rider.

After his nearly perfect bull ride, Wallace coolly walked behind the fence and took his gear off.

Is he ever nervous riding a bull?

“No,” Wallace said without breaking stride. “Never.”

There are less than a dozen boys who do bareback riding on the Colorado high school rodeo. But of that group, nearly all the seniors will go on to rodeo in college.

Wilson found his ticket to college ” an almost three-quarters scholarship ” when he met with the Northwestern Oklahoma State’s coach.

“I called him, brought a film down and talked to him,” Wilson said. “We watched the film, and he liked how I reacted and talked to him.”

Just like in the familiar high school circuit, Wilson expects to see many he knows in college.

“There’s a couple of saddle bronc riders from (Colorado) going to Oklahoma, and I already have a friend down there.”

Schlegel will be following in his brother’s footsteps and going to Vernon College in the fall for rodeo.

And even though they aren’t even in high school yet, the junior high kids have it all planned out.

“I’m going to try and make a career out of it like any bull rider,” Norby said “We’ll see where that takes me.”


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