As Wyoming’s college rodeo coaches converge on the National High School Finals in Gillette this week, they will be recruiting top student athletes who waver between going to college and turning pro right out of high school.
The most ambitious competitors will want to ride on the college and Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association circuits at the same time. And many of those may follow some of Wyoming’s top young cowboys to Texas, where the pro rodeo season is longer and richer than in the Northern Rockies.
“I do hear kids say they want to go to Texas and pro rodeo,” said Dan Mortensen, a world champion saddle-bronc rider and the interim head rodeo coach at Northwest College in Powell. “I know it’s really tempting to head off to the pros. The ones who are winning in college are probably good enough to win pro rodeos, too.”
Case in point: JR Vezain of Cowley, who won last month’s College National Finals Rodeo bareback competition. With $29,000 in winnings, he is a top contender for rookie of the year on the PRCA circuit.
“I never wanted to go to college,” said Vezain, the 2009 national high school bareback champion, as he stripped several yards of tape from his forearms after riding last month for Vernon College at the CNFR in Casper.
“I just wanted this,” said Vezain, 19, waving at the arena and the crowd. “I didn’t want to sit in a classroom. I wanted to rodeo.”
But the 2010 valedictorian of Rocky Mountain High School turned his back on Wyoming colleges and accepted a full scholarship to Vernon.
“I went to college in Texas because I heard it was easy to pro rodeo from there,” said Vezain. He might not have gone to Vernon if Tyler Willis, a bull rider from Wheatland, and Kaleb Asay, a saddle bronc rider from Powell, weren’t already enrolled at the school near Wichita Falls.
“I didn’t commit to going there until March of my senior year,” he said. “It was easier to decide because Tyler and Kaleb were already there. They told me it was a good place to go.”
Like Vezain, Asay won state and national rodeo titles in high school and dreamed of going pro. Unlike Vezain, he spurned college and headed out on the PRCA tour as soon as he turned 18.
“I wanted to be rookie of the year [on the PRCA] and be young when I won it,” said Asay, who is now 22. “I didn’t want to wait to win it when I’m the age I am now.”
After winning the saddle-bronc competition at the National High School Finals Rodeo in 2006 and the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee, Okla. in 2007, Asay set out to test himself against the best.
He won more than $23,000 in his first year on the PRCA circuit and finished first among saddle-bronc rookies in 2008. He cinched up his rookie-of-the-year buckle when he was 19.
Asay says he might never have gone to college if he hadn’t suffered a serious injury and fallen in with a friend who was riding and studying at the same time.
He cracked two vertebrae in his lower back during his rookie season in the PRCA but kept riding through the pain. The next year he hurt his back again when he was bucked off a horse after the whistle in Odessa, Texas.
“I was having a tough time coming back from my broken back,” Asay remembers. “So I was working on a ranch in Colorado for a friend of mine. He talked to me about going to Vernon.”
The friend was Jace Hildreth, a fellow saddle bronc rider who had spent a year at Vernon already. As the two rodeo riders roped and doctored cows on the Hildreth ranch outside of Gunnison, they talked about rodeo and school.
“I had tried to recruit Kaleb right out of high school,” said Bobby Scott, the Vernon rodeo coach. “He got back in touch with me, but Jace was the one who recruited him. In the end, it was one of my students who convinced Kaleb to come to Vernon.”
Asay won the saddle bronc title at the CNFR as a freshman in 2010 and graduated from Vernon this spring.
Wyoming coaches recognize that they will lose some top competitors, like Asay, to the southern schools.
“It’s a bit of a disadvantage to be here,” said Rick Smith, the head rodeo coach at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. “We are not in the proximity of a major airport. If those guys are able to make money in the pros, they want to be able to fly to the rodeos.”
Even so, Smith has recruited some of the best riders in Wyoming, including Seth Glause, a saddle bronc and bull rider from Rock Springs, who won Wyoming State titles in 2005 and 2006.
It helped that Smith was himself a saddle bronc rider who competed in the NFR and had known Tom Glause, Seth’s father, for 30 years.
“Wyoming has a lot of talented kids, especially in rough stock events,” said Smith. “Seth had friends at Riverton. If you can get one kid to come, you can often convince others to come to your program.”
Glause transferred to Oklahoma Panhandle State University, in Goodwell, for his junior year. He won $92,000 in 2008 to qualify for the NFR.
“I used my time in Riverton to learn and get better,” Glause said at the Xtreme Bulls competition in Cody on June 30. “The coach let me pro rodeo at Panhandle. Craig [Latham, the Panhandle State coach] let me choose the college rodeos I wanted to go to.”
Smith was happy to see Glause leave Wyoming and ride for his old friend, Latham, the Panhandle coach. “If Seth goes to Oklahoma, then we don’t have to compete against him in our region,” Smith said. “I try to send all of my best kids out of the region after they graduate.”
Great rodeo talents have come to Wyoming for college, often to learn from a particular coach or pursue a specific field of study. Shane Proctor attended Northwest College from 2002 to 2004, where he competed in timed and rough stock events.
In an interview just minutes before his winning ride in the Xtreme Bulls competition in Cody, Proctor said he went to Northwest because Gavin Gleich, a former NFR bull rider, was assisting head coach Del Nose.
“I also liked Northwest because they had a great wrestling program and I wanted to learn to coach wrestling,” Proctor said.
Proctor later went on to star on the Professional Bull Riders Circuit, where he is ranked 15th, and on the PRCA, where he was first on the bull-riding prize money list at press time.
Proctor competed in many pro rodeos as a student in Wyoming. “We couldn’t fly out of Cody because it was too expensive for poor college students, so we would go to Billings or drive to Denver,” he said. “You had to be really dedicated, but you could still make it to a lot of rodeos.”
Mortensen, who attended Northwest as a student, sees more in college rodeo than the chance to go pro.
“It’s possible to make it to the NFR as a student,” he said “I did it. I tell students that I did it and they can, too. But I also got a college degree from Montana State.”
The package he presents to students includes an indoor arena and practice on the same bucking stock used in the Cody Nite Rodeo. But, he says, the best part of the deal is the opportunity to get a quality education.
“You rodeo your whole career knowing that it could be over in an instant,” he said. “The kids who are coming here for rodeo need to get their degrees.”
Smith, the Central Wyoming coach, agrees. “It’s the total package that matters. I’ve been to the NFR, so I have some credibility with the kids and I know something that I can teach them. But the school matters, too, the education. So does the arena, and the scholarship. In the end it comes down to what you can offer them.”
For some students, the opportunity to stay at home is as important as the chance to compete in pro rodeos.
“It’s about half and half,” said Tyler Willis, a two-event state champion from Wheatland. He went to Vernon on the advice of a friend from northern Colorado, against whom he’d competed all his life. He became the PRCA bull-riding rookie of the year in 2009. “They’re recruiting a lot of Wyoming people, but some go to a Wyoming school no matter what.”
Eric Gewecke, a roper and saddle bronc rider from Gillette, went to Sheridan College to room with his best friend, Tyler Jacobs, a calf roper. After two years there he took a year off rodeo, attended Gillette College and worked to save money.
“I saved my eligibility so that I would have something to offer a 4-year coach,” he said. In the fall, he’ll rodeo for the University of Wyoming.
“A lot of guys go to Texas and do well down there,” he said. “I’m hauling horses, so Texas is too far. I’m only gone four and a half hours. I can still go to Rapid City and the Denver Stock Show. I can come home to hunt in the fall. And all winter I’m going to practice roping in that heated indoor arena.”
In the end, the reasons to leave Wyoming and the reasons to stay can be very similar. And coaches don’t always have the last word. Talented riders follow their friends.
Gewecke stayed in Wyoming to room with a friend. Kaleb Asay went to Texas with a new pal he met on a ranch. Tyler Willis followed a boyhood friend to Vernon. Willis introduced his coach, Bobby Scott, to JR Vezain.
“Rodeo cowboys want to have fun,” Asay said. “You go where your pals are. You spend so much time and work so hard, you don’t want to rodeo with people you don’t know.”
Ron Feemster is Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others.