By Todd Dewey
Las Vegas Review-Journal
It's fitting that Evan Jayne will stay at the Monte Carlo with the rest of the world's best bareback riders during the National Finals Rodeo, which returns to Las Vegas for its annual 10-day run today through Dec. 12 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The first European-born cowboy ever to qualify for the Super Bowl of rodeo, Jayne was born and raised in a tiny village in southern France called Cuges-les-Pins, located 32 miles from Marseille and 217 miles from Monte Carlo, the ritzy resort spot on the French Riviera.
"Monte Carlo is actually closer to my hometown than Paris is," Jayne said, explaining why the Las Vegas hotel named after the area of Monaco is more fitting for the Frenchman than Paris Las Vegas.
Not that Jayne has needed a place to sleep here. The 33-year-old who has lived in Texas for the last 17 years has been too anxious to compete in his first NFR to catch more than a wink. Unable to sleep Tuesday night, Jayne went to Wal-Mart at 3 a.m. to buy some supplies for his room.
"Trying to sleep the last few nights has been interesting," he said. "I'm not nervous, just anxious. I just want to see everything and be with all my friends and get on some bucking horses.
"I have absolutely nothing to lose. I'm just here to have fun. It might never happen again to me. I'm in Las Vegas for two weeks, and I'm going to enjoy every second."
Jayne was introduced to rodeo by his parents, who performed as trick riders at rodeo shows in France and Italy. Jayne was a big soccer fan when he attended his first rodeo in Italy. It was love at first sight.
"I got me a cowboy hat, shirt, boots, pants and came home transformed," he said. "I got my hands on everything I could rodeo-related."
Jayne was inspired to try his hand at the American sport by a black-and-white photo book by the late Louise Serpa titled "Rodeo."
"I looked at it every day. That's what I wanted to do," he said. "There was no Internet. I could get my hands on a few tapes but that book is what really made me want to do it."
When Jayne was 16, he moved to Texas as an exchange student and earned a rodeo scholarship to Sam Houston State. After earning his degree, he started working as a high school agriculture teacher while competing in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
"You can't imagine how hard it is to rodeo and try to make the Finals and be a teacher at the same time," he said.
For seven years, Jayne juggled his full-time job as a teacher with his NFR quest, logging countless miles while missing countless hours of sleep and time with his family.
"Sometimes there'd be a rodeo on a Wednesday or Thursday night and I had to leave school at 3 o'clock when the bell rings and ... drive three or four hours to make it there 30 minutes before my ride. Then I'd turn around and get back to school the next morning and catch a nap in the lunch room," he said. "It was rough. I was not giving my dream a fair chance.
"I was never financially stable enough to go hard all year, to go to 100 rodeos."
Despite running on fumes, Jayne still made a run at the NFR, finishing 19th in 2007. Three years ago, Jayne left his teaching job to focus on rodeo but placed 24th in 2013 and 80th last year, when he spent four months in France as a finalist for the French version of "Big Brother" before he was cut from the reality show a week before it started.
Heading into this season, Jayne gave himself an ultimatum.
"If I don't do good, I'm just going to move on," he said. "I'd still rodeo a little bit, but I can't chase the Finals dream anymore like I did."
Jayne went all-in, eating better and training harder, and it paid off. He enters the NFR in fourth place with $93,019.94 in earnings, a little more than $25,000 behind four-time defending world champ Kaycee Feild.
He also enters on a bit of a roll, winning his last event at October's All-American Pro Rodeo Finals in Waco, Texas, where he scored 82 points on Cool Water, a horse that broke his back at the same event in 2008.
"It's always nerve-wracking when you're in the bucking chute knowing you're in for the fight of your life. I had that extra connection with her because she nearly paralyzed me," he said. "Having her and doing good on her and winning my biggest rodeo of the year on my last ride, I have a little momentum coming in.
"There are no doubts in my mind. I can't wait to get in that bucking chute."
Jayne, whose given first name is Yvan, replaced the 'Y' with an 'E' "so that people could pronounce something decent, especially in Texas."
Despite living in the Lone Star State for the last 17 years, the Frenchman still prefers wine over whiskey and is proud of his heritage.
Jayne was flying back to the U.S. from France, where he conducted his annual bareback riding school, when the terrorist attacks in Paris took place. He was in disbelief at reading the news on his phone.
"I thought something was wrong with my phone. I couldn't believe it," he said. "I have a couple close cousins who live close to that quarter of town, but they weren't home."
Jaynes said he's gotten goosebumps thinking about competing in the NFR and is excited to ride into the arena flying the French flag.
"Even if it wasn't me, it would be really cool to see a guy from Europe make the Finals for the first time, or even Asia. I think it's so neat to bring a new continent to the sport," he said. "Hopefully some of the guys I try to teach over in Europe will make a big step and come to the States to try it out."
Reflecting on all the sacrifices he's made to make it here, Jayne has no regrets.
"Everything was worth it," he said. "All the years away from my family, as sad as it sounds, was worth it. Seventeen years away from my family to spend 10 days in Vegas."
* NOTES — Trevor Brazile recently won his sixth steer roping world title, pushing his record number of gold buckles to 22, and is on track to win his 10th straight all-around title here to become the sport's first $6 million man. ... Kaycee Feild has won an unprecedented four straight bareback riding world titles and four consecutive NFR average titles and is on pace to win another gold buckle this year. ... Jade Corkill of Fallon and partner Clay Tryan are poised to win their third straight team roping world title. ... Tuf Cooper has won three of the last four tie-down roping titles and is on track to win his fourth. ... Sage Kimzey compiled one of the best seasons in rodeo history last year on his way to becoming only the second rookie bull rider to win the world title. The 21-year-old is poised to become the first bull rider ever to win a gold buckle in each of his first two years as a pro. ... The tightest title race is in steer wrestling, where a little more than $30,000 separate leader Clayton Hass and the 15th qualifier, Blake Knowles. ... Could this be the year for Cody "Hot Sauce" DeMoss? The saddle bronc rider, who leads the event by less than $4,000 over Rusty Wright, has finished second in the world an event-record five times. ... Elko's Dakota Eldridge will make his third straight NFR appearance in steer wrestling and former Moapa Valley High School basketball and football player Matt Shiozawa will make his eighth NFR appearance in tie-down roping. ... This is the first year of a 10-year contract extension reached in 2014 between the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Las Vegas Events that will keep the NFR here through 2024 and raise the prize money from $6.375 million to $10 million. ... The world's richest rodeo has sold out 290 consecutive performances. Last year's event had a total attendance of 177,565, resulting in a nongaming economic impact of $75 million for Las Vegas.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33