Road to the NFR: Dream season has Thurston vying for saddle bronc top rookie award

Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta., celebrates after winning $100,000 on Easy To Love with a score of 88.50 in the Calgary Stampede finals on July 12. It was his second major victory of his rookie season. LORRAINE HJALTE / CALGARY HERALD

JEFFERSON HAGEN, CALGARY HERALD
 

Published on: December 2, 2015 | Last Updated: December 2, 2015 9:29 PM MST

The pressure cooker that is Wrangler National Finals Rodeo under the bright lights of Las Vegas has spit out many a cowboy over the years.

So when a 21-year-old like Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta., hits the ring for his first WNFR on Thursday, it would natural to think the butterflies will be churning.

“I bet I’ll be nervous when we ride in that first grand entry for dang sure, but you know, who wouldn’t be?”

Thurston, however, has as much big event experience as any of the veterans in Vegas this week. He has several years of performing as a trick roper with his brothers in front of thousands.

“I’ve been in some big pressure situations already, even at my age,” he noted. “I’ve been in front of huge crowds. Me and my brothers Wyatt and Sam had a contract and we’ve been performing for crowds upwards of 18,000 since we were nine years old. We were the contract act to Canada twice and we performed for the queen and Prince William and Kate, and met them and shook their hands (in 2011 at the Calgary Stampede).

“The pressure situations have been there since I was just little, so I think that’s really helped me with my rodeo career, just learning how to deal with that. To me it’s not as big a deal as it might be some young kid that’s never been in front of crowds like that.”

Plus, Thurston is coming into the WNFR off an absolute dream season for any saddle bronc competitor, let alone one who is considered a rookie on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He won two massive rodeo titles — Houston in March, which came with a $50,000 bonus, and the Calgary Stampede in July, which came with a $100,000 bonus. And they didn’t even count in getting him to Vegas.

“Those were some pretty big wins for sure,” he agreed. “Those weren’t PRCA rodeos. PRCA rodeos, I had some pretty big wins there too I guess. I won Prescott (Arizona) over the (July) 4th, Oakley (Utah on the same weekend) … Tucson (Arizona in February) — I set an arena record in Tucson. I won Rocky Mountain House, Strathmore, Hermiston (Oregon in August).

“I had a good season. Lots of ups and downs for sure, but you keep grinding away it all pays off eventually.

“For my season, it’s been extremely blessed,” he added. “Somebody said the other day that I had a career of a lifetime in one season. I got to thinking there’s a lot of guys that don’t win Houston or Calgary or make the NFR. To do all that in my rookie year, that’s pretty crazy.”

In Las Vegas, he will be going against the whole saddle bronc field every one of the 10 nights, but each session will feature a terrific head to head battle between him and CoBurn Bradshaw of Beaver, Utah for the PRCA rookie of the year award. Thurston, 11th in the standings, has the lead going in — $72,278.18 to 14th-placed Bradshaw’s $66,145.95.

“Honestly it will come down to whoever has the better finals,” said Thurston. “And CoBurn, he rides really, really good. You can’t count him out ever. I expect him to do good and so I’m gonna have to do my part as well.

“It will be fun, I think. It will be good watching.”

Thurston’s entire family, including dad Skeeter — a six-time NFR and five-time Canadian Finals Rodeo saddle bronc qualifier — will be in the stands for the rookie’s first world finals.

A dream finish to a dream season.

“It’s awesome. Ever since I was three years old, that’s all I ever dreamed of was to be a cowboy and to rodeo,” said Thurston. “I eat, sleep and breathe rodeo … I’m a huge competitor. I hate to lose and I expect myself to win every time. It doesn’t always happen, but I think that’s the attitude you’ve got to have and that’s what’s helped me out a lot.

“I’ve had really good coaches along the way in everything I’ve done. And good support. My mom and dad have been great, my family, my brothers. So that really helps, too.”

jhagen@calgaryherald.com