HOOK ’EM HORNS
Steer wrestler Ryle Smith hits home run on day of whiffs at Tucson Rodeo
The steer-wrestling stock on Sunday at La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo must have been prime-choice, grade-A, top-of-the-line NFL running back. We’re talking Jerome Bettis, Ezekiel Elliott, Emmitt Smith. Only beefier.
So if the Arizona Wildcats are looking for the next Scooby Wright, Rich Rodriguez ought to look no further than the rodeo grounds.
Aside from Ryle Smith, who took down his opponent in a Sunday-best 5.7 seconds, it was a lot of whiffs, a bunch of snort and a whole lot of frustrated steer wrestlers.
Three steers in a row were corralled by the horns but refused to go down, stubborn and obstinate. Josh Clark, who won $9,000 in the event last year, battled a cement-footed steer that wouldn’t budge. It took Clark 17.6 seconds to coax him down. Monty Eakin could barely bargain with his; Trevor Knowles, ranked 12th in the world last year, didn’t even leap off his horse — his cow darted away without even an attempt.
Smith, the winner on Sunday, knows the razor-thin line between success and failure, between a clean tackle and a busted entry fee.
“There are a ton of variables that are out of control, what steer you draw, the rain,” Smith said. “You’ve got to do everything in your power to cover your bases. Today I drew a good steer and he made me look great and the horse made me look great, and the hazer did a great job, but I’m the one who gets to take all the credit.”
On Sunday it was all sunshine and glory, but Smith knows the flip side, too.
Last year, Smith found more success calf-roping — “I had the momentum going,” he said — so he stuck with that and paid his way into dozens of rodeos. He said he was drawing great, had all the luck, and things lined up. But at Fort Worth this year, though, Smith had success that spurred on his current hot streak.
“You have to do everything you can to ride the wave,” Smith said. “You can’t rodeo all year and have a bad attitude. If you do badly at five rodeos in a row and you get sour, you better go home, because you’re not gonna win anything. If you’re rodeoing with a buddy group, you do everything you can to lift them up and keep the morale going.”
As cowboys like to say, though, even a bad day at the rodeo beats a good day at the office.
Smith, from Oakdale, Calif., has been rodeoing since he can remember, and finished 11th last year in the all-around standings. He was never a football player, so steer wrestling for him is not a throwback to his days in the huddle, but he loves it just as well.
“I’m just all about the rodeo,” he said. “I just happened to be this big. All of us boys did all events; I looked up to bulldoggers and I liked it. I had all the (opportunity) in the world to bulldog, great teachers who taught me the right way.”
One of a select few to actually take his steer down in viable time on Sunday, he even remembered back to his first run.
“The first time is like … it’s like the first time you do know what,” he said. “You ain’t never gonna forget. I’ll tell you what. I was just as nervous and lasted about the same amount of time.”
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Jon Gold: A decade later, a cowboy and reporter reconnect
It’s enough to make your eyes water.
It’s the first thing that hits you on a crisp, cold day like Saturday. The air is particularly thick, and the smell carries in the wind, delivering a jackhammer to your nostrils. It stings, twinges, until it doesn’t.
La Fiesta de los Vaqueros is back, and I’m back at the rodeo, 10 years after my first one.
Back then, 2007, as a cub reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune — my first gig out of San Diego State — I was on the rodeo beat. I traversed the sprawling state, interviewing steer wrestlers at the Chris LeDoux Days in tiny Kaycee, Wyoming, where I picked up a bumper sticker that read “Kaycee, Wyoming: 4 churches, 2 bars, 1 hooker and a nice cemetery.” I prodded bull riders at the Cheyenne Frontier Days to tell me their darkest secrets of life on the road.
I showed up to my first sign-in day at my first rodeo — the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper — in shorts and flip-flops. You don’t go to SDSU without picking up a few habits. I learned quickly that you’d prefer close-toed shoes at a rodeo. That’s not mud on the ground, after all, and that still sticks with me. The lesson, not the … non-mud.
Mostly, what sticks out is Taos Muncy.
Ten years ago, we stood under the awning at Frontier Days on a rainy Saturday in late July, talking about the 84 he scored atop a nasty horse named Crook. He’d already won the CNFR for Oklahoma Panhandle State University, and he’d go on to win the PRCA title that year in Las Vegas in December, and I’d chat with him after each performance.
Muncy was blond and baby-faced, 19 and with his entire career ahead of him. The whole world ahead of him, really, even if his whole world back then wasn’t much bigger than Corona, New Mexico.
Ten years later, it still isn’t.
We are older now, arguably wiser, certainly more padded around the midsection, both married. He has two kids now, Marley, a girl, 5, and little Shooter, a 9-month-old boy who’s already being put atop bucking shoots, and a wife, Marissa, with whom he’ll celebrate a sixth anniversary on Saturday. My wife and I just celebrated our first.
The sands of time, they call it. Only in rodeo, it’s more dirt.
“It’s kind of hard to think about, and actually Jess Davis and I were talking about it from the airport in Tucson — the first time I came to the Tucson Rodeo was 11 years ago,” he said, shaking his head, the crow’s feet cracking as he flashes a smile. “I was like, ‘Naaah,’ and then I started counting and I said, ‘Wow, it has been that long.’
“In the blink of an eye, it’s gone by so quick.”
A decade later, he hasn’t changed much. Still lives, breathes, bleeds for the sport, for the lifestyle. They have a ranch back in New Mexico, and they raise cattle. He travels the country plying his trade, hoping to take home another world title, even if he is a bit more selective in the rodeos he enters.
If he ever forgot how much he loved this life, he was reminded last August, when he tore his groin at an Idaho rodeo and was out four months.
He loved being home, and he got to attend every home basketball game. But he missed it.
“If this would’ve happened when I was 19 years old, I’d have gone stir-crazy,” Muncy said. “They’d have kicked me out of the town of Corona.”
He got back in the saddle in late January, making it back for the big National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, and on Saturday, he hopped off a horse named Ten Bears after a middling 71-point run and grimaced. He’s back, but, he says, “now I’m working muscles I ain’t worked in months. I came back, and shoot, I’ve been doing it for so long I thought it’d be like riding a bike, and riding a horse is a little different.”
The bumps and bruises take a little longer to heal these day. Muncy is 29 going on 59. All part of the life, though, one he’ll never let go, even as he ages out of the sport that has brought him so much joy, satisfaction and money.
“I’ve always figured getting older is mandatory but growing up is optional,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve aged at all. I still love this sport. I don’t have a date or anything; whenever I stop winning, quit having fun, I’ll stop.”
Right now, he’s having a blast.
In fact, he and his wife recently won a United States Team Roping Championship competition in Albuquerque.
“My whole family rodeos; I knew nothing different,” he said. “I thought you were supposed to be in the dirt, riding anything. Dog walks by, you’d try to ride it. Goat walks by, you’d ride it. The couch. The pillow. All my cousins rode broncs, and it’s just all I ever wanted to do.”
He would’ve said the same 10 years ago. Probably did.
How lucky are we? Taos, living the life he dreamed of and still does. Me, getting to chronicle it, a decade in.
“I’m real fortunate, you know?” he says. “And I take that for granted sometimes. Actually getting hurt may have been the best thing for me. I’ve been really blessed. I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world. So lucky to get to do what I love to do. I got hurt and I thought, man how lucky have I been?”
Saying goodbye, the serendipity of it all — another rainy day, another rodeo, that distinctive smell — gets me choked up.
Ten years later, we part ways and shake hands like old friends, married now, both with wives and lives. His hands are rougher, but we reminisce on the wild ride we’ve been on. In the game of life, they’d call it a 90-pointer.
It’s enough to make your eyes water.
Name game is stellar — again — in this year's Tucson Rodeo
La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the Tucson Rodeo, has a field of 719 cowboys and cowgirls for this week’s event, including 31 Tucsonans and 179 athletes who have been in the National Finals Rodeo and 31 world champions. You can’t beat that for a quality field.
I have long considered the Tucson Rodeo the top sports event for spectators in Tucson, year after year, but I am also drawn by the rodeo-centric names, the Clints, Codys, Coles, Caseys and Dakotas.
Here are my Big Five leading names entered in this week’s Tucson Rodeo:
1. Autumnrain Chey, barrel racing.
2. Cutter Parsons, calf roping (part of the four contestants from Parsons family of Marana entered in the rodeo).
3. Pistol Preece, bronc riding.
4. Cimarron Boardman, calf roping.
5. Shayde Tree Etherton, steer wrestling.
More? There are Tucson rodeo contestants named Bronc, Roper, Rainy, Timber, Legend, Shank and Kash. Can’t beat that.
LA FIESTA DE LOS VAQUEROS
Rain or shine, it's time to saddle up for the Tucson Rodeo
Nothing is going to rain on Gary Williams’ parade.
Williams, the general manager for La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, is ready to saddle up for the 92nd edition of the event. Saturday marks the first of nine days of competition — projected showers be damned.
“We’ve taken a number of calls wanting to know if the rodeo is going to go on,” Williams said. “At what point we’d consider canceling the rodeo? My response to that, and it just came to me when I was talking to this lady — ‘Ma’am, we’ll cancel the rodeo when you see a very old gentleman with a white beard building a boat.’”
Who knows if the biblical Noah was a saddle bronc rider or a steer wrestler, but either way, the show will go on.
How that affects the athletes — both human and animal — remains to be seen.
The rodeo livestock began arriving this week. As of Friday afternoon, the dirt was still dry.
Saturday could present a different scenario, though.
Picture cud and mud and … you don’t want to know.
But it’s not like the rodeo committee, made up of a legion of volunteers, is new at this. Back in 1998, Williams said, they got 6 inches of rain by Saturday.
“On Sunday, we just shoved all the mud up against the grandstand,” Williams said. “But I’ll tell you, it didn’t slow the livestock. Same year, broke the mark in all three riding events.”
Records could be up for grabs this year, as well, with the deepest pool of contestants in years. Trevor Brazile, the 23-time world champion, is back in Tucson for the first time in a half-decade.
Brazile and some of the world’s other top rodeo competitors had hoped to pull double-duty last year with the creation of the Elite Rodeo Association, a small circuit featuring only the top champions in the sport. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association then modified its bylaws to prevent athletes from participating in both organizations.
As a result, many of those who would’ve qualified for the San Antonio or San Angelo rodeos in Texas did not, and will take their talents to Tucson instead.
“You don’t focus on who’s not here, you focus on who’s here — and what we saw last year, with those guys being gone, it gave some opportunities to young and up-and-coming guys to show their talent,” Williams said. “That might have been the best (National Finals Rodeo) we’ve had in 20 years; everything went down to the wire.”
The increased competition is sure to only enhance what has become a Tucson institution.
There are no drastic changes planned for this year’s event, though the Vaquero Club has been moved to a more permanent facility, with improvements in food and concessions. Ticket sales for the club have increased by 30 percent over last year, which already was a record-breaking year for sales, Williams said.
“People who want that experience are willing to pay the higher price,” he said. “We say we’re in the rodeo business, but that doesn’t merely cover it. We’re really in the entertainment business. People want a good time, we have to make sure we show them a good time.
“Most of the ticket buyers are not rodeo fans — we have to explain it as they’re seeing it. Everyone knows what’s going on in a football game. Rodeo, they don’t, and you know what? Some don’t care. They get to be a cowboy for a week. That’s a pretty endearing symbol, and has been for over 100 years. That’s one thing we have that nothing else has. Not everyone wanted to be a professional golfer. But at some point, just about everybody wanted to be a cowboy.”
La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros
Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 18-26
Bareback riding: First round leaders: 1. (tie) Steven Dent, on Beutler & Son Rodeo's Rapid Rewards, and Mike Solberg, on Beutler & Son Rodeo's High Motion, 80 points each; 3. (tie) Luke Creasy and Jessy Davis, 76 each; 5. (tie) Logan Corbett and Shane O'Connell, 74 each.
Steer wrestling: First round: 1. Curtis Cassidy, 3.8 seconds, $2,923; 2. Tyler Pearson, 4.6, $2,542; 3. Olin Hannum, 4.7, $2,161; 4. Kyle Whitaker, 4.8, $1,780; 5. Blaine Jones, 5.4, $1,398; 6. Kody Woodward, 5.6, $1,017; 7. Ryle Smith, 5.7, $636; 8. (tie) Wade Sumpter, Scott Guenthner and Jace Melvin, 5.8, $85 each.
Team roping: First round leaders: 1. Travis Tryan/Chase Tryan, 6.1 seconds; 2. (tie) Brandon Beers/Jim Ross Cooper and Chase Massengill/Daylan Frost, 6.4 each; 4. Seth Hall/Byron Wilkerson, 6.5; 5. Jake Barnes/Trey Yates, 6.6; 6. Rhett Anderson/Ike Folsom, 6.8.
Saddle bronc riding: First round leaders: 1. Cole Elshere, 80 points on Beutler & Son Rodeo's Black Gold; 2. (tie) Hardy Braden and Leon Fountain, 78.5 each; 4. Dustin Flundra, 78; 5. (tie) Kobyn Williams and Preston Kafka, 76.5 each.
Tie-down roping: First round leaders: 1. Lane Livingston, 10.2 seconds; 2. Hunter Herrin, 10.4; 3. J.C. Malone, 10.5; 4. (tie) Jesse Clark and Joseph Parsons, 10.9 each; 6. JIm Breck Bean, 11.2.
Barrel racing: First round leaders: 1. Megan McLeod-Sprague, 17.42 seconds; 2. Sarah Kieckhefer, 17.56; 3. Stevi Hillman, 17.61; 4. Kathy Korell-Rach, 17.66; 5. Michele McLeod, 17.71; 6. Kaylee Gallino, 17.75.
Bull riding: First round leaders: 1. Tyler Bingham, 84.5 points on Beutler & Son Rodeo's The General; 2. Jeff Askey, 78.5; 3. Rowdy Cook, 77; 4. Lane Selz, 76; 5. Luke Gee, 67.5; 6. Alex Guzman, 67