Observations from the field

I took in the first two events of Round 3 from the media deck, located by the rail in the middle of the Thomas & Mack Center arena’s announcer’s stand, tonight and was reminded how intense and visceral an experience it is to watch a high-caliber rodeo in person. I’ve been to rodeos across the country and always make it a point to get out of the Wrangler NFR press room and check out the rodeo from the front lines.

Contestants tip their hats to the fans during the Grand Entry.

With dirt flying onto my paper, I took notes as the bareback riding’s “eliminator pen” tossed the bareback riders around like rag dolls. Kaycee Feild, who is as strong as an ox, fought through the bone-jarring jolts from Mosbrucker Rodeos’ Magic Wars to win his third straight round with a rodeo-best score of 90.5 points.

Watching the extremely physical event, which is arguably as severe as bull riding at times, got me to thinking about what a bareback ride would equate to in other measurements of force. Is it like being in 15 car wrecks back-to-back-to-back? Is it the same as being blindsided by an NFL linebacker?

There’s a reason bareback riders use so many rolls and rolls of tape to stabilize their riding arms that their appendages appear to be mummified.

Feild tried to explain.

“It’s like you’re going into a fistfight and a bar fight,” said Feild, who has earned $53,654 in Las Vegas in three days. “You’ve got to be ready for anything. Tonight, riding that one, I hit my head on his hip, but you have to keep on going. There was a little white flash.

“If you’re playing football and running around the end of the line, if the end hits you, you’re going to know it. To get by the eliminator pen, make a full ride for eight seconds and not have any bobbles, that’s hard to do.”

Kaycee Feild was a blur as he passed the media table during his victory lap.

When Shawn Greenfield won the steer wrestling with a crisp 3.5-second run, I noticed he was wearing a black band on one of his sleeves. I asked him about the band, which read “In Loving Memory of T.K.” and learned it was in honor of one of Greenfield’s close Oregon friends, Todd Kennedy, who passed away recently and was laid to rest today.

“It was real emotional,” said the affable 6-foot-3, 245-pound bulldogger. “He’s got a little girl and step-sons, so he left kids behind. It was a tough deal.”

So, it was an immensely bittersweet day for the gentle giant, and he said he’s going to dedicate his win to Kennedy and his family.

Saddle bronc rider Chad Ferley, whom I watched win a world title in 2006, was also competing with a heavy heart. Ferley’s father, Jerry, passed away unexpectedly on the morning of Dec. 1 before Round 1, leaving the South Dakota cowboy reeling when he was supposed to be having the time of his life.

I’ve always had a good relationship with Ferley, and I consider him one of the best guys in ProRodeo, so I felt somewhat comfortable asking him about how he was dealing with the cruel loss.

“It’s a rough deal,” Ferley said. “I’m just trying to keep my mind set on what I’m doing here. There’s not much I can do at home, so I’ll just do my job here and hope it all works out. I’m pretty good at keeping my mind on one thing, so I’m lucky I’m good at that.

“It makes it hard to enjoy the week, but you’ve got to push on. It happens and is part of life.”

Having lost a parent, my heart goes out to Ferley, who is a favorite among his peers, and I hope he can keep performing at a high level in honor of his father. Ferley finished second in Round 3 with an 85-pointer on Rosser Rodeo’s Flood Damage and is second in the average and ninth in the world heading into Round 4. There’s no doubt his father would be proud.

It is agonizingly difficult to ask athletes the questions I felt compelled to ask Greenfield and Ferley tonight. You never know how they will respond, if they’re ready to talk about the subject or if you’re wrong to even ask. But that’s the job of a journalist, and professional sports athletes are forced to answer questions regular people get to avoid. Both cowboys were great about my inquiries, and I thank them for their candor.

Wrangler NFR rookie tie-down roper Cory Solomon broke through in the third performance, winning the round with a 7.6-second run to earn his first check of the week. Solomon had a rough first two rounds, finishing out of the money with runs of 9.0 and 11.3 seconds.

I passed Solomon and the great Trevor Brazile walking down the hallway of the Thomas & Mack Center after Round 2, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the future Hall of Famer had imparted any advice to the young cowboy.

Indeed he had.

“I was walking out last night, and Trevor, he just stopped me and told me, ‘Hey, you come here, and you work and work to get here. When you get here, it doesn’t always work out, but don’t change the way you rope.’ That made me feel good, so I stuck with the way I rope,” Solomon said. “He said it would change, and it did tonight. I thank God for it.”

The team roping picture continued to get hazier Saturday night, with veterans Turtle Powell and Jhett Johnson tying Kaleb Driggers and Brad Culpepper for the round win in 4.1 seconds and taking over the average lead. Clay Tryan and Travis Graves continue to lead the world standings, but it’s going to be a shootout down the stretch, as it has been in recent years.

Two more wrangler NFR rookies earned the right to take victory laps in Round 3, with barrel racer Jane Melby and bull rider Jacob O’Mara joining the ranks of round winners. It’s nice to see the “newbies” break through and make the most of an experience they’ll never forget.

Wrangler NFR General Manager Shawn Davis (center) checks his schedule during Round 3.

I learned when I arrived at the press room that saddle bronc rider Cody DeMoss is taking a two-day injury exemption and will be out through Round 4. He was stepped on during Round 2, breaking his left shoulder and taking a shot to his left eye that left him looking like he’d had a disagreement with Mike Tyson on Las Vegas Boulevard.

DeMoss is a great guy and a heck of a competitor, and I hope he finds his way back for Round 5. The rodeo wouldn’t be the same without him.

It was an interesting night, to say the least. But, then again, every night at the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas is unique and compelling in its own way. And there are seven more rounds to go!

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