True grit

What is the true measure of a champion? Is it how many wins, money or world titles an athlete has? Or, is it based on determination, mental toughness and heart?

Maybe it’s a combination of both. In the case of three-time World Champion Bull Rider J.W. Harris, it’s all of the above.

I’ve had the pleasure of covering Harris for years, and I’ve always found him to be a quiet, determined straight shooter with a mountain of talent. I’ve seen him win world titles in a variety of ways, from coming from behind to weathering the storm of Las Vegas to hold on to a monumental lead he’d built during the regular season.

What he’s done in the last two days has shown the true man and champion he is. After winning Round 4, Harris broke his right foot on his dismount from Mo Betta Rodeo’s Bailey Hou.

The win brought him closer to the world standings lead of Shane Proctor and fired up the Texan.

“I told my wife that the biggest mistake they made was letting me get by one,” Harris said Sunday night. “It’s on from here, and I’m gunning for the lead. If I get bucked off one, it’s not going to be because of a lack of effort. It’s a whole new game.”

In typical J.W. fashion, he said the injury wouldn’t hamper his quest for a fourth consecutive world title.

“It’s a long way from my heart,” Harris said of the foot injury. “It’s just my foot, and I don’t use my foot to ride bulls.”

Later that night, he walked onto the stage at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa’s Showroom on crutches while sporting a walking boot to accept yet another Wrangler NFR round buckle. The crowd responded with affectionate applause, and Harris smiled as he grabbed the hardware.

Harris spent most of Monday, Dec. 5, with the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, working on a specially designed boot that would allow him to ride despite the injury. He arrived at the Thomas & Mack, put down the crutches and went to work.

Wearing the special boot, Harris did it again in Round 5, holding onto Burch Rodeo Company’s Zombie Zoo for eight seconds and a winning 90.5-point ride. Proctor was bucked off again, so the $17,885 Harris earned pulled him to within a round win of Proctor’s lead ($190,508-$175,900).

The win also put Harris in the Wrangler NFR average lead with 266 points on three head. But it’s what he did after the rodeo that impressed me most.

After receiving treatment in the Justin Sportsmedicine Room, Harris methodically worked his way down to the Wrangler NFR press room to talk to media. Now, he had already given quotes to Justin Shaw of the PRCA Media Department to distribute to media, so he could have said that was it and headed for the hotel without any media complaining at all.

But he didn’t. Long after the other contestants had left the building, he vehemently refused a wheelchair – with a look of disdain directed toward the offering party – and walked on crutches the 270 long steps to the press room, where he was greeted with a round of applause. I know it is 270 steps from the training room because I counted them off as I left the Thomas & Mack Center last night. I took short, deliberate strides to mimic what a walk on crutches would be like.

To put it into context, 270 steps is almost as many as it takes to walk up the flights of stairs at the iconic 164-foot-tall Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I know because I’ve made that 284-step walk too. (Thanks to Google and Wikipedia for the stats.)

He sat and fielded questions from an excited and eager group of reporters for 10 minutes, signed posters and then walked over and stood up for another 10 minutes for a TV interview. That’s where I left him to go march off the steps.

J.W. Harris fielded questions and signed posters in the Wrangler NFR press room after Round 5.

Fulfilling his obligations like that – especially when it would have been understood if he hadn’t – just shows the type of man and champ he is.

By the way, Harris is also competing with a sprained lower back – a wicked injury for a bull rider who must keep his core upright during a ride – and a sprained left knee.

He talked to the media about overcoming the injuries and the pain to excel.

“It’s just part of riding bulls,” Harris said. “You’re going to get hurt. If everybody could do it, everybody would. I just have to grit through it for eight seconds. It’s pretty easy to forget the pain for eight seconds, and if you want it bad enough, you can grit through anything.”

To make matters worse, Zombie Zoo reared up and tagged Harris’ broken foot into the metal wall of the chutes on his way out.

“The only time I really felt my foot hurt tonight is right when he left out of there,” Harris said. “When he left, my foot hit the top of the bucking chutes, and I’ve never had that happen. But it’s like they say, ‘Whatever’s hurting on you, you’re going to hit it.’ But it only hurt for just a second, and I blocked it out.”

I asked him how tough an injury is to deal with mentally in addition to the physical challenge.

“It’s mentally tough because, no matter how numb they make your foot, you’re going to know it’s broken and it’s going to hurt when you get through,” he said. “One of the things I’ve always worked on is being mentally prepared for whatever gets thrown at me. So, I feel like I’ve got that part accomplished, and I’ve just got to go out there and worry about how to stay on them.”

Harris’ trio of gold buckles couldn’t have come in more different ways, showing full well the depth of his talent and endless amount of grit he possesses.

After suffering five – yes, FIVE – concussions in 2008, Harris used his head and started wearing a helmet. He went on to win the first of his three straight world championships that December after winning the Wrangler NFR average and jumping from fourth to first in the world standings.

I remember Harris being numb in the UNLV practice gym while being interviewed by media after winning his first world championship. He told me he was just physically and mentally exhausted after the stressful 10 days, but I think he was also having trouble just getting his mind around the fact that he’d just made a lifelong dream a reality.

He’d have more years to get used to the idea.

Harris broke his right (riding) hand in the second round of the 2009 Wrangler NFR and did not earn a check for the entire 10 days in Las Vegas, but the amazing regular season he put together – which included wins in San Antonio, at the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha, Neb., Fort Worth, Texas and Austin, Texas – was enough to earn him another gold buckle.

Harris earned $219,275 that season to become the first bull rider since Blue Stone from 2001-02 to win back-to-back world championships.

Last year, it was the J.W. Harris Showcase. The talented Texan blew away the competition, tying a Wrangler NFR bull riding record with four round wins (Rounds 2, 5, 6 and 7) and placing in eight rounds. He won the average title and became the first bull rider to win three straight gold buckles since the legendary Don Gay did it from 1978-81. That’s 29 years, for those of you scoring at home.

Harris’ $158,738 from the Wrangler NFR last year was a single-event earnings record and virtually made him a lock for the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Not bad for a 24-year-old (he’s now 25).

It wasn’t always rosy for Harris. He almost hung up his spurs in 2005 after he’d hit a rough stretch and nearly run out of money, but a short-round win in Cheyenne, Wyo., at the “Daddy of ‘em All” kept him going and put $10,000 in his pocket.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Harris is also a family man. He and wife, Jackie, have a 1-year-old daughter named Aubrey, who was born two days before the start of last year’s Wrangler NFR. Twelve days after she entered the world, her father won his third consecutive gold buckle.

He’s a smart guy, investing most of his winnings from bull riding in mutual funds in an effort to provide a solid future for his family. Harris also raises bucking bulls, working 350 head of cattle on his Mullin, Texas, ranch.

He has the respect of his peers, as well as the respect of the sport’s heroes like Gay, and is regarded as one of the best bull riders in the modern era.

I guess my point in writing all this about Harris is that sometimes, and it’s rare even in sports, a champion will show you something no one else has before. They’ll show you that they’re not the garden-variety champ who lacks a dynamic personality or the ability to inspire.

But with those 270 steps and the upholding of his obligations, J.W. Harris did all that, and more. Win or lose come Saturday, he’s still a champion in more ways than one.

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