Being a professional cowboy is not for the faint of heart.
Injury is always right around the corner, one second away, shadowing ProRodeo contestants like a black cloud that never goes away. Life can change in the blink of an eye, either for good or ill, and pressure is a constant every time they step in the arena.
For professional cowboys, rodeo is not just an occupation, but instead a way of life, a beloved calling they cherish. Love for their sport and the Western way of life fuels their passion, and dreams of making it to Las Vegas are always with them as the miles tick by on the freeways spider-webbing their way through the country.
To a man, they will tell you that the rewards outweigh the risk, that being able to do what they love for a living is a blessing they’re not ready to let go of anytime soon.
“It’s just a lifestyle,” said 2007 World Champion Steer Wrestler Jason Miller. “You get to be your own boss, and you don’t have to answer to anybody. You get to enter the rodeos you want with the people you want. You’re in control of your own destiny.”
Four-time World Champion Bareback Rider Bobby Mote agrees that the rewards trump the risks.
“If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it,” said Mote, who will enter this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in the No. 1 spot in the bareback riding world standings. “Anybody who’s ever gotten to do what they love and make a living at it would agree that’s worth a lot. If you’re passionate about something and get to make a living at it while everyone else is going to work, that’s awesome.
“It’s not that it’s not work. I work at it every day, but I enjoy it.”
As with other professional sports, the danger of getting hurt is a never-ending reality cowboys must deal with on a consistent basis.
“You know that injuries and all that stuff can happen, but it’s at the farthest point in the back of your mind you can put it,” said reigning World Champion Bull Rider Cody Teel. “The biggest risk is getting hurt and having to sit home for months at a time, and I’ve been on that end more than once.”
The injury bug also has bitten Mote several times during his illustrious career.
“I’ve had more than one occasion where I’ve had doctors tell me I was done,” said Mote, who will compete in his 13th Wrangler NFR this December. “I’ve had to look at that and decide that I still enjoy doing this enough that I’m going to defy what they say and do it anyway. You risk your life every time you run your hand in there and nod your head, but I think that’s part of why we enjoy it and don’t take anything for granted.”
For rodeo cowboys, being hurt means they don’t have a chance to earn a living, a much different scenario than other professional athletes have because of the luxury of guaranteed contract money.
“Rodeo is not like the other sports,” said Miller, who will enter his fifth career Wrangler NFR in fourth place in the bulldogging standings. “People try to compare it all the time, but it’s not and never will be. If you get hurt, you might be home for eight or 10 weeks with no job.
“We’ve all been there or done that. You might get a job in the oil fields driving a truck or whatever so you can make ends meet so you can go back and rodeo.”
Being away from family is another sacrifice ProRodeo cowboys often have to make.
“When you’ve got kids and are trying to be a dad, when you’re away from them, you can’t go to (things like) award assemblies or football games,” Mote said. “That’s one of the big things to take away from it and is something I take into consideration, for sure.”
But the positives can seemingly be endless for those who choose this way of life.
From being unfettered and free, the joy of competing and seeing the country to earning a living pursuing a passion, being with friends and enjoying fame and glory, there are a number of rewards that come along with being a professional cowboy.
“For me, the reward of winning and the feeling you get is what drives me,” said Teel, the youngest world champion bull rider in the history of rodeo. “The feeling of being successful every ride and when you step off and are looking up for your score, that’s the most rewarding part for me. That’s why I do it, for the thrill of it.”
Teel, who won his gold buckle last year at his very first Wrangler NFR, has been given perspective by high school friends who have less exciting occupations. He realizes he is living a pretty cool life.
“I don’t really think about it, because it’s what I’ve always done since I was 16,” he said of being a professional bull rider. “But after talking to some guys I went to high school with, they tell me how they don’t really like their jobs working in the plants or refineries down here where I live. It makes me realize, dang, I’m definitely blessed to be able to do this for a living.”
And the icing on the cake? The Wrangler NFR.
It can mean the difference between a profitable year and a break-even year, life-changing money or security in a sport full of uncertainties.
“When you get out there to the NFR, it makes the long road, the tough year, the ups and downs, the politics and everything we have to put up with all worth it,” Miller said.
Teel couldn’t agree more.
“(The Wrangler NFR) is something we watched on TV for so long growing up, so when you get out there, it seems kind of unreal,” he said. “After going there one time, when you are on the road and you’re tired, you need to think back to that feeling of walking into the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas. It perks you up and keeps you going.”