This year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo will have 26 contestants making their debut in the Thomas and Mack Center.
It’s not the biggest class of NFR rookies that we’ve seen, nor is it the smallest. I believe that everyone has a story and love being able to share those with you. I don’t ever remember – in over 30 years of covering rodeo – a group that has more compelling stories than these first-time qualifiers.
The bareback riding has one first timer, Shane O’Connell. The tie-down roping has two, Jake Pratt and Rhen Richard. Rhen will be making the second of his rookie appearances. He also is one of three headers who have qualified for the first time.
Both Shane and Rhen have been working towards this moment for a while. Shane’s journey started when he joined the PRCA in 2015. The next year, he finished second in the Resistol Rookie of the Year standings behind Clayton Biglow. He had started traveling with Tim O’Connell, no relation, and last year finished in 19th place.
Rhen’s NFR journey started 10 years ago and has seen him win three-quarters of a million and come oh so close to an NFR qualification. He has been among the top 20 in either tie-down roping or as a header or heeler numerous times. He won the team roping heeler rookie title in 2008 and a year later finished 19th in the world standings.
That had been his highest finish until this year. He has been heading for Quinn Kesler (two-time qualifier) and enters his first NFR in 15th place in the heading and 13th in the tie-down roping. It may have taken him a while to get here, but he is the only contestant that has qualified in two events and has the opportunity to go over a million dollars in career earnings this year.
The steer wrestling has four new faces this year, Will Lummus, Tanner Brunner, Bridger Chambers and Blake Mindemann. Blake’s journey has been the longest having joined the PRCA in 2004. He is a second-generation steer wrestler who started competing at rodeos when he was 7-years-old.
He focused on rodeos close to his home in Apache, Oklahoma, always made a trip to Wyoming in July for Cheyenne Frontier Days, but never made an NFR push until this year. That was fueled last April when he won over $12,000 at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo (NCFR).
Bridger Chamber’s NFR qualification nearly quadrupled his season earnings since joining the PRCA five years ago. It was also helped along with a win at the NCFR. He won the event in Kissimmee, Florida earning over $17,000 there and what started as a family vacation turned into a mission. Now he and his wife, Kristen, have loaded up their four children and have started another vacation hoping that this one is even better than the first.
A degree in health and human performance and college rodeo competition have also helped Bridger. He taught special education for a year and currently is partnered with his dad, Keith, in a dog detection business. He is not afraid of hard work and while the rodeo road has taken him away from his family, they have been behind him every step. He’s been chasing steers, Kristen has been chasing kids and Keith has been chasing dogs with everyone else pitching in where they could.
Also coming through the ranks of college rodeo are Tanner Brunner and Will Lummus. Tanner is a two-time College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) qualifier that has his bachelor’s degree in animal science from Kansas State University.
Will is one of the most educated athletes at this year’s NFR. He first attended East Mississippi Community College, then transferred to the University of Tennessee – Martin where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science and wellness. Then he went on and got his Physical Therapy Assistant certification. He qualified for the CNFR all four years in college and if his last name is familiar it should be. His uncle, Bob Lummus, has run 50 steers in the Thomas and Mack Center.
There are three rookies in the heading and heeling and none of them are roping together. Bubba Buckaloo joined the PRCA 10 years ago and has finished as high as 23rd in the world standings prior to this year. He will be roping with Chase Tryan who has been here twice before.
Lane Ivy will make his first appearance roping with two-time qualifier Buddy Hawkins Jr. They started the 2018 season together with a game plan. They stuck to it and now have 10 more steers to rope to finish it. Rhen Richard is the third header in the mix.
On the heeling side, there is another familiar rodeo name represented in Trey Yates. Trey’s dad, J.D. roped 210 steers at the NFR, the first time as a 15-year-old in Oklahoma City. The rules now require members to be 18, so that record will likely never be broken. Several of J.D.’s NFR qualifications came with his father, Dick. They became the only father-son-sister combination to compete at the NFR the same year when Kelly Yates qualified in barrel racing.
Trey will partner with 2015 world champion header Aaron Tsinigine. They started roping together after Trey won the college championship last June and are going to be fun to watch here. The other two NFR rookie heelers are Clint Summers and Cole Davison.
Clint will also be roping behind a world champion. He and Erich Rogers joined forces earlier this year. Then, Erich tore up his knee and the partnership was put on hold until he recovered. Having an NFR back number has been a long-term goal for Clint and the reality of qualifying set in when he was on stage at the PRCA Welcome Reception Tuesday night.
Cole Davison’s regular partner, Kolton Schmidt finished outside the top 15, so he will be roping with fellow Texan Tyler Wade who is making his second appearance.
There are few stories in rodeo as compelling as saddle bronc rider Joey Sonnier III’s. The Louisiana native bought his PRCA membership 18 years ago. He was pursuing his dream of riding here when he was offered drugs to help him stay awake and get to the next rodeo. Those drugs turned out to be methamphetamine and an addiction and prison sentence followed.
With the support and help of his family, he went to a rehab center and turned his life around. When he got out and an opportunity to get on a bucking horse again presented itself, he wasn’t ready. He had gained weight and needed a saddle. He lost the weight and with the help of YouTube videos, built his own saddle. After a 10-year hiatus from rodeo he was back. Joey will be the oldest NFR rookie in a rough stock event at 39.
Montana’s Chase Brooks is the other newcomer in the saddle bronc riding. Chase has become well known for his activities outside of the arena as well. Fitness is a passion and he can stay on an exercise bike for hours as long as his phone is in front of him and he can play Pokemon. It has become a way to pass time on the road and he has played every generation of the game since it first came out.
There are six newcomers in the barrel racing, Kylie Weast, Jessica Routier, Kelly Bruner, Tracy Nowlin, Carman Pozzobon and Jessica Telford. Weast is a third-generation qualifier. Her grandmother competed at the first NFR, her mother has qualified and her older sister Janae Ward, was here three times leaving as the 2003 world champion.
Jessica Telford also has a history with the NFR. Her grandfather, Gene Clark, fought bulls 60 years ago at the first NFR in Dallas. Carman Pozzobon was the Canadian champion a year ago and her qualification is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of competing at the NFR on a horse that she trained.
Barrel racing is a hobby for Dr. Kelly Bruner who has her own veterinary practice in her hometown of Milsap, Texas. She is a gold card member of the WPRA who is making her first appearance here because of finishing in the top 60 last year. That qualified her for winter rodeos where she had success and now her clients have been put on hold for 10 days.
Tracy Nowlin’s story started on Facebook. She was looking for a tie-down roping horse for her son, found one on Facebook and bought her. The mare, DJG Madison, known as Dolly Jo, didn’t turn out to be a rope horse but made an exceptional barrel horse.
Our other barrel racing NFR rookie made the journey from South Dakota where she and her husband ranch. Jessica Routier is a former college champion who grew up in Minnesota. Not only has she been hauling horses to rodeos, she has also been hauling kids. The mother of five has at least some of her children on the road with her and has also been taking them to their competitions.
Five bull riders will participate in the grand entry for the first time, then go get ready to nod their heads in the famed yellow chutes. Leader of the pack is Dustin Bouquet who starts in third place. When he’s not competing, the Louisianan loves to fish and never misses an opportunity to throw out a line. Chase Dougherty won big last January at the National Western Stock Show in Denver and kept winning to a regular-season fifth-place finish.
Tyler Bingham has watched older brother Tim Bingham compete here on three occasions. This year, the tables have turned and Tim will be the spectator. Koby Radley and Eli Vastbinder have been travelling together this season and are making their first appearances in the Thomas and Mack Center.
There were a lot of emotions on stage at the Welcome Reception as these competitors got their first back numbers. That was just the beginning of the firsts that they will experience over the next 10 days. I for one can’t wait to watch as more stories unfold.