Thank you to Jr. NFR blogger Jack Nowlin for contributing to this story.
Monday at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is a day that contestants, fans and a special group of local kids anticipates.
For the past several years, Monday has been the day that the Exceptional Rodeo presented by Nevada Energy pairs local special needs children with NFR contestants in mock rodeo events. This year saw lots of smiles in the Wrangler Rodeo Arena at Cowboy Christmas.
Contestants, bullfighters and rodeo clown, John Harrison spent time with the children. And, because the event was held in the same arena as the Jr. NFR, some of those contestants got involved as well.
“I wouldn’t miss this,” said Jessie Telford, a barrel racer from Caldwell, Idaho, who is at her first NFR and won the fourth round the night before. “I love rodeo. It has been everything to me and anytime I have an opportunity to give back I’m going to do that. Being able to interact with these kids and see their smiles has been so rewarding.”
The very first Exceptional Rodeo was held at the NFR 36 years ago. It started in the Thomas and Mack Center but moved to Cowboy Christmas giving fans an opportunity to catch the action. Nevada Energy has been involved since 2014.
“It’s a fantastic event,” said Paul Caudill, Nevada Energy CEO. “This is a pressure-packed 10 days for the contestants and this can put it all in perspective. When you see the smiles from the NFR contestants and the Exceptional Rodeo participants, it’s very rewarding.”
Rodeo personality Dale Brisby was on hand to take it all in. Brisby has travelled the country this year and his interaction with contestants and fans gives him a unique perspective.
“This is an act of selfless love and a real example of the cowboy way of life,” Brisby said. “It’s an opportunity to give something to somebody without any expectations. This is probably the coolest thing that rodeo does.”
Elvis Bishop was sitting with other Junior NFR saddle bronc riders on the bucking chutes at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena on Monday watching the Exceptional Rodeo. That’s when Bishop’s mother, Saleena, called him and his friends down to the arena floor.
“To see those kids sitting up there while these other kids were down here just didn’t seem right,” Saleena said. “My son is blessed and I wanted him to come down and support these other kids.”
Elvis Bishop, who is from Cincinnati and competing in peewee saddle bronc riding at this year’s Junior NFR, and a handful of other peewee and junior saddle bronc riders climbed off the chutes and made their way down to the dirt floor. The kids then offered high-fives to the contestants, whose smiles grew even larger as they realized they were being congratulated by cowboys who were their size.
“This means a lot to me,” Elvis Bishop said. “I feel fortunate to be competing here. And after seeing these kids I’m not worried about how I’m going to ride.”
Bishop had a no-score in Monday’s final go-round, but thanks to a chance meeting with the Exceptional Rodeo contestants he didn’t walk away from the Junior NFR empty handed.
For contestants with repeat Thomas and Mack qualifications, the Exceptional Rodeo is an event that they pencil autograph sessions and other commitments around. For NFR rookie, Will Lummus, it was added because of his hazer, former NFR qualifier K.C. Jones.
Jones has been a long-time supporter of the Exceptional Rodeo and has encouraged many competitors to participate through the years. He and Lummus were together helping a child Monday morning, then were all decked out in Pink for Monday night’s rodeo.
Monday has also become the traditional night that the NFR is all decked out in the signature color of the Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign which raises money and awareness of breast cancer across the country. Lummus got the win with a 3.3-second run.
It was the first NFR round win in his career but is surely not going to be his last. Riding Jones’ horse Grinder he has had a solid start in Las Vegas. Through five rounds, he has the overall lead in the Thomas and Mack Center and has gotten checks in every round but the fourth where he was one spot out of the money.
Lummus has command of the overall lead, has moved into second place in the world standing and with his $26,231 that he won on Monday night, his earnings here in Las Vegas are up to $67,397.
“It was a special for sure,” Lummus said. “To start the day with the Exceptional Rodeo and then finish it with a win on Pink Night couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Lummus and his family have two very close friends who are fighting breast cancer right now, Katy Ballard and Misty Orr. Ballard was his sixth-grade teacher and Orr is a barrel racer and wife of fellow steer wrestler Troy Orr.
“If everyone could say a prayer for them, we would sure appreciate it,” Lummus added.
His gratitude was a sentiment that was expressed throughout day five. From the grateful smiles of special children and their parents and teachers to the grateful hearts of the contestants and the power of colored clothing at Tough Enough to Wear Pink night at the rodeo – it really was a Happy Monday!