I knew something was wrong. Deep-down wrong.
It was October 20, 2015, and I was sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room. The next day was Round 1 of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) World Finals, the richest bull-riding event of the year.
I had made a pile of money and was sitting fifth in the world. During the next five days at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, I stood to make a pile more. And maybe win the PBR World Championship.
I had every reason to be plum tickled to death.
But all I could think was, This crap’s getting old. I’m over it.
Before I joined the PBR, I rode bulls in the professional rodeo. I qualified for nine PRCA National Finals Rodeos back-to-back. Every year, when I arrived in Vegas, I felt like a kid at Christmas-time. The excitement started with the NFR back-number presentation. It was like, Alright, we’re here on the biggest rodeo stage in the world. This is the real deal!
Opening night, Grand Entry. You gallop in on horseback, and halfway down the tunnel the butterflies hit, your eyes go to sparkling and your heart swells.
I never lost that feeling at nine NFRs.
I never felt it once during the PBR World Finals.
I loved all the rank bulls I rode in the PBR. The money wasn’t bad, either.
But I missed rodeoing.
I grew up with horses and cattle in my life from day one. My Dad rode bulls. My uncles and Granddad rode bulls.
I fell in love with bull riding because I wanted to be like my dad. We didn’t go to any bull-riding schools. We just went to the backyard.
My first ride was on the back of an oversized roping steer. He probably weighed 800 pounds, or so they tell me. I was only three.
We were living in Peaster, Texas, west of Fort Worth. One of my uncles sat me on the steer and ran alongside. There’s a picture from that day. It’s pretty funny. Looks like I’m trying to ride bareback, my feet up on the steer’s neck. The only thing I remember is landing on my head. From that point on, all I wanted to do was ride bulls. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. All the big guys would come up and pat me on the back and tell me good job! Shoot, that swelled my little chest up. I’ve been going since.
I worked my way up from steers to junior bulls. Because my Dad provided bulls for the local junior rodeos, I had to help as a bull fighter. They’d buck me first, and then I’d fight bulls while the rest of the boys bucked. I learned to do it all.
There’s never been a day in my life that I regretted my decision. I wouldn’t trade bull riding for anything.
Why do I love it? Well, it’s kind of a gladiator mentality. You go out there and try to prove to yourself that you can ride every bull you get on. They say you can’t ride ’em all, but you gotta try.
I love the pureness of the rodeo. If you don’t do any good, you don’t get paid. Football and baseball players get a guaranteed contract. They earn the right to those contracts. They work at a sport their whole life. That’s the route they choose. As rodeo athletes, this is the life we choose. That’s what I mean by the pureness of it. We’re not guaranteed a check. We have to go out there and perform at our best, and hopefully our best is enough.
I made a lot of friends in the rodeo, not just among bull riders, but bareback riders, bronc riders, tie-down ropers, team ropers, the whole match. I had friends I could call up and say, Hey, can I catch a ride to Ellensburg, Washington, with you? I remember Cody Ohl picked me up from the airport at Omaha once. It didn’t matter whether you were a calf roper or a bull rider. If you needed a ride, hop in.
In the rodeo, we root for everybody to do good. Don’t get me wrong. We’re competitive. Deep down inside, you want yourself to do better than the other guy, but you’re still rooting for him.
The first year they had the Top Gun Award at the PRCA National Finals Rodeo—where they give a Dodge Ram pickup truck to the top money earner at the Finals—me and Trevor Brazile were fighting neck and neck to win it. He’s not a bull rider, but we were battling. I wanted Trevor to break the all-around go-round record that year. But just good enough not to win the truck!
Eventually, he edged me out by maybe fifteen-hundred bucks. During his acceptance speech he said, “Man, I was rooting for JW, because I wanted him to win the bull-riding gold buckle, but I didn’t want him to win by too much, because then he’d beat me out of winning this truck.”
Rodeoing made me feel at home.
It helped that I took my family with me. We jumped in the RV, and we rodeoed.
Every year, I looked forward to Fort Worth, San Angelo, Houston, San Antonio, even them small rodeos. I loved seeing old friends and catching up with all the different stock contractors, guys like Bennie Beutler and Sammy Andrews. Those guys are legends, and who doesn’t like to hang out with legends?
Speaking of legends, one of my best memories is getting to spend the day with Harry Vold at his Colorado ranch. This was back in 2009, a few years after I went pro. We were at the rodeo in Colorado Springs, and we got to talking to Harry’s daughter, Kirsten.
“Do you think Harry would give us a tour around the ranch?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Dad would love it.”
After the rodeo was over, we stayed with Kirsten, and she drove us out the next morning to her Dad’s. He showed us all his famous bucking horses. He showed us where his great saddle horses were buried. I’m a history buff and idolized Harry Vold for as long as I could remember. Visiting his house and seeing all the stuff he’d collected over the years was better than going to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Harry was known for his bucking horses, but he also raised rank bulls. We stepped through one door, and there, mounted on the wall above us, were two of his most famous bulls, 777 and Crooked Nose. Harry’s stories never got old. I could have sat there and listened for days.
I never followed the PBR. The few times I watched it on TV, I thought, Man, that’s not my cup of tea.
But after I won my fourth PRCA gold buckle in 2013, I started wondering if maybe I shouldn’t try to add a PBR championship buckle to my collection. Only one bull rider has ever won both world titles, and that’s Tuff Hedeman.
By coincidence, the PBR called me the next March. The 2014 season had started, but they offered me three exemptions to go straight to the Built Ford Tough Series (BFTS). The BFTS tour is like the major leagues. The organization only takes the top 35 riders. Normally, you have to earn one of those spots by working your way up through one of the PBR minor tours. But the PBR claims to have the best of the best, so if they think you’re good, they’ll recruit you. They said I could pick any three events. I thought, Well, it would be kind of silly not to give it a shot.
I picked three back-to-back events—in Fresno, Nampa and Billings. By mid-April, I was seeded and on the tour, riding bulls weekly at PBR events. My PRCA year was off to a good start, too—I think I had already won almost $50,000 by the time the PBR called—so I decided to do both.
I was entering PRCA rodeos during the week and flying around the country to PBR events on weekends. I stopped taking the RV. I didn’t want to drag Jackie and the kids around if it wasn’t gonna be fun. By the second half of that year, I was tired and pretty beat up.
That September, we were at a PBR event in Springfield, Missouri. I rode a bull called SweetPro’s Long John. After eight seconds, I tried getting off, but we were right up against the bucking chutes. He tossed me down beside him, and my shoulder caught on the chute. He come over the top of me with his feet and slammed me into the ground. He stepped on me and nearly shoved one of my lower vertebrae out of my spine. The impact knocked me out cold. I scored an 87.5 and won the round. To this day, my back hurts all the time.
I only went to 25 PRCA rodeos that year and still finished the season in first place. But because I didn’t enter at least 40 rodeos, I lost my Extreme Bull earnings, which dropped me down to fifth or sixth place.
I didn’t go to all the PBR events either, but I won PBR Rookie of the Year, made the PBR Finals and ended up finishing ninth in the world.
Moneywise, it wasn’t a bad year. I probably made $600,000.
But rodeoing and touring with the PBR took a toll on me.
The next year, 2015, I had every intention of trying to do both. But after Fort Worth, in January, I knew my body couldn’t take it. I took a break from Pro Rodeo and threw my energy into competing for a PBR world title.
It wasn’t long before I missed rodeoing and my cowboy buddies.
I’m not saying there aren’t cowboys in the PBR. I just never really fit in. The PBR is a television spectacle, which works for them, but I’m not comfortable having cameras in my face all the time. And the drama. I’m not into drama, especially the made-for-TV kind.
It was hard to take my family on tour, because you’ve got to fly to ninety percent of the events. Most of the events are in big cities. The 2015 tour started in New York City. I was excited to ride bulls there because of the history and lure of Madison Square Gardens. I took my wife, Jackie, with me that first year, and we had a good time, walking around Times Square and all that stuff. But it was cold as hell. One trip to New York was plenty.
To their credit, the guys running the PBR give the riders more of a voice and a public presence. They make it easier for bull riders to earn money. And, man, you do get on some awesome bucking bulls. Some bad dudes. I love that part of bull riding—getting on ones that most of the guys don’t want to ride. Those are the bulls I love.
I’m sure some people will say, JW can’t ride them rank bulls anymore. Or, maybe JW doesn’t want to ride them no more. That’s not the case at all. Because the bulls in Pro Rodeo are just as good. Look at the bucking bull of the year in the PRCA and the PBR. It’s the same bull.
The bulls weren’t the problem. It was everything else.
I never felt at home in the PBR. I’d fly up to Chicago in the winter, and it would be cold and miserable, and all we’d do was ride bulls. Week in and week out. The arena might be a little smaller or bigger, but it always looked the same. I missed bareback and saddle bronc and roping and bulldogging. I missed shooting the shit with the stock contractors and watching my kids running with other rodeo kids.
I missed the fellowship and history and camaraderie of rodeoing.
I missed the fun.
These were the thoughts that hit me that night in Vegas, back in October of 2015. The PBR Finals were starting the next day. So what? It was the same old routine that we’d been running all year long. We’re gonna watch 35 bull riders, and we’re gonna take four hours to do it.
I realized I was in the PBR for the money, and that’s not why I ride bulls. The checks are awesome, but it’s about so much more. The money’s just a bonus.
In 2013, the year I won my last PRCA gold buckle, me and Jackie bought a ranch in Goldthwaite, Texas, a couple hours north of Austin. We started raising Brangus-Hereford crosses, doing most of the work the old-school way. No Polaris Rangers. We do everything on horseback. If a cow gets out, you go rope her. It might be harder running cattle the old-school way, but by golly we like riding horses here.
My go-to is a big yellow horse named Booger. That was his name whenever we bought him, and it’s bad luck to change a horse’s name. My little girl calls him Booger Butt.
On Booger, I can gather all the cows in the world I want and turn around and go to a team roping. He’s a priceless horse for the simple fact that I can do all that and then put the kids on him.
Coming home to rodeoing this year means spending more time with my family—at the ranch and in the RV. I guess this story is the closest thing to an announcement as I’ll make. I’ve never been one to make a big scene. I prefer to show up and do my thing.
When I was first thinking of switching to the PBR, a close friend of mine, Cody Whitney—who started in the PBR and later switched to Pro Rodeo—told me, “You’re not gonna fit in, JW. You ain’t gonna like it over there.”
A lot of other people tried to talk me out of going to the PBR, but I didn’t listen.
Now that I’m back rodeoing, I’m gonna see them guys, and they’re gonna say, “Hey, I told you so.”
They were right.