Hangin’ on for Mom
Making the NFR wasn’t just my dream. It was our dream.
When you’re getting ready in those yellow chutes, most guys say it all becomes a blur. Most say they tune out the flashing lights and don’t hear the crowd. But for me, it was almost slow motion. I heard the roar of the fans. I felt my riggin in my hand. I even smelled the dirt—and I think that dirt smells different than any other rodeo.
This was Round One at the 2016 National Finals Rodeo.
Once the gate opened, time sped up. My feet were fast—that part was a blur. As soon as I heard the buzzer and hit the ground, I whipped my head around. I knew exactly where she was sitting, and as soon as I saw her, a huge smile broke out across my face. There she was, waving and jumping up and down. Beaming. My Mom, Wendy. My Mom, who was fighting ovarian cancer like her life depended on it—because it did.
Rodeo Man, Rodeo Mom
All my life I knew I’d be a rodeo man. I never thought of anything else. No other career crossed my mind. Mom never resisted the idea. I started riding sheep at four and then graduated to calves and steers. She and my stepdad, Ty, would drive me to every junior rodeo and then cheer like crazy in the stands. She was like an extreme soccer mom, but it was rodeo. If it didn’t go well, she was never critical. It was always, You’ll get ’em next time or, I think you did your best! I know she was my Mom, but she was that way with all my friends, too. That never changed.
I started riding bareback horses in 2003 and professionally in 2010. I started traveling with JR Vezain, Clint Laye and Caleb Bennett. Mom treated them like they were her own sons. After every rodeo, we’d have to conference call her and let her know how we all did. If we won money, she was thrilled, and if we didn’t, she’d pull out a motivational speech that would put most professional sports coaches to shame.
I remember the day in August 2013 when Mom called to tell me she had cancer. We were driving across South Dakota, and my phone rang. It was like the world stopped. I knew ovarian cancer was a thing in her family, but you never think it’s going to affect your own Mom. Everything felt heavy that day. I knew Mom was scared, but she still was being just as positive. She and her doctor worked out a treatment plan. My stepdad took her back and forth to her appointments. When he couldn’t get off work, friends and family stepped in to drive.
JR, Caleb, Clint and I shaved our heads with Mom as soon as we got back home. We all stood in the bathroom of my house and did it together. The support I felt from my traveling partners, my best friends, helped keep me in a positive frame of mind. We called ourselves the Flow Riders.
Making the NFR was as much Mom’s dream for me as it was mine. Her diagnosis fueled me even more. It also helped put things in perspective more. That year, 2013, I had the best year I’d ever had in my four years on the PRCA circuit. But it wasn’t quite good enough. I ended the season ranked sixteenth, what they call the crying hole.
Although I didn’t make the Finals, I did learn a lot the first time I ended up on the bubble. It was the first year that I had proved to myself that I could stay healthy for a full season, and it was the first year that I truly felt like I could compete with the best bareback riders in the PRCA. It changed my mindset and attitude about my career in rodeo.
Mom was in remission for most of the 2014 season. For nine amazing months she glowed with positivity and faith. The season ended, and once again I found myself in the sixteenth spot. The crying hole for the second year in a row. I was upset, but Mom was very no-nonsense about it.
“Well then,” she said, “2015 will be the year.”
“Okay, Mom,” I told her, “2015 it is.” We hugged, and that was that. I didn’t beat myself up over it after that.
I don’t recall the moment I stopped feeling sorry for myself, but the next season I was more driven than ever. I found that there were little things that could make the difference, things like spending time in the gym, making sure my feet were fast and sharp, making sure my equipment was well cared for, making sure my riggin was extra sticky with rosin.
In 2015, I did not finish in the crying hole. I finished nineteenth. I’d missed it, but I hadn’t just missed it, you know? Still, nineteenth? Man, it stung.
To top it off, Mom’s cancer had come back with a vengeance.
I became more determined than ever. Physically I was doing the right things, but mentally I needed to make more specific goals, more powerful goals. I wasn’t just going to make the National Finals; I was going to make the NFR in one of the top five spots.
And I needed to mentally check myself. Mom was going through chemotherapy. That was important. As painful as it was, finishing nineteenth wasn’t a matter of life or death. I was young and healthy. I would have my opportunity. I needed to ride one horse at a time. That was the big goal. Instead of stressing about the next three rodeos down the road and what they each paid out, I needed to just calm down and focus.
Mom wasn’t doing well. The doctors were very guarded in their prognosis. I can’t explain how I knew, but I knew 2016 had to be my year. I didn’t feel anxious or rushed. It was a very matter-of-fact statement in my head. This year—for me and for Mom.
She Fueled Me
The 2016 rodeo season was a blur. By June, I was in the top ten in the world standings. By September, it was the top five. After seven years of competing in the PRCA, I was finally heading to the National Finals in Las Vegas. Finally!
Mom was funny. “Well, of course you made it,” she said, “I knew you would.”
She always believed in me.
The feeling of walking into the Thomas & Mack that December was almost overwhelming. You walk in, and it’s pretty quiet. Chutes might be clanking. You can hear the lights buzz. That energy just invades your bones.
The calm came every time I locked eyes with Mom in the stands. She was there for every single round, all night long. She would dance, scream and cheer until she lost her voice. She was so alive. I didn’t know it at the time—none of us did—but Mom quit taking her chemotherapy pills at times in Vegas. She didn’t want to be tired or sick in the hotel room. She was going to be there for every moment. If we had an event or a signing, she’d skip her medicine so she could be present with me. I had no idea.
Every night, we’d lock eyes, and it fueled me. It was our dream for me to be in that arena.
I didn’t just go to Vegas. I placed in six rounds, won the seventh and tenth and finished the year ranked sixth in the world. After I won the seventh and tenth rounds, we were on the stage at South Point Casino, and I remember hugging Mom. I felt like we’d won the rounds together. It was slow motion—the flashing lights, the words over the speakers. Mom squeezed me tight and whispered in my ear, “I knew you’d do it!”
When we got home from Vegas, the cancer spread faster than they could find it. And then she was gone. Mom died on February 3, 2017. She was only 48 years old.
The only way I knew how to cope was to keep going. Mom kept fueling me. Instead of cheering me on in the stands, she was cheering me on from above. That April, I headed to Kissimmee, Florida, for the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo. I won that and landed on the cover of ProRodeo Sports News. I wish Mom could’ve seen that – that’s every kid’s dream. For a while, I was ranked first in the world.
In late April of 2017, I was at a rodeo and the pickup man caused my horse to fall. I dislocated my shoulder and tore my rotator cuff. There was no way I was missing the National Finals later that year, so instead of surgery and rehab, I decided to sit out a couple months and rest my shoulder. As the months passed, I slipped in the standings. I needed to get back on the road. I started back out in August, and headed to Vegas ranked eleventh in the world.
My hurt shoulder couldn’t hold up to the healthier guys. I finished the Finals in the fifteenth spot. I came home to California and had surgery. I sat out during 2018 to let my body heal, not only from the shoulder surgery but all the little nagging injuries I had ridden through.
I mentally set goals for 2019, but there’s one main one.
Not only am I going to qualify for the Finals, not only am I going to go to Vegas, but I have every intention and every plan of walking away a World Champion. After all, I think my guardian angel has something to say about it.