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THE WOODLANDS, Texas â€“ Richmond Champion lives life a little bit on the edge.
Why else would any sane man strap himself to a 1,100-pound bucking horse in order to make a living?
â€śYouâ€™ve got every wild and free thing in the palm of your hand,â€ť said Champion, 21, of The Woodlands. â€śItâ€™s awesome. Thereâ€™s nothing like it. I just crave it. Itâ€™s the best job in the world. You have to feel it to understand it.â€ť
Champion is a professional rodeo cowboy, one of the very best bareback riders in the game in 2014. Next week, he will showcase it to the world during his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sportâ€™s premier championship event that takes place Dec. 4-13 in Las Vegas. Itâ€™s the perfect place to put a defining exclamation point to an incredible season.
He is the seventh-ranked bareback rider in the world standings, where points equal dollars earned in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association through the rigors of the 12-month season. Champion has pocketed just shy of $90,000 in the PRCA, but his season has provided much more than that.
â€śMy biggest win, obviously, was The American,â€ť he said of the non-PRCA rodeo that took place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where he won the bareback riding title and $1.1 million. â€śThatâ€™s the biggest victory ever. The American changed my whole life and how I want to go about my career.
â€śFollowing that, Iâ€™d have to say winning Cheyenne (Wyo.) and being 91 points at the Daddy of â€™Em All. Just the way that story unfolded â€¦ for different reasons, that was the biggest PRCA win of my career.â€ť
The win in Arlington came in early March; the victory in Cheyenne came in late July. Mixed in between was a fine recipe of quality rides and key titles: Guymon, Okla.; Walla Walla, Wash.; and Gladewater, Texas, just to name a few.
â€śThis season has been a dream come true,â€ť said Champion, who as a collegian at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in June. â€śMaking the NFR is a goal reached. Itâ€™s kind of surreal knowing Iâ€™m heading there. Iâ€™m really excited.
â€śItâ€™s the freakinâ€™ NFR. Thereâ€™s no downplaying that. Itâ€™s going to be a stage Iâ€™ve never been on before. Itâ€™s going to be intense.â€ť
Only the top 15 cowboys in each event earn the right to compete for the biggest pay in the game. The purse is more than $6 million for the 10-round finale. Each night, contestants will battle for the $19,000 payday for winning a go-round. The elite bareback riders will be testing their skills against the greatest bucking horses of 2014.
As an NFR rookie, Champion will also be in the field with legends: three-time reigning world champion Kaycee Feild, three-time titlist Will Lowe, four-time winner Bobby Mote and 2008 world champ Justin McDaniel â€“ they own the last nine bareback riding gold buckles.
â€śIâ€™m not going to worry about Kaycee Feild or anybody else,â€ť Champion said. â€śKayceeâ€™s going to do what Kayceeâ€™s going to do, and I have no doubt itâ€™s going to be at a phenomenal level. I set my goals high, and Iâ€™m going in there confident.â€ť
He should. He has qualified for the NFR in just his third season as a PRCA member â€“ he finished 2012 in second place in the rookie-of-the-year race. Thatâ€™s not too bad for a man who has only been riding bucking horses less than five years.
â€śIâ€™ve always been involved in something competitive, whether it was skiing or riding,â€ť he said. â€śI had an older brother, and you just naturally grow up in a competitive nature. It doesnâ€™t matter what you do, youâ€™re going to be competitive with each other.
â€śWe also moved around a lot. Once I got comfortable somewhere, it was time to move again and start over. I think thatâ€™s what attracted me to rodeo. Youâ€™re constantly moving. Youâ€™re constantly competing. Growing up that way, you have to adapt. I bring that with me when Iâ€™m rodeoing.â€ť
The rodeo trail is long and winding. Cowboys travel tens of thousands of miles a year chasing their gold-buckle dreams. Oftentimes theyâ€™re away from home for weeks, even months, at a time. Itâ€™s not an easy life, but itâ€™s one in which the competitors are following their passions.
For Champion, he finds ease in the support from home.
â€śMy family has been there for me since I started this deal,â€ť he said, pointing to his dad, Greg, and mom, Lori. â€śMom had her questions at first; she didnâ€™t want me to get hurt. Theyâ€™ve just been so supportive of me since my rookie year. My brother, Doug, is the reason I started riding bareback horses. He turned out to be one of my biggest supporters. He got hurt and canâ€™t ride anymore, but heâ€™s been right there with me.
â€śMy family has made a point to travel to come see me. They know being there is important to me. I canâ€™t do it without them. Theyâ€™ve all made changes since The American has happened. My dad has taken a lot of responsibility for me on the financial side.â€ť
That has helped take the pressure off the young cowboy so he can focus on the task at hand. When he needs an ear, they all are just a phone call away. Doug can help with the riding side of the game, while Mom and Dad do what moms and dads do.
â€śTheyâ€™re all successful, but theyâ€™ve found a way to support me,â€ť Champion said. â€śIt doesnâ€™t get any better than that.â€ť
When family isnâ€™t available, he leaned on girlfriend Shelby Smith, who has been around the sport all her life.
â€śItâ€™s a lot harder to have a relationship in rodeo, but she understands that,â€ť Champion said. â€śIt took this year for me to realize what it takes to have a relationship out there on the road. Your time gets limited. To have Shelby out there with me from time to time, it helps because she comes from a rodeo family. She knows how it works.
â€śSheâ€™s been competitive, so she can help me. She may not know the fundamentals of bareback riding, but as a competitor, she knows how to talk to me. Sheâ€™s always been there for that.â€ť
That support has been a key ingredient into the success the cowboy has seen in 2014. Of course, that also is the nature of rodeo, where there are friends at every stop along the rodeo trail.
â€śThe best part of rodeo is the comradery,â€ť he said. â€śThereâ€™s no other sport that is this tight-knit. Weâ€™re all ready to do anything for one another even though youâ€™re trying to take each otherâ€™s money at the same time. Itâ€™s a really competitive sport, but you still try to help each other out.
â€śYou canâ€™t get there by yourself, and everybody knows that.â€ť
Now that heâ€™s there, the Texan wonâ€™t rest on his accomplishments or his bank account. He has a core group of friends, family and fellow bareback riders to keep him humble. Heâ€™s still young enough to crave all-night drives, but thatâ€™s mainly because he craves the most coveted prize in the game, the gold buckle.
He is a Champion after all.
MORGAN, Utah â€“ The reason Caleb Bennett loves rodeo is very simple.
â€śThe rodeo atmosphere is me,â€ť said Bennett, a bareback rider from Morgan. â€śItâ€™s like whiskey to a drunk or poker to a gambler; itâ€™s just something youâ€™ve got to have.
â€śI love it. I love traveling. I love 10-hour drives with buddies, and I love getting on bucking horses when I get there.â€ť
That passion has carried the 26-year-old cowboy to his third straight qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sportâ€™s year-end championship set for Dec. 4-13 in Las Vegas. Only the top 15 contestants from the regular season in each event advance to the 10-round finale, which offers the greatest payout in the game, $6.375 million.
The combatants will all battle for the $19,000 payday during each go-round over 10 December nights in southern Nevada, and the contestants with the most money earned at its conclusion will be crowned world champions. Through the regular season, Bennett pocketed $85,225 and will arrive in Sin City next week No. 8 in the bareback riding world standings.
â€śEveryone starts the year with the goal of making it to the NFR,â€ť said Bennett, who earned nearly $64,000 last December. â€śThis is how we make our living, so itâ€™s a huge goal.â€ť
The Utah cowboy heads to the finals after his best regular season. He had nine Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association titles in 2014, including wins in Rapid City, S.D.; Clovis, Calif.; Pendleton, Ore.; and the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo.
â€śWinning the national championship was awesome,â€ť he said of the April rodeo in which he won a boatload of cash and a voucher toward the purchase of a Ram pickup. â€śThatâ€™s always been a goal of mine to go to the Ram finals and win that, and this was only my second year of qualifying for that.
â€śItâ€™s just another stepping stone and what I want to accomplish in my career.â€ť
His year was solid from start to finish, and that helped him find a comfort zone to this yearâ€™s NFR. Thatâ€™s quite a change from 2013, when he had to finish with a flourish in order to qualify in the 15th and last spot.
â€śI had a great season, and I tried to plan things differently this year,â€ť Bennett said. â€śI tried to set up my winter runs by hitting the bigger, better rodeos and taking advantage of that. All summer long I entered like that. I tried to enter smarter instead of by quantity.
â€śI won more money this year than I had either year before when I qualified. That really made the month of September a lot easier on me. I could go to the bigger ones and relax a little bit and not have to worry about making it.â€ť
That pressure-valve rele3ase paid off in Pendleton, one of the biggest and most historic events in ProRodeo. He rode Sankey Rodeoâ€™s Thunder Monkey for 87 points to win the short go-round and share the average championship with fellow NFR qualifier Tim Oâ€™Connell.
â€śThatâ€™s a world-renowned rodeo that everybody wants to win,â€ť said Bennett, who competed on the rodeo team at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, after a stellar career that saw him win the 2007 National High School Finals Rodeo bareback riding title in one of his four qualifications. â€śIâ€™d never made the short round before, then I snuck in and happened to draw the best horse.â€ť
Of course, nothing comes without assistance. He gets plenty of support from his family; his father, Bob Caldwell, rode bucking horses and continues to compete in team roping; his mother, Claudine, has always been around barrel racing. Bennett, two brothers and three sisters were all raised around the sport and all but one have competed.
â€śMy familyâ€™s been a huge support for me,â€ť Bennett said. â€śI swear my mom is my biggest fan. Theyâ€™ve always been a great support group of mine to get from points A to B throughout the summer.â€ť
That family also consists of his traveling posse, a foursome of bareback riders who go by the moniker â€śFlow Riders,â€ť primarily because of their long hair. That group also includes NFR qualifier R.C. Landingham of Pendleton, who has finished 16th each of the past two seasons; Clint Laye of Cadogan, Alberta, among the top 25 in 2013-14; and J.R. Vezain of Cowley, Wyo., a three-time NFR qualifier sitting 10th in the world standings.
â€śThe main reason we started growing our hair was to honor R.C.â€™s mom, Wendy Stiver, when she started losing her hair while battling cancer,â€ť Bennett said. â€śShe is such a strong woman, and it goes for anyone out there who battles cancer. Sheâ€™s been an inspiration for all of us. We started growing our hair for her this year.â€ť
Moments like that help the cowboy stay grounded. He realizes he has blessings and talent, and he plans to take advantage of both. He has an amazing support system, which also includes other cowboys.
â€śThe first year I made the finals, Kaycee told me to just keep positive,â€ť he said of Kaycee Feild, a seven-time NFR qualifier and the reigning three-time world champion bareback rider from Spanish Fork, Utah. â€śIâ€™ve just taken that with me every year. If something didnâ€™t go right, I just let it go and started to focus on the next one.
â€śThatâ€™s what Iâ€™m going to do this year. I feel healthier and stronger than Iâ€™ve ever felt. I have a good workout routine to hopefully better me. Iâ€™m going to just go in there with goals and a winning mindset, because I really want to win that rodeo.â€ť
Doing so would mean finishing with the best 10-ride aggregate score. Feild has done that each of the past three seasons, which is a key reason he won those world championship gold buckles. Itâ€™s a great lesson for Bennett, who could add a $48,732 bonus if he were to win the NFR average.
â€śAnything can happen either way in Las Vegas,â€ť Bennett said. â€śIâ€™ve watch guys go in and struggle. Last year Kaycee struggled the first two rounds, then all of the sudden, he just stepped up and went hotter than a firecracker.
â€śTo me, that is the biggest lesson. Even if you have a few bad rounds, you can still come back and do well. The last few years I started stronger than I finished, and this year my goal is to finish stronger than I start.â€ť
With that goal in place, Bennett has his eyes set on the top prize in the game: The gold buckle.
LAS VEGAS â€“ If seven is a lucky number, Tyson Durfey is counting his blessings.
Next week, Durfey will compete in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the seventh time. Itâ€™s just another major step in an already-amazing 11-year tie-down roping career, which includes three Canadian titles, a Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo championship and a $100,000 payday this past March for winning tie-down roping at RFD-TVâ€™s The American.
Over his previous six trips to Las Vegas, the Missouri-born cowboy has had a mixed bag of results. Heâ€™s seen great success and struggled. Since his first qualification in 2007, Durfey has missed the finale just once; that was two seasons ago when he finished 18th in the world standings â€“ only the top 15 cowboys at the end of the regular season make the trip to Las Vegas.
â€śMy dad was a cowboy, my grandfather was a cowboy and my brothers were cowboys,â€ť said Durfey, the youngest son of Roy Durfey, a man well known as an elite trainer of tie-down ropers and calf-roping horses. â€śAll I wanted was to be a cowboy.â€ť
Heâ€™s been that way since he was a young man growing up on his fatherâ€™s place near Savannah, Mo. Thatâ€™s where he was taught the lessons of being a true rodeo hand. Itâ€™s whatâ€™s carried him through his 31 years, both as a talented roper and as a man.
â€śOne thing I still hold onto today is that when I give someone my word, thatâ€™s as good as anything I can give them and that I will stand by it,â€ť he said.
Thatâ€™s a vital point to being a cowboy, but so is competing at a high level.
At 23, Durfey became the first American-born contestant to win a Canadian Professional Rodeo Association title. That came in 2006. He followed that with two other Canadian titles, one in 2008, the last in 2011. Earlier that season, he won the national title for the first time.
â€śIt felt good to win the national championship and the Canadian national championshipâ€ť in the same year, he said.
He also has made adjustments to his life and his livelihood, which has made a significant difference in how he approaches the work of being a professional rodeo cowboy.
â€śWhen I was younger, Iâ€™d let that pressure get to me more,â€ť said Durfey, who has sponsorship agreements with Next IT Corp., Zoetis Animal Health, Pro Vision Equine Digital Surveillance, Cinch, Corral Boots, Logan Coach Horse Trailers, Willbros Group Inc., Swift Transportation, HR Workplace Services, Priefert and Silver Lining Herbs. â€śAs Iâ€™ve gotten older, I guess Iâ€™ve gotten more focused and more confident. Every win gives you a little bit more confidence. If you can take every win, you can just build your confidence over time.
â€śI rely on what my capabilities are. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I know what Iâ€™m capable of. If Iâ€™m able to stay focused, stay relaxed and rope, the winning takes care of itself.â€ť
Each year on the rodeo trail means another level of experience he carries with him. These days, he also shares his life with his wife of one year, Australian-born country singer Shea Fisher. They live on a place near Weatherford, Texas, when sheâ€™s not singing and when heâ€™s not on the rodeo trail.
During his first qualification to the NFR in 2007, he had a much different approach to the game than he does now. The adjustments have made a world of difference.
â€śI just wanted to win and beat them, but at the end of the day, it boils down to being the best person you can be and doing the best you can do every time,â€ť Durfey said. â€śI was more focused on trying to win than I was at trying to be the best I could be at the rodeo.â€ť
Itâ€™s working rather well.