Rodeo's Rising Stars
They’re under 25 years old and poised to make their marks on professional rodeo. Meet the 13 young athletes you must watch in 2009.
Tuf Cooper’s run to the National Finals Rodeo began roughly eight years ago when his dad walked away from competition. The “Super Looper,” Roy Cooper, walked away with eight world titles and a desire to be the dad he hadn’t always been to sons Clint, Clif and Tuf.
From that time on, each of the kids has worked toward becoming as good as their dad was in his heyday. Clint is a two-time NFR qualifier, and Tuf is headed for his first NFR this year despite the fact he’s only 18 years old.
“I remember watching Tuf rope calf after calf in 105 degree heat last summer,” Roy says. “I told him it would all pay off the next year when he was old enough to join PRCA, and now it’s paying off just like I said.”
The home-schooled teenager still hasn’t finished his high school curriculum, but he’ll be roping for his share of more than $5 million at Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center next month.
“I’ve been planning on this for a while now,” Tuf says with the wide grin of a kid living his longtime dream. “I planned on trying my hardest to make the NFR. Everybody dreams of hearing their name called in Las Vegas. It’s pretty exciting to know I’m so close to that goal now.”
He’s traveled with his dad some in the past and routinely spent summers hitting every junior rodeo the family could find, but Tuf says the biggest adjustment is simply being away from home all the time.
“It’s been tough at times, but I guess I’ve handled it pretty well,” he says. “Now, I just need to finish the season strong and see what I can do in Las Vegas.”
Judging by the smile on his face, you’d have thought Jake Brown had claimed a world championship on a hot July night in Farmington, New Mexico. In theory, he had done just that. He’d just earned the National High School Rodeo Association’s bareback riding championship competing against a top-notch field of Americans, Canadians and Australians.
Unlike some of his Texas teammates, Jake isn’t focusing on professional competition just yet. Instead, he’ll rodeo for his dad—rodeo coach Paul Brown—at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas, and plan on making a run at the PRCA’s bareback riding rookie title in 2010.
“I’ve got my permit, and I’ll probably just rodeo off that for two years,” he says. “But watch out for me in 2010. That’s when I plan on making my first trip to the NFR.”
Jake recovered from a disappointing 67-point ride in the first round at the National High School Finals Rodeo with a second-round 78 that put him among the leaders going into the short round. Having seen his short-round draw earlier in the week, he knew all he needed to win the championship was to do his part. He turned in a 79-point ride to finish second in the short round and take the three-head average title by one point over Ty Breuer of North Dakota.
“She was outstanding when I saw her earlier in the week,” he says. “It was a great week because my first two trips to the high-school finals, I didn’t cover a single bareback or bull. I just couldn’t be any happier about winning the whole thing.”
With the win, Jake joins an elite group. Previous NHSFR bareback riding winners have included Mark Garrett, Pete Hawkins, Ty Murray and Marvin Shoulders.
Florida native Jared Smith won’t make the NFR in 2008. But the cowboy who now calls Ranger, Texas, home will claim the bareback-riding rookie title and add his name to an exclusive club of great bareback riders. Among them are world champions Mark Gomes, Ty Murray and Will Lowe.
“I set the NFR as my goal because in my mind there’s no real reason to rodeo if I’m not going to try and be the best,” Jared says. “I have to believe that nobody can beat me, or I might as well not be here. And I like to set goals that are hard to achieve. My mom used to tell me, ‘Shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars.’ ”
After rodeoing for two years at Ranger Junior College for world-champion bronc rider Tom Reeves, Smith believes he’s ready to be a full-time cowboy.
“Tom really helped me with learning how to enter rodeos and where you need be on which nights,” he says. “Those are the things that make it so difficult to be a rookie out here. Every guy out here can ride or rope, but it’s the business stuff that we have to learn when we get here.”
Jared grew up heading for his younger brother and would like to someday pick up a rope in PRCA competition. But with diesel fuel at an all-time high, he’s content to live the life of a rough-stock cowboy for the time being.
“I guess some day when I’m old and crippled, I can team rope instead of riding bucking horses,” he says. “Maybe fuel costs will have come down and I’ll be able to afford to haul a horse around the country. But for now, I’ve sent all my rope horses back to Florida for my dad and brother.”
An economics major in college, Hunter Cure is described by his traveling partners as “the tightest bark on the tree.” But give the 24-year-old Texas Tech graduate a break—he’s got a wife back home to support.
Hunter, who took up bulldogging when he was 14 years old, has some work to do to earn his first trip to Las Vegas. But the cowboy has been steadily plugging along all season and should no doubt improve on his 24th-place finish in the 2007 world standings.
“Every season has its highs and lows, but steady is good,” he says. “Making the NFR was my goal last year, but I just didn’t get the breaks I needed. So that’s the goal again this year.”
In Dodge City, Kansas, in early August, Hunter finally got one break. He qualified for his first short round of the season, an amazing accomplishment considering he was ranked in the top 15 at the time.
“I guess I’ve just been winning at the wrong rodeos,” he admits. “I was asking myself all year if I was going to make one, and finally, eight months later, I managed to do it. I guess you could say I’ve been short-round deprived.”
Hunter travels with fellow Texan Jack Hodges and rides his two horses.
“I’ve got them both reserved for the national finals,” he says. “Now, I just need to do my part and get the invite.”
Married for two years now, Hunter says he’s lucky to have a wife who understands the rodeo lifestyle. He’s also got plans to own a ranch later in life.
“But as long as I can make a living out here on the road,” he adds, “I’m going to stay with this rodeo thing.”
At 24 years old, Adam Gray is relatively old to be a PRCA rookie. His main competition in the tie-down-roping rookie race, for instance, is 18-year-old Tuf Cooper. But there’s a reason Adam is somewhat of a late bloomer in rodeo: engineering.
“I mainly went to college to rodeo,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, but since I was good in math and science, they talked me into majoring in civil engineering. Once I got into it and found out how hard it was, I was too stubborn to quit. Five years later I have a civil engineering degree.”
Adam could be holding down a “regular job” and pulling in big bucks in his degree field, but his dream of making the NFR was too strong. So he spent 2008 riding the highs and lows of professional rodeo. Riding a horse he spent his college years seasoning, Adam hopes to hear his name called next month in Las Vegas. At press time, he was locked in a tight battle among a handful of competitors for the final five slots in the tie-down roping field.
“I had some bad breaks this summer,” he says. “I came back high call at Cheyenne and only had to be 18 seconds to win. I roped my calf around the neck and my rope broke. Things like that just don’t happen.”
As is the case with rookies and rodeo veterans alike, Adam realizes making the NFR is the only way to really make money in rodeo.
“Rodeoing full-time has been a lot different than I thought it would be,” he says. “If money wasn’t a concern, it would be a great life. But you’ve got to keep winning to stay out here. I think the toughest part for me is the downtime—especially when things aren’t going good.”
Kaleb Asay was starting colts when he was 6 years old. Through the years, the lanky Wyoming cowboy grew out of a lot of things, but saddle-bronc riding wasn’t one of them.
“I’ve always watched the bronc riding,” he says. “My dad rode bulls and my brother rides bulls, but I always liked the bronc riding. There’s just nothing like the feeling of riding a good bucking horse.”
Kaleb gained much of his confidence while riding young horses at the Cody (Wyoming) Nite Rodeo. He went on to win two Wyoming High School Rodeo Association titles in bronc riding, and during his junior year claimed the national championship in high-school rodeo. He won three of the four rodeos he entered as a member of the Casper College rodeo team, but dropped out after just one semester.
“I couldn’t stand sitting in a classroom when I could be out riding a horse somewhere,” he admits.
These days, Kaleb is encouraged when he sees names such as Billy Etbauer and Rod Hay on the daysheet next to his.
“Riding against these guys, I treat every horse like it’s the 10th round of the NFR and the world championship is on the line,” he says. “I’ve grown up watching and idolizing some of these guys, and I want to prove that I belong here with them.”
Kaleb hoped to follow in his brother’s footsteps and qualify for the NFR in 2008. Kanin Asay competed in the bull riding there in 2007. But the NFR will have to wait at least one more year for Kaleb. Despite that, he feels he’s benefited greatly from his Wyoming home. Living in the state, he’s grown up riding young horses from some of PRCA’S best stock contractors, including Hal Burns, Hank Franzen and Ike Sankey.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Isaac Diaz. He’s struggled at times to keep his head in the game, and yet finds himself in contention for his second consecutive NFR berth as the season winds down.
A win in St. Paul, Oregon, helped him right the ship over the Independence Day holiday week and earned him valuable tour points that will help in his quest.
“My year started off pretty good and then went south for a while,” Isaac says. “I felt like I couldn’t get my head right, and when I did draw good I was just falling off. But it’s been better since the 4th of July.”
Getting used to different arenas has been one obstacle for the Florida cowboy who now has a place outside Stephenville, Texas. Arena quirks such as the trees inside the arena in St. Paul have taken some getting used to.
“I had a horse jump a tree there once,” he recalls. “St. Paul was my biggest win this year. My first year, I thought the St. Paul rodeo was in Minnesota. If it hadn’t been for my traveling partner, I’d have been wandering around Minnesota trying to find the rodeo.”
Now that he sports a flashy champion buckle from the rodeo, it’s safe to assume Isaac knows the event actually takes place in the Pacific Northwest. The cowboy sets weekly goals in addition to yearlong quests such as qualifying for the NFR and the tour finalés.
In addition to riding bucking horses, Isaac hopes to someday raise them.
“I don’t know about being a full-time stock contractor and dealing with all those headaches,” he says. “But I’d like to raise young horses and maybe just sell them to the other guys when they’re ready to rodeo.”
Joel Allen Bach
Team Roping Header
Joel Allen Bach has the long, lanky look of his dad, four-time world champion Allen Bach. He’s also inherited his dad’s roping skills, although he’s chosen to ply his trade at the heading end (his dad is a heeler). That means the two might even rope together in PRCA competition in the future.
But for now, they are simply traveling partners along with their respective roping partners (Paul Eaves and Speed Williams). Joel has traveled the country with his dad in the past and spent the 2007 season hitting many of the big open and amateur events in Texas to prepare for his rookie season. With the 2008 heading rookie title in the bag, Joel has set his sights on catching the guys in the top 15.
“My dad will be roping in Las Vegas, and I hope to be there, too,” he says. “I’m sure he’s rooting for both of us to get there.”
Bach says the biggest problem following in his father’s footsteps is that many expect him to be just as good as his more-experienced dad.
“There’s some added pressure from that,” he says. “But I expect more from myself than anyone, so it’s not a big deal.”
Making the NFR might be out of reach for Joel in 2008, but he’s spent much of the year in the top 25 of the world standings and figures to continue to improve. He’s also experienced that success while dealing with the temporary loss of his top horse during the lucrative summer run.
“We originally bought Rex for my little brother, but he was too much horse for him,” Joel says. “So I started practicing on him. We did everything we could to ruin him—ran way too many steers on him—and he just got really good almost overnight.”
Team Roping Heeler
Realizing that getting to the NFR can be a two-year deal for many cowboys today, Rhen Richard hoped to use the 2008 season to get qualified for the building rodeos in 2009. And with any luck, that would be a springboard to the NFR.
But things went a little better than planned for the Utah roper. Heeling for Oklahoma veteran Nick Sartain, he’s climbed into the top 20 at times this year and had a good chance to qualify for his first NFR a year earlier than planned. Rhen just graduated from high school in May, and even competed at the high-school finals this year during a short break from pro rodeos.
“Now, I’m just trying to stick it out and see if I can get to Las Vegas this year,” he says. “Things weren’t working out with my first partner, and I’m pretty good friends with Matt Sherwood. He helped me hook up with Nick, and it’s worked out great so far.
“I’d always hoped to be in this situation earlier in my career. Nick’s a great fit with me, and it helps that he’s been around for a while and knows the ropes.”
Rhen describes himself as a catcher who’s pretty reliable when it comes to picking up the hind feet on a steer.
“My partner likes to go pretty fast, though,” he says. “So we can be good in a one-header or an average roping.”
A calf roper also, Rhen is tying down calves mainly at circuit rodeos while he concentrates on getting to the NFR in team roping.
“We had a 10-day stretch where we won $26,000, so we’ve had some good runs this year,” he says. “I just want to do whatever I can to get us both to the NFR.”
Greenwell Springs, Louisiana
Fans had best enjoy Janna Jarreau’s presence on the rodeo trail while they can. Along with her parents, the Louisiana cowgirl committed to making a run at the NFR in 2008.
But if things don’t work out this time, she might be limited to rodeos in her circuit the rest of her career.
“We decided I’d try to make the NFR one time and then go have a normal life,” Janna says. “My dad’s not going to pay for me to do this forever.”
Janna recently graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in resource management and plans to pursue her masters in business administration.
“I’ve been in the top 20 the last couple of years despite going to school,” she says. “And I had a couple of bad breaks that got in the way of making the NFR. I just think it would be so awesome to make the NFR. I know my horse would be tough in that building.”
Janna’s main horse is Comet, an 11-year-old gelding with a small stride that’s well suited to indoor arenas. She can also ride 14-year-old Lulu in the bigger pens.
“I don’t ever plan to quit all the way, but I probably won’t go as hard in the years to come,” Janna says. “There are only a handful of people who are actually making money out here. If you go full-time and don’t make the NFR, then you’re in the hole.”
Of course, if Janna makes the NFR this year, there’s always hope her parents will get caught up in the excitement of it all and help her make another NFR run in 2009.
“I’m really hoping this year is my year to get there,” she says. “After that, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Mount Pleasant, Texas
Maegan Reichert is the only one of our 13 rising stars who has already seen her name in the Las Vegas lights. She qualified for her first NFR in 2007 and finished the year in sixth place overall. And she did it despite having to study for her college finals while competing at the Thomas and Mack Center.
A college senior majoring in kinesiology, Maegan has plans to continue her education and pursue a master’s degree.
The Texas cowgirl has competed in amateur and open events since she was 8 years old. She then made the leap to Women’s Professional Rodeo Association competition and hasn’t looked back. Now 22 years of age, she says there’s a good chance she’ll always be juggling rodeo with college or a career.
“Now that I’ve made the NFR once, I’m just going to see what happens,” she says. “I still have to pick and choose when and where I go, so that makes it tough to compete for a world championship. But school will pay off in the long run. Once I’m done with my masters, I might have a year or two to go rodeo full-time. But most likely I’ll always be juggling two things at once.”
Maegan’s biggest advice to NFR rookies is to take care of their horses.
“Without your horse, you won’t be winning anything,” she says. “A lot of people get so caught up in trying to make the NFR that they sacrifice their horses’ health. They are going to need those horses when they get to Las Vegas.”
As for her goals in 2008, Maegan simply hoped to qualify for the tour finalé event in Dallas, Texas, this month.
“I’d really like to make it there so all my family could be there,” she says. “I thought I’d made it there last year and got knocked out at Puyallup [Washington].”
A broken pelvis put Douglas Duncan in the hole just as his PRCA career was set to begin. He’d just turned 18 when the injury occurred at an open bull riding in Del Rio, Texas.
The injury set him back two years, and at age 21 he’s just completing his rookie season.
Douglas set two goals after filling his permit and buying his professional card for the 2008 season: win the rookie title and qualify for the NFR. He’d just about wrapped up the first goal by the end of the summer run (topping traveling partner Stormy Wing) and was nearly guaranteed of accomplishing the second by then, as well.
“My goals have changed a little as the season has gone along, but my main goal every day is just to ride every bull I get on,” Douglas says. “I truly believe the guy who rides the most bulls will be the champion when it’s all said and done.”
Douglas got a true introduction to the difference between professional and amateur rodeo earlier this season in Laramie, Wyoming. He’d drawn a young bull that he described as “cute, with no horns and didn’t look mean or anything.” The ride on Hal Burns’ bull turned into one of the wildest he’s faced all season.
“I nodded my head and he piled me up so fast and just drilled me,” Douglas says. “That sucker bucked. But at this level, you’ve got to expect to get on a good bull every time.”
Like many in this story, Douglas has dreamed about the day he’ll hear his name called at the NFR in Las Vegas.
“Just thinking about it the other day gave me goosebumps,” he says. “There’s nothing in life I want more right now than to come riding out of those yellow bucking chutes.”
Rock Springs, Wyoming
Seth Glause might provide rough-stock cowboys with their best chance to bring the all-around crown back to their end of the arena. Only timed-event hands have claimed the title since Ty Murray won his record seventh all-around in 1998.
Seth and fellow rough-stock hand Stephen Dent were the only non-ropers to spend much of the season in the PRCA’s all-around standings top 10. And both are relatively young cowboys who should only get better with time.
It’s odd to hear Seth talk about 2008 being his “best year” when considering that it’s only his second as a full-fledged PRCA member. A win in Waco, Texas, in 2007 qualified him for many of the PRCA’s top winter events this season, and helped get his year off on the right foot.
In addition to riding bulls, Seth climbs on saddle broncs at many rodeos.
“I really enjoy riding broncs, so I hope I can excel at it one of these days,” he says. “But right now, the bull riding is the stronger event for me. I’m still trying to learn some things in both events so I can continue to improve.”
As for the all-around, well, it’s a nice thought, but for the time being other goals are more important.
“The goal for everybody out here is to make the NFR,” Seth says. “I’m still trying to make sure I obtain that goal. I wanted to win the circuit this year, too. But I’m mostly just trying to focus on riding good. If I can do that, the winning will take care of itself.
“It would be neat to have a rough-stock guy win the all-around again. But that’s one goal that might have to wait a while.”
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.