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Monday, June 20, 2011

Astride Rodeo's Professional and Amateur Worlds

Benjamin Carson of Utah Valley University working on a takedown in the N.C.F.R. steer-wrestling event.
Astride Rodeo's Professional and Amateur Worlds
CASPER, Wyo. — JR Vezain leads a double life that many young athletes might envy. A top contender to be the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s rookie of the year, he also recently completed his freshman year as a full-time college student on an athletic scholarship.

On Saturday night, while competing for Texas’ Vernon College, Vezain rode four bucking horses long enough and well enough to win the bareback riding competition at the College National Finals Rodeo.

That earned the 19-year-old Vezain $3,261.20, according to C.N.F.R. payout sheets, and he is ranked 12th among P.R.C.A. money winners in his event. The notion of collegiate athletes being paid for competing is anathema to the N.C.A.A., the organization in charge of the majority of athletics on that level. But the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, which oversees the sport outside the purview of the N.C.A.A., has sanctioned prize money since competition began on the collegiate level in 1949.

Those financial rewards stand in stark contrast to the N.C.A.A.’s rules for most collegiate sports, which prohibit athletes from receiving any extra benefits — financial or otherwise — because of their amateur status. Those who are caught doing so pay a high price, as recent cases involving the football teams from Southern California and Ohio State have shown.

Vezain need not concern himself with such regulations. The valedictorian of his class at Rocky Mountain High School in Byron, Wyo., he was a two-time state wrestling champion and a national champion in high school rodeo. However, he may not have gone to Vernon, a two-year college in Texas, if the opportunity to make money was not there. Unlike basketball stars like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, who went to the N.B.A. directly out of high school, Vezain did not have to make the choice between attending college and being a professional.

Instead of skipping college to turn pro, he moved into a dormitory last fall.

“I never planned to go to college,” he said. “I just wanted to rodeo. Our coach told me it was easy to pro rodeo out of Vernon.”

Of the roughly 100 colleges that compete in rodeo, none take part in more than 10 rodeos a year before the finals. However, Vezain and other top collegiate riders can buy permits to compete on the P.R.C.A. circuit and travel to dozens of professional rodeos around the country.

“Our students may have a college rodeo one weekend and a professional rodeo the next weekend,” said Roger Walters, commissioner of NIRA and a former rodeo coach at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Tex. “Or they may be up in a college rodeo on Friday and a professional rodeo on Thursday.”

College rodeo was started by veterans of World War II, according to Sylvia Mahoney, a former rodeo coach at New Mexico Community College in Hobbs, N.M., and the author of “College Rodeo: From Show to Sport.”

“At that time, the G.I. Bill was the only scholarship for a rodeo cowboy,” she said.

Many had competed on the Rodeo Cowboy Association circuit before going to war, Mahoney said. The R.C.A. later became the P.R.C.A. When the veterans formed NIRA to organize rodeo as a college sport, they did not want to give up the professional circuit.

An agreement was reached that allowed NIRA members to compete in R.C.A. events. At the time, NIRA had no age restriction for competitors, since many veterans were older than other students, Mahoney said.

NIRA now requires that rodeo athletes use their four years of college eligibility within six years of finishing high school.

A few students have played N.C.A.A. sports and competed in college rodeo. Cole Cameron, who took his mother’s maiden name, Graybill, when he played football at Arizona and Texas A&M, used up four years of N.C.A.A. eligibility as an undergraduate.

Now a graduate student in communications at Texas A&M, he has two more years of eligibility under NIRA rules. A former linebacker, he qualified for the finals in steer wrestling, an event in which competitors leap from a running horse, grab a steer by the horns and force its back to the ground.“It’s more laid back in NIRA,” said Cameron, who now uses the name of his stepfather, Craig Cameron, a horse trainer. “The N.C.A.A. and NIRA want the same things, but the football program watches you more closely.”

Said Mike True, whose Montana State team won the women’s title here:

“I’m glad I don’t have to function under the N.C.A.A. regulations. They’re very complicated. You almost have to be a big enough program to have someone who keeps up with that stuff full time.”

Like most coaches, True encourages his top performers to compete at pro events. When one of his top steer wrestlers, Ty Erickson, failed to make Saturday’s final, True let him leave to attend a pro rodeo in Belt, Mont., on Sunday.

Bobby Scott, the rodeo coach at Vernon, excused Vezain from a college meet in April to attend the National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City.

“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Scott. “We had so much depth on our team that we could do without him for a weekend. We won our region by 1,300 points.”

Two-year and four-year colleges go head to head in competition, and many community colleges beat their four-year competitors, Walters said.

Unlike college football or basketball players, rodeo athletes pay many of their own expenses. Instead of catching a ride on the team bus, athletes are responsible for getting themselves to and from events.

Students who compete in timed events such as calf roping, barrel racing and steer wrestling, drive their own pickup trucks while towing their own horse trailers.

They pay to board and feed their horses and wear their own gear, from hat to saddle to spurs. The college typically provides just a vest with the college’s name and colors.

If the athletes appear on the rodeo grounds without wearing a long-sleeve shirt, a cowboy hat and the vest, NIRA fines them, Walters said.

Jacobs and Sterling Crawley, brothers who compete in saddle bronc riding — Jacobs for Texas A&M and Sterling for Hill College — travel with their gear in an ambulance they converted into a tack room and home away from home.

“I’m getting a college degree,” Jacobs Crawley said. “I hope I never have to use the degree. I want to retire a rodeo cowboy.”

Other students who rodeo professionally during the summer see the sport primarily as a way to pay for their education.

“I love rodeo,” said Brittany Grant, who picked up a check when she finished fourth in the barrel racing competition for Sam Houston State and also competes in professional rodeos. “But this is a really good time to get a good job. I want to do public accounting. If I don’t like it, maybe I’ll take a couple of years off and rodeo again.”

Vezain has a long list of rodeos he plans to compete in as the pro season hits high gear in the summer.

Vezain’s goal is to pile up enough points to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in November. But classes will start in August, before the summer pro rodeo season ends.

“I have a 4.0 in college this year,” Vezain said. “I build saddles and train colts, so I want to have a degree to learn how to run my business and market myself. But now I want to rodeo. Maybe when I’m 35 I’ll quit and make saddles full time.”

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