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Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Updated: August 13, 1:19 PM ET
Rodeo athletes cowboy up

By Jeff Miller
Special to ESPNRISE.com

Chase Outlaw plays running back and strong safety. He also plays baseball for Hector (Ark.) High. And he's the best high school bull rider in the country.

Chase Outlaw
Chase Outlaw is a thrid-generation rodeo cowboy.

Outlaw, a junior, won the 2008-09 National High School Rodeo Association finals held in July in Farmington, N.M.

Outlaw, 17, thought briefly when asked which is the tougher sport: football or rodeo.

"Probably rodeo," he said. "In football, you've got people there to help you out. In rodeo, it's all you."

Actually, there are others involved. They're just not people.

And that's part of why Jessie Kirkes, the NHSRA cowgirl all-around champion, cited rodeo as the tougher sport.

"You're going against animals," said Kirkes, who recently graduated from Carlsbad (N.M.) High School. "They're that much more unpredictable. You have to be able to react a lot faster.

"You don't have the luxury of blaming your faults on your teammates, and you can't really blame them on the animals."

Kirkes, 18, gave up volleyball after junior high because it cut into her rodeo time. And she can compare rodeo to football somewhat since she played flag football with the boys for two years.

Rodeo competitions consist of multiple events, similar to a track meet or gymnastics competition. Kirkes usually competes in pole bending (riding a horse through a maze of poles), team roping (two competitors on horseback racing after a calf) and goat tying (riding to where a goat is roped to a stake, then tying the goat's hooves).

Jessie Kirkes
Jessie Kirkes competes in pole bending, team roping and goat tying.

Cowgirls don't compete in what are considered the dangerous events in the sport, like steer wrestling and bull riding, but Kirkes still has a few souvenirs from her toughest days tangling with goats.

"I've had busted lips. I've got bruises on my arms," said Kirkes, who is headed to Eastern New Mexico University. "You can get kicked in the face. Other times, they jump at you.

"Depending on the goat that you have, it gets crazy."

Riley Duvall, 17, of Checotah, Okla., repeated as the NHSRA champion in steer wrestling. That hasn't been done since the early 1960s.

"It's not as bad as people think," Duvall said. "I've never gotten seriously hurt. I broke my arm playing football."

A.J. Fuchs, the all-around cowboy winner from Teton Village, Wyo., said he's on a first-name basis with local emergency room personnel. But that's mostly because of mishaps that have occurred outside of rodeo, like a car accident or the time he lost his grip while swinging on a rope in a barn and dropped 12 feet onto a concrete floor and broke his wrist.

Pressed to identify a rodeo injury, he confessed, "I've had my bell rung. And I got my roping thumb caught once and broke it in eight places."

Most of the events in rodeo end quickly. Roping and most of the riding events are over in seconds. In a way, rodeo competitors must focus in much the same way as a track sprinter or a vaulter in gymnastics.

Duvall RIley
Riley Duvall became the first repeat champion in steer wrestling since the early '60s.

"When I'm in the box, the steer or the calf is the only thing I have on my mind," said Fuchs, 18. "Not what the crowd is doing or what anybody's saying about me or what a nice horse the kid before me had."

Outlaw agrees: "You don't think of anything when you're in the buckin' chute. Your mind just sort of goes blank."

Bull riding features only so much strategy. The chute opens, and the rodeo cowboy hangs on for dear life.

"The hardest part is probably the mental game," Outlaw said. "Confidence, I guess. You've just got to think highly of yourself."

The most successful rodeo cowboys and cowgirls practice hours each day, whether it's working on their riding or trying to perfect a specific skill like roping. Many will also fit in a mainstream workout that includes weightlifting and running.

"I try to practice every event every day," Kirkes said. "Unless I'm gone or I'm giving my horses a break, I'm outside practicing. Just like Kobe Bryant is working on his stuff."

Fuchs said he spends hours roping a dummy to improve his muscle memory and will also lift weights to improve his roping.

"I can't throw it any harder," he said, "but I can throw more accurate."

A.J. Fuchs
Cowboy all-around champion A.J. Fuchs once broke his thumb in eight places because of rodeo.

Fuchs, who is headed for Central Arizona College, was home-schooled through most of his education, but he participated in the rodeo club at nearby Jackson Hole (Wyo.) High. He is an experienced skier but curtailed his time on the slopes to devote as much time to rodeo as possible. When he does ski, he usually heads off the most frequently used trails and chooses a run that isn't accessible by lift.

Much of the training involving young rodeo competitors comes not from formal coaches like in other individual sports like tennis or golf. It often comes from dads and uncles and grandpas, because many of the kids are second- or third-generation cowboys and cowgirls. And they live on farms or ranches with the facilities necessary for frequent practicing.

Duvall's great uncle is Roy Duvall, who qualified for a record 21 straight National Finals Rodeos in steer wrestling from the mid-1960s into the mid-'80s and is a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Hall of Fame.

Kirkes, whose father and uncle are active in the sport, said she started competing at age 6 or 7.

Outlaw is a third-generation bull rider who lives about 25 minutes north of Hector over the mountains in the little town of Tilly, Ark. He said he started bull riding with the T-ball version, riding a calf, when he was 4.

Outlaw's mother, Rhonda, said she is more concerned for her son's safety when he puts on the helmet and pads.

"He gets hit more often," she said. "He's gotten hurt more often playing football -- his knees, his back. In bull riding, other than a concussion, when he gets bucked off he knows how to fall the right way. He's been riding since he was little, so he usually lands on his feet."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.