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NPR Commentator John Ridley Goes to the National Finals Rodeo

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photo gallery View a gallery of photos from the National Finals Rodeo.

Winner's saddle

One of the prizes awaiting the barrel racing champion: an ornate, hand-tooled saddle.
Photo: Molly Peterson, NPR

photo gallery View the photo gallery.

Dec. 21, 2001 -- Morning Edition Commentator John Ridley loves Las Vegas, from the high rollers drinking highballs at the high-stakes gambling tables at the casinos, to the lights of the Luxor Hotel, to the nightly shows featuring Wayne Newton and Siegfried and Roy. But come December, the National Finals Rodeo profoundly transforms his town.

Itís called the "Super Bowl of Rodeos" and it has that kind of economic impact: an estimated 42,000 cowboys bring $30 million in non-gambling revenue to Las Vegas during the 10 days of the event.

And as John Ridley saw at the Gold Coast Hotel, where they present the trophy belt buckles and winnerís checks each night, cowboys like to gamble, too.

Top cowboys can make six figures a year, but they rack up plenty of costs during the year too: traveling costs, emotional costs and physical costs.

About the Pro Rodeo Circuit

• Rodeo season starts in January. For 50 weeks, cowboys crisscross the country competing.

• The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association sponsors close to 700 rodeos a year, and sometimes a cowboy will hit two or three rodeos in a weekend to rake in the prizes.

• The moneyís important, because at the end of the year, only the top 15 money winners have a shot at the big NFR prizes -- including gold belt buckles and ornate, hand-tooled leather saddles.

• At the National Finals, there are seven events. Three of them are roughstock events, where a rider tries to stay on a horse or bull until the buzzer goes off -- and get style points in the process.

• Three are timed events, where cowboys comepete to wrestle a steer to the ground or rope a calf the fastest.

• Cowgirls compete too -- racing horses around a cloverleaf of barrels without knocking them down.

Some bring animals in trailers all year, and their wives and children in the summer months. Like Bobby Hurley, whoís a former world champion team roper. Heís 37, and he says itís getting harder to look his kids in the eye and tell them heíll be gone 200 days this year.

Or four young bucks will share a truck and more wild times on the road. One of them might be "Pistol" Pete Hawkins, who broke his back two years ago and came back to compete on the bareback broncos, or broncs.

He says rodeos are like a drug to him, and if he ever found anything else that made him feel this way, he might take that up too.

Dr. Tandy Freeman is an orthopedic surgeon who says treating the cowboys is like his small-town practice. He says rodeo participants have gone off the charts in pain tolerance, up there with hockey players and stock car drivers.

Outside the Las Vegas convention center

Tending horses outside the Thomas and Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Photo: Molly Peterson, NPR

Twenty-five years ago, he says, rodeo medicine wasnít much more than whiskey and a bullet to bite down on, remedies of the Civil War era.

So why do they do it? For most, itís the life they were raised with, the life of their fathers and grandfathers before. Like bull rider Jesse Bail, who roped and rode with his grandfather in South Dakota and dreamed of getting to these finals as a kid.

But country western singer Chris LeDoux might have said it best in his songs. He won the bareback bronc championship at the National Finals Rodeo in 1976.

When cowboys canít find the words to explain why they do what they do, they borrow his: "Iíd gladly take 10 seconds in the saddle for a lifetime of watching in the stands."

Search for more NPR features about cowboys.

Other Resources

• Official Web site for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association.