SI's High School Athlete of the Month is Wyatt Johnson, a junior from Spring Lake, Utah (Payson HS) who competes in bareback and bull riding rodeos.
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It was the second night of the Rocky Mountain Professional Rodeo Association’s Winter Rodeo Series event at the Golden Spike indoor arena in Ogden, Utah, and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” played over the sound system as Wyatt Johnson put on his cowboy boots in a makeshift locker room hidden from the crowds behind the chutes at the far end of the ring.
By far the smallest competitor in the room, and certainly the only high-schooler among the men on the night’s roster, Wyatt clocked in at 5’ 3”, 130 pounds.
The Payson (Utah) High junior had drawn Corona in the bareback bucking bronc competition for the evening, a roan mare that he had won a round on at the Intermountain Icebreaker high school invitational two weeks before.
After “The Star Spangled Banner,” a prayer and a performance from the rodeo clown, the bull riders kicked things off, busting out of the gates on 1,800-pound bulls. The crowd roared as the beasts bucked off their riders, one by one. Next up, the barebacks.
“Okay Wyatt,” said Broken Heart Rodeo Company stock contractor Ben German, as the pint-sized cowboy settled onto his horse. Wyatt nodded three times in quick succession and the gate swung open. Freed from the chutes, the bucking bronc did what she does best. Corona jumped into the air, all four hooves off the ground, before kicking her hind legs out in a flourish. On the third buck, Wyatt’s white straw cowboy hat went flying off.
“Toes! Toes! Toes!” Wyatt’s stepdad, Boedee Hopes, shouted, reminding Wyatt to keep his toes turned out, an important style factor that judges look for in awarding points to riders. Wyatt and Corona charted a course to the right before looping around and veering down the opposite side of the ring, when the eight-second buzzer went off. All in all, the horse bucked 16 times before the pickup-men galloped up alongside Wyatt to scoop him off his mount. But Wyatt wasn’t able to hold on to his rescuers and hit the dirt with a somersault before popping up and giving two fist-pumps in the air to the delight of the cheering crowd.
The two judges liked his ride, too. In bareback, and all rough stock rodeo events, riders who hang on for eight seconds earn up to 50 points for their form and 50 for the animal’s. The meaner the animal’s kick, the better the score. And between Corona’s convincing impression of a jackhammer and Wyatt’s spurring, the pair earned 76 points, good enough for third place and $163.20 in prize money, more than breaking even on the $50 entry fee.
The winner, Morgan Heaton, would ride True Grit for 83 points and a $326.40 payday. Second place, with 80 points, went to Ethan McNeill on a bronc named Moose Milk, for $244.80. Both men are in their 20’s and are members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, the highest paying rodeo association in the world, whose premier event is the National Finals Rodeo, thought of as the Super Bowl of rodeo events.
“Everybody there was 10 or 12 years older,” observed Boedee, who also competed that night in the saddle bronc competition but got bucked off on a bronc named Comanche Moon. “I love that, you got all these guys and then you got little five-foot nothing Wyatt stepping up in the middle of everything and riding bucking horses.”
It was just over two years ago that Wyatt first tried bareback, a rodeo discipline that’s like being in an eight-second game of crack-the-whip—and you’re always the end of the whip.
In that short time, he has won a Utah High School Rodeo Association bareback state title, along with 30 high school rodeo event first-place buckles, and taken in earnings that put him at fifth overall in the professional RMPRA standings last year, including a third-place finish in the pro association finals in November, all while maintaining a 3.0 grade point average, volunteering at mock-rodeos for special needs kids and holding down an after-school job and racking up a list of rodeo injuries that include a broken jaw and a minor, teensy-weensy bull trampling. It’s all been worth it.
“Having a good ride is probably the greatest feeling in the world,” Wyatt says. “It’s like a football game and you win the championship, but it’s just you that won.”
Wyatt, 16, is the oldest of a blended family of five kids. His half-brothers, Cole and Guil Johnston and his stepdad’s kids, Hunter and Kennedy Hopes fill out the clan.
Wyatt and Guil, age 12, live in Spring Lake, Utah, with their mother, PattiJo, a college dance instructor and a performer in a Salt Lake City-based dance company, and Boedee, a mechanic. When Cole, 14, who lives primarily with his dad, and Hunter, 11, who lives with his mom and little sister, stay over at the Hopes compound—often camping outside with Guil in a camper shell they have stuffed with pillows and dubbed The Man Cave—the Spring Lake population reaches 460. There are no stoplights in town and on a recent drive to Wyatt’s high school in his buddy’s pickup, the most traffic they encountered was a couple of ducks waddling in the middle of the road. The town’s biggest claim to fame: It is the final burial place of the 19th century Utes Indian chief, Black Hawk.
“It’s real quiet, peaceful,” Hopes says. “I kind of consider it Americana, because the boys can go out and play and they get on their bikes and go down to the lake and fish. We tell ’em, When the street lights come on, just come home.”
Hopes grew up on a ranch with 100 horses. His grandfather, Don Hopes, rode bulls and was president of the Utah High School Rodeo Association during the 1970’s, and his father, Doug, used to ride saddle bronc and bareback horses and now judges at competitions. His mom raised racehorses, his aunts all did barrel racing and his uncle competed in every rough stock category. “I’ve probably been to a rodeo every weekend my whole life,” Hopes says.
Hopes continued to compete at rodeos into adulthood and when he met PattiJo, hanging out at rodeos became her boys’ weekend pursuit as well. At many of the rodeos that Hopes competed at, the stock contractor would have an old tame bull that sometimes gave rides to younger kids. At one event, with PattiJo at the concession stand, Hopes scooped up her boys and sat them on one such an animal.
“I knew when she walked around the corner—I didn’t even see her but I could hear her yelling because I had all three boys, Wyatt, Cole and Guil on the back of this bull walking around,” he says with a chuckle. “She let out a squeal pretty good. She wasn’t too happy with me. But she came over and I got her in the pen with us and she realized [the bull] was just a pup.”
That was Wyatt’s first time on a bull and soon he was behind the chutes, taking everything in and helping out where he could as Hopes’s tiny assistant. One day, Hopes signed Wyatt up for a junior rodeo calf riding competition. “I gave him a little old calf rope I had from when I was riding calves and steers and put him on it and gave him a glove,” he says. “He’d seen and been around it enough but it was one of those trials by fire.” In his first competition, Wyatt won the first-prize buckle. “It was fun to see him do it and get into it like he did that quick,” Hopes remembers.
Wyatt was hooked. For his birthday that year, Wyatt asked for his own bull rope and soon graduated to full-sized bulls.
Hopes now helps to coach the South Utah County Rodeo Team that Wyatt competes on, along with about 35 other riders, helping with the rough stock at monthly practices. And every weekend when rodeo is on, which is basically every weekend in Utah except the month of October, when hunting season is in full swing, he and Wyatt are on the road in his Chevy pickup, a couple of fresh pressed pearl-button cowboy shirts swinging from a hook and a stack of 10-gallon straw hats resting on the backseat.
For Wyatt, competing in rodeo isn’t about keeping some abstract romantic notion of the American West alive. It’s a very real ode to the stepdad he thinks of as his father, and to the extended family that has taken him and his brothers and mother under their wing. “I think I’m keeping a family tradition alive because I’m like another Hopes, like my step-dad,” Wyatt says. “I’m keeping that tradition of rodeo moving on.”
There are three rough stock disciplines in rodeo: Bull riding, saddle bronc riding, and bareback bronc riding. Bull riding is thought to be the most dangerous—bulls are big, fierce animals that will chase you but a bucking bull is less explosive than a bronc. Saddle bronc is the quintessential picture-postcard event conjured up when most people imagine rodeo, and the saddle and stirrups afford the rider some measure of control over the power. But bareback is arguably the roughest on your body. The punishingly chaotic event beats you up, jerks you around and spits you out. “You’re just pretty much putting your arm in a train and getting dragged around,” explains Wyatt’s friend and high school teammate Rustin Cloward, who competes in team-roping and calf-roping. “Bareback riders are crazy.”
Because of Wyatt’s small stature, his body takes more of a beating than bigger guys. He lifts weights to build strength, running laps between sets to keep up his endurance.
But his so-called size disadvantage may have actually helped him to excel in the bareback event. As physically demanding as the event is, it also requires mental toughness. Riders must be possessed of a certain mindset that blends fearlessness, grit, tenacity and a stubborn refusal to be discouraged.
But when the humans around you are telling you no, as well, it takes real dedication and drive not to just give up and hang up your spurs.
“People have told me that I wasn’t big enough,” Wyatt says. “And that motivated me to do better because I wanted for them to know that everybody has a chance, no matter how big or small. It just made me want to push forward.”
One day during a high school competition in Wyatt’s freshman year, Hopes noticed that there was only a handful competitors signed up in the bareback category.
“We figured if he just got on and could hold on eight seconds, he could go to states in that too,” Hopes says.
It wasn’t as easy as all that. On one of his very first bareback rides, Wyatt fell off to the left of the horse, the opposite side of his gripping hand. In such a position, it’s for a rider to be released from his biding and he can get dragged around by the horse—“getting hung up” in rodeo parlance. Somehow though, Wyatt scrambled back onto the horse, but found himself facing backwards towards the animal’s rear end, to onlookers’ amusement.
In his first high school bareback competition, he rode a horse called Painted Money, a big, powerful animal that had only been ridden five or six times. Wyatt got bucked off right before the buzzer. “When he came back [from his ride], his eyes were the size of silver dollars,” Hopes says.
Toward the end of last year’s high school season, only his second riding barebacks, Wyatt was sitting at the bottom of the standings with six rodeos left in the season. He asked Boedee what he had to do to make it to states. “I just told him, if this is what you want then you’re going to have to just toughen up and go at it,” Hopes says. “It was almost like he decided, ‘All right,’ and he just gritted his teeth and started riding horses like a madman. He almost turned untouchable in bareback.”
Wyatt won five of the remaining six events to qualify for states and then swept every go-round there, despite having his riding arm stepped on by a bull on the second day of the four-day competition.
He had to compete in barebacks the next day. He won the round.
“He just walked away with it,” Boedee recalls. Wyatt finished in the top 10 of the bull riding competition as well.
“I'm proud of what I could do," Wyatt told the local newspaper after winning the glittering state champion belt buckle he still proudly wears. "I'm glad I could be as consistent as I was. It was all about putting the heart and try into it."
Wyatt has made a foray into the professional level as well, competing for a year and a half in the Rocky Mountain Professional Rodeo Association, a 700-member plus strong organization that competes throughout Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Last year, Wyatt took third place in the RMPRA finals with 83 points in two rounds and finished fifth in the RMPRA overall bareback standings for 2014 with a total of $2,448.79 in earnings.
Along the way he earned the nickname, Wild Man, a moniker that is embroidered on his rodeo bag.
He has also earned more than a few injuries over the years. He broke his jaw bull riding in seventh grade. He once burst all the blood vessels in his riding hand when it got twisted in his bareback rigging. There was that bull that stepped on him at last year’s state finals. Whiplash is an occupational hazard. And he has done more than a few backflips off his horse in which he did not exactly stick the landing.
Riders wear mouth guards to protect themselves from the teeth-rattling thrashings that their horses and bulls dish out. Many also wear protective vests. On the high school and college circuits, it’s mandatory to wear a helmet. Bumps and bruises are a given. Broken collarbones, arms, legs and separated shoulders are not uncommon. But the number one risk is that you can get killed.
“It’s just something we know but it’s not really ever talked about or thought about but it’s a factor in any extreme sport,” Hopes says.
“I block out the fear—I just don’t think about it,” Wyatt says. “You don’t think about getting hurt. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t think about it. Like in football, when you’re playing, you’re probably going to get hurt but you don’t think about it, you just think about winning and having fun. And it’s the same thing with rodeo. If you do think about it, that’s when you start getting in trouble and start to get scared when you get on.”
As a dancer, PattiJo appreciates the grace and beauty in the sport. “But,” she says, “I also have the fear of what could happen, and I have to push that in the back of my mind so that I don’t let that anxiety and fear take over.”
What keeps Wyatt—and all cowboys—coming back despite the risk is simple: It’s a passion. “Life without rodeo would be crazy to me,” he says. “I wouldn’t be who or what I am today if it wasn’t for rodeo.”
Earlier that day at the Golden Spike, before Wyatt’s in-the-money ride on Corona, long before the crowd shuffled into the arena to watch the pros under the lights, another smaller rodeo was held in the clay dirt ring. Instead of beer-swilling crowds, the onlookers were parents with their cell phone cameras held aloft. Instead of prize money, a stack of cowboy hats, a pile of bandanas and a folding table full of trophies sat waiting, off to the side.
And instead of live horses and bulls, a menagerie of simple, mechanical horses and bulls made from barrels on springs, covered in furry fabric with ears and eyes sewn on, were offloaded from a trailer that read Rocky Mountain Exception Rodeo.
Gene Wood and his wife, Renee, founded the rodeo for special needs kids, based out of Pocatello, Idaho, 43 years ago. Their events are held for girls and boys with physical and cognitive disabilities, in conjunction with weekend pro competitions. Volunteer cowboys and cowgirls, often from the high school level, help each child through the “events.”
“I started this event to let the children enjoy the spirit of being with the contestants and bullfighters and queens and it just seemed like a never-ending blessing,” Wood says. “My heart has always been in rodeo-ing and I wanted these children to enjoy it.”
Danielle White was there with her grandson Broden Allen, a three-year-old born with spina bifida. White and her husband raise bucking bulls and Broden has grown up around rodeo animals his whole life. He and his older brother, Jackson, each have a competitive bull named after them—a bull called Action Jackson and Broden’s namesake is B Tuff; Broden’s given name is Broden Tuff Allen.
“We figured he was going to have to be a pretty tough little boy to go through life,” says his mother, Maegen Allen.
Broden, who walks with braces, lives for the exceptional rodeo events. “Last night he kept saying, ‘Tomorrow, I get to rodeo,’” Danielle said.
It’s the one activity that is truly his.
“I’ve tried to get Broden into stuff right now but there are so many restrictions,” Maegen says. “He can’t do everything his brother does, like soccer, baseball, T-ball. It takes a special person who has a big heart to think of all these kids because not everyone thinks of them.”
Wyatt knows what it’s like to be told you can’t do things because of physical limitations. At the bucking bull station, he helped Boden take a ride on the rocking horse-like contraption covered in fuzzy gray fabric to look like a real bull.
Wyatt, who plans to continue with rodeo into college and dreams of one day competing full-time as a professional in the PRCA, looked like he was having as much fun as Boden who lifted both his hands in the air as the bull reared back.
“It feels good to express what we do for other people who can’t physically do it,” Wyatt says. “It makes me feel grateful and humble.”
“Rodeo has taught me a lot,” he continued. “It’s taught me the drive and it’s taught me to do what you love. Just keep moving, no matter what happens, if you’re doing good or bad—just keep going.”