Each year the Super Bowl of rodeo gets bigger, and professional ropers and riders and their legion of hard-partying fans roll into Las Vegas in search of record jackpots in a sport where winners are measured in hundredths of a second and losers are likely to get stomped by a 1,500-pound bull.
I saw the fourth go-round Sunday night. About the time former Las Vegas blackjack dealer-turned-country music star Lee Greenwood nailed “Proud To Be An American” at the Las Vegas Thomas & Mack Center, I knew it would be a special evening. It was Patriot Night, and thousands of American flags fluttered inside the jammed arena.
But every night is Patriot Night at the rodeo. The cheering for America’s military troops flows faster than even the whiskey at the Jack Daniel’s concession. And that’s saying a great deal, for rodeo fans have to rank among the world’s biggest partiers.
No wonder the casino bosses, who pay the entry fees and comp the rooms for the athletes each year, love the NFR so much. Last year, in the middle of a recession, the NFR generated $51.6 million in nongaming revenue in southern Nevada, a portion of which wound up in the state’s coffers. Fact is, the NFR saves December for Las Vegas.
Rodeo has its roots in Western ranch life, and so do its modern practitioners. In the late 1970s, a young bull rider named Bobby DelVecchio won some events and qualified for the National Finals, but I’ll wager he made his biggest headlines because he was born and raised in the Bronx.
For those who rope calves and ride the broncs, home is usually somewhere far outside the big-city lights. It’s that way with Nevada’s two National Finals qualifiers, team ropers Jade Corkill of Fallon and Cody Hintz of Spring Creek near Elko. Both are heelers, meaning it’s their job to seal the deal by lassoing both hind legs of the calf after a partner has roped the head and turned the animal as it zips across the arena.
For Corkill, the NFR is something special — even the third time around. He’s amassed more than $500,000 in lifetime winnings and entered the 2010 NFR third in the world standings. Corkill is only 23, which means that with a little luck he has a long career ahead of him. (Calf roper Fred Whitfield is the grand old man of this year’s NFR at age 43.)
Hintz, meanwhile, is a sage and seasoned 26. Born in Paulsbo, Wash., he was a rodeo star at Elko High and with heading partner Ty Blasingame set a record in Salt Lake City with a blistering 3.4-second time. (To give you an idea, that time would place near the top of the NFR standings on any night of the event, which ends Sunday.)
Hintz qualified 15th in team roping, the last slot on the NFR roster, and that made him a lottery long shot to win a title. But for professional rodeo athletes, that’s the beauty of the lucrative NFR. A few good nights and he could double his winnings for the year.
Both young men are on their way to catching Randon Adams, the Logandale resident who has qualified for four NFRs and has amassed more than $610,000 in career earnings. He’s a veritable ancient mariner at age 28 and didn’t qualify for this year’s finals.
This year, it’s Corkill and Hintz’ turn to shine.
From the look of their performances, Nevada’s new rodeo kings will need to get used to the city lights.
John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.