FORT WORTH, Texas ― When rookie Reese Cates walked into the Built Ford Tough Series locker room for the first time in Duluth, Ga., Brian Canter proudly introduced his friend to two-time World Champion Chris Shivers.
It was December 2007 and Canter wanted to brag about the 19-year-old from Eldorado, Ark.
“This is Reese. He’s made it up here with us.”
When Canter was finished, the no-nonsense veteran looked at the baby-faced newcomer and said, “Well, getting here is one thing.”
It was a rather intimidating first impression for the rookie.
However, now in his seventh season, Cates agrees.
“There’s a lot of truth to that and those were some words of wisdom,” he said. “Making it here and staying here are two completely different things. You’re riding against the very best guys on the very best bulls each and every night. Yeah, it can be intimidating.”
Therein lays the biggest transition to the elite level of professional bull riding.
For first timers, who are still essentially kids, keeping from being cut or staying ranked high enough to be eligible for the next BFTS event without having to go back-and-forth between that and the Touring Pro Division can oftentimes be more difficult than earning your way there in the first place.
It’s the first time that many of them are competing against guys, who not necessarily in their own age bracket.
“I think it’s that way in any sport,” said two-time World Champion Justin McBride, who in recent years has transitioned to television, where he regularly works as an analyst alongside Craig Hummer.
Kids are always within a three-year range of athletes their own age.
Prior to turning pro, a bull rider – or any athlete in their respective sport – is matched up with other kids within a few years of their age.
For instance, young boys and girls are under 6 when they begin mutton bustin’ and then from 6 to 9 years old they’re on calves before advancing to steers from 10 to 12. However, in the past five or six years, some 5 to 12 year olds will start out on mini-bulls based on weight classes.
Then they move on to junior bulls from 13 to 15 and eventually senior bulls from 16 to 18 before turning pro at 18 years old.
As professionals, young 18-, 19- and even 20-year-old rookies are competing against men, who sometimes have 10 to 12 years of experience at the elite level of competition.
Ryan Dirteater was 18 when he made his BFTS debut.
“I walked in the locker room and seen Adriano Moraes and Justin McBride and Chris Shivers,” he recalled. “That’s overwhelming.”
“When you leave college or wherever you came from to go into the pros, you’re no longer going to compete in a sport where there are kids having fun doing it and trying to win a trophy,” McBride said. “You’re messing with guy’s livelihood. You’re competing against grown men, who make their living doing this. This is how Guilherme Marchi makes his living. He loves to do it and, yeah, he wants to win buckles, but this is how he makes his living.”
Dirteater added, “It opened my eyes up, but then I have to tell myself I earned that spot and this is my chance to prove to myself and the whole world what I’ve got.”
The whole experience can sometimes become overwhelming.
While a rookie or relative newcomer has spent his entire life working toward and dreaming of that moment they are called for their first BFTS event or, better yet, like Tanner Byrne, 21, this past weekend, secure themselves a spot in the draw as someone other than an alternate, they’re facing veterans who have been in every type of situation imaginable.
Most agree that once they’re in the locker room and behind the chutes it’s as if they have to prove to themselves they belong.
It’s precisely why competing at a professional or at an elite level is considered by most as being 90 percent mental.
By then athletes who have advanced to that level have already displayed the physical attributes of competing as a professional, but what separates them is the ability to compartmentalize the pressure of competing against the best athletes in the world in each respective sport.
“When you’re sitting out and wanting to get in at that age, you say in your mind you can ride these bulls and be there,” said Dirteater, who won his first BFTS event in Dallas early in his second season. “But when you’re entered up with them it’s a different feeling. You not only have to prove to them, but you have to prove to yourself that you can ride with them and ride with the best.”
Chase Outlaw says the mental aspect can be seen in the world standings.
“The mental aspect really separates first and second in the world from 15th,” Outlaw said. “You can’t let anything get to you—not one thing. You can’t let one thing get to your head and not change one thing.
“You got here doing what you do.”
Omar Minaya, senior VP of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres, is former general manager for both the Montreal Expos and the New York Mets. He’s been a talent evaluator his entire career in the front offices of various Major League Baseball teams after a short-lived career in the minors as a player.
His first job was in the scouting department for the Texas Rangers.
Minaya is an avid fan of the PBR and attended his first BFTS event in January 2008.
“You can have talent, but besides talent you (have) to be able to make adjustments along the way,” said Minaya. “In baseball, it’s not only about how you throw, run and hit. Same thing with bull riding, it’s not only about your skills, but it’s also about how you adjust.”
Minaya also said, “Those who are the most talented, they find a way to adjust. … It could be baseball, football or basketball and you could be talented, but the talent – in all sports – what separates them is this drive to be the best and they’ll find a way to get it done.”
It’s about having a winning mentality.
“I think being a pro at something means showing up and being ready to win every weekend,” McBride said. “I think that’s what separates guys and it’s that way in any sport. It’s the guy who can show up and do it every weekend. You don’t know for sure how you stayed on him, but now the next weekend it starts all over and you have to do the exact same thing again and that happens every week on the PBR tour.”
At BFTS events it’s not enough to simply win every once in a while. According to McBride, sustained success comes to those who are focused on winning every week.
Unfortunately, there are those who seemingly disappear almost as quickly as they arrive.
Two somewhat recent examples would be Nick Landreneau and Chance Roberts.
Landreneau made his debut in 2005 before reemerging three years later. He won a 2008 event in Sacramento, Calif and finished the season with seven Top-10 finishes before struggling through the 2009 campaign when he placed in the Top 10 just three times.
Four years ago, he bucked off Real Western in the opening round of a BFTS event in Albuquerque, N.M. The next morning, he drafted Shepherd Hills Trapper for Round 2, but never got on him.
In fact, he’s never gotten on another bull since.
The Louisiana native went back to his hotel room, backed up his belongings, got in his car, drove home and has never been seen at another PBR event since.
The year Landreneau made his unceremonious exit, Roberts made his debut.
In two partial seasons, he had three Top-10 finishes and after back-to-back injuries he retired. The Jewett, Ill., native, who had proved himself impressive at TPD events, was only 20 years old.
Others, like Travis Briscoe and Ryan McConnel experience success and then drift back in the standings only to never be heard from again or find a way to compete at BFTS events every now and then.
Briscoe, 26, won three BFTS events in a four-week span in 2008, but has only finished in the Top 15 of the world standings twice in his career and has not been to a BFTS event since 2012.
McConnel went from being ranked 53rd in the world to a three-year stretch in the Top 10 – 2009 through 2011 – and since then hasn’t finished any better than 30th.
“It’s a battle getting here and just kind of settling down and maturing,” said Dirteater, who sustained a series of injuries that sidelined his promising career for the first few seasons.
Last fall, Matt Triplett made a late-season surge to qualify for the World Finals.
“When you get here it’s a little different than going to a Touring Pro,” Triplett said. “You have guys like J.B. Mauney and Guilherme Marchi, Silvano Alves – all the top hands – so you have to just not let that get to your head and just go on with it like a normal bull riding.”
Outlaw was adamant in saying, “I wouldn’t say it’s difficult.”
He added, “Yeah, the bulls are a step up from the Touring Pros, but, heck, there (isn’t) room for one inch of error here. Not even a centimeter. Sometimes I stub my toe and get bucked off, but I don’t let it get to me. I’m still here. I try not to think of it as any different because then I’d think about it too much.”
Outlaw was 19 when he won the third BFTS event he rode at.
It was at Houston’s Reliant Stadium – a week after Shivers announced 2012 would be his last – and the Arkansas native, who grew up with Cates, took quite a beating in the second round after riding Too Sexy for 84 points, but it was enough for the win. He would go on to lose the Rookie of the Year title to Emilio Resende in a race that went down to the wire.
The disappointment didn’t faze Outlaw, who pointed out that Resende was five years older than him “and had more experience.”
In fact, Outlaw, who is still only 21, had just started riding calves when Shivers began his legendary career with the PBR.
This year Gage Gay, 19, has emerged as a rookie to watch.
“I don’t know this kid, but I’d love to meet him,” Minaya said.
He knocked off three past World Champions – Mike Lee (2004), J.B. Mauney (2013) and Marchi (2008) – at the Dr Pepper Iron Cowboy V and nearly earned himself a $50,000 payday with a $1 million shot at Bushwacker.
But his second-place finish and the $25,000 payout certainly earned him the respect of the top riders in the world.
“A guy’s rookie year—he’s on his honeymoon,” McBride said. “Everything’s great, you’re excited to be there, there (are) no expectations for you—it’s fun. You’re able to win and you’re at the level that you feel like you should be at. I guarantee you J.B. Mauney and Guilherme Marchi—these are guys Gage Gay has watched and looked up to and now he’s here competing against them and knows he can beat them. The second and third year is really when you see what they’re made of when people start expecting things.”
Popular rookies oftentimes go from being a wonderful kid, who can do no wrong, to being questioned why he did one thing or another. There are eventually media commitments and sponsor obligations, especially if they displayed the promise of a Top 10 season.
According to Dirteater, it becomes important for riders – young and old – to clear their minds, relax, learn to breathe, remain focused and then go get their job done regardless of who they’re up against.
“At this level, you have to believe in yourself each and every ride – no matter how bad or good things are going – because ultimately you have to turn it around,” Cates said.
The desire to win and compete at the PBR’s highest-level must remain.
“You have to remember how you got here and that fire you once had,” Dirteater said. “You can’t let it go out. You have to keep it lit – staying hungry – because there are young kids like Gage Guy coming up, who are hungry and they’ll take your spot.”
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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