By: Justin Felisko July 04, 2014@ 09:00:00 AM
PUEBLO, Colo. – Tanner Byrne insists he wasn’t thinking about the $100,000 he was attempting to ride for last year at the Calgary Stampede when he settled himself onto Pop Evil during the final round of one of the most prestigious rodeos in the world.
The Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, bull rider, relatively unknown to PBR fans in the United States at the time, was looking to cap off a late-week comeback that saw him ride three consecutive bulls to give him an opportunity at the cold, hard cash.
Right before he nodded his head, 2012 Calgary Stampede bull riding champion and longtime family friend and travel partner Chad Besplug told his young buddy to simply enjoy the moment.
With the 123,000 in attendance staring down at him, Byrne nodded his head for the gate and the bovine exploded out of the chute with every intention of bucking off the 6-foot-4 bull rider. Pop Evil then turned back into Byrne’s right-hand within the initial three seconds and the young rider pulled his knees up before finally hearing the buzzer signal the 8-second mark.
He thought he had done it, Byrne recalls. That’s when the idea of $100,000 felt so good. He used the same hand that carried him to the 8-second mark to aggressively throw his helmet into the air and then slapped his hands together in anticipation of hearing his score.
Unfortunately for Byrne, the 90.5-point score the judges awarded him simply was not enough. J.B. Mauney’s 91.5-point ride on Bombs Away was just a tad bit better.
The Canadian rider ended up finishing second overall and had nearly earned the biggest win of his bull riding career at the young age of 21.
“As soon as I hit the ground, obviously, I was pretty fired up,” Byrne said this week prior to the start of the 102nd Calgary Stampede. “I thought I was going to get the win. Just that feeling in itself of looking up at the thousands and thousands of people and to be 90-plus points is always a good thing.
“When it is at the Calgary Stampede, it is even better. It is something I will never forget. That is for sure.”
Byrne’s performance at the 2013 Calgary Stampede was a predecessor of things to come. The confidence of nearly downing the eventual PBR World Champion and riding alongside the likes of J.W. Harris, Valdiron de Oliveira and Mike Lee was just a healthy reminder that he had what it took to compete at the next level.
Sure enough, Byrne ended up qualifying for the Built Ford Tough Series this year and is currently second in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award, after competing in the final nine events of the first half.
“My breakout was kind of here last year,” Byrne said. “The whole experience was crazy and hopefully we can do it again this year, but it is something I will never forget. It kind of really got my name out there and everyone started paying attention after that.”
It wasn’t just in the United States that bull riding fans began to take notice of this unknown tall bull rider with the bright red hair. Even people near his hometown of Prince Albert caught wind of his performance and started following his efforts on television.
On Friday, Byrne kicks off his pursuit of where he left off last year when Pool A begins competition at the Calgary Stampede. Other contestants scheduled to ride in Pool A include Claudio Crisostomo, Marco Eguchi, Chase Outlaw, Tyler Smith, Dakota Buttar, Josh Koschel, Scott Schiffner, Wesley Silcox and Besplug.
The 102nd Calgary Stampede kicks off Friday.
Byrne, who took some time off following The Last Cowboy Standing because of a bone chip in his right knee, is off to good start in Calgary, too, after winning the 15th annual Ranchman’s Renegades Smithbilt Charity Bullbustin’ on Wednesday night with 175 points.
Pool B of the Calgary Stampede will kick off on Tuesday, and features Mauney, L.J. Jenkins, Mike Lee, Cody Nance, Joao Ricardo Vieira, Shane Proctor, Zane Lambert, Tanner Girletz, Cooper Davis and Jory Markiss.
The top four riders who earn the most amount of money in each pool will advance to Showdown Sunday on July 13. The remaining riders will then compete on Wild Card Saturday, July 12, for the last two remaining spots in the draw for Showdown Sunday.
While some were surprised by Byrne’s sudden surge, Besplug, who rodeoed alongside Tanner’s brother Jesse in high school, said it wasn’t too surprising to him. Tanner used to ask Besplug to help him get on steers when Besplug was competing in the PBR. Once Tanner turned pro, the two started traveling together and did so for the last three years, before Byrne qualified for the BFTS.
In their short time together, Besplug came away impressed by Byrne’s development. Every year, he felt like he was watching a completely new bull rider emerge. Therefore, 2013 was simply another example of Byrne continuing his development into a contender.
“I have never seen anybody improve as fast as him,” Besplug said. “He was always going for first, which is why I have loved watching him ride ever since the beginning.”
Besplug believes Byrne is looking more comfortable as a bull rider than in years past – growing into his body, you could say. He has noticed him pulling his knees up a little higher than earlier in his career, as well as Byrne being able to control bulls’ different reactions a little cleaner.
“Mostly, when he was younger, you knew he had a lot of ability, but his riding style was pretty wild,” Besplug said. “He is extremely athletic and he can tell when something isn’t working and he can change it.”
Last year wasn’t the first time Byrne found success at the Calgary Stampede. In 2005, a 13-year-old Byrne won the junior steer riding competition. He was awarded a handmade bull riding bronze that sits in his parents’ home in Prince Albert, next to the vest that Justin McBride gave him as a kid.
The steer riding championship was one of many memories that Byrne has had over the years in Calgary. He remembers watching his father, brother and cousin compete as bullfighters at the historic rodeo – Jesse will be there once again this year – while also watching the likes of Justin Volz and Brian Canter win Stampede bull riding titles.
Clearly, it was a different experience being in the stands versus looking up at them like he was last year.
“I remember all of the big moments, kind of being here watching those guys and seeing what it did for their careers, so it was a pretty cool deal to follow my dream and be a part of it,” Byrne said.
He made his own lasting impressions last year. After starting the week 0-for-3, Byrne responded by riding Drive By for 84.5 points to conclude Pool A action. He then rose to the occasion on Wild Card Saturday by earning 86.5 points on Burn it to the Ground to make it to Championship Sunday.
He wasn’t done though.
Byrne then covered South Side Fade for 88 points to be one of the final four riders to compete for the $100,000.
“This was my first real big event, so there were a lot of nerves going into it,” Byrne said. “It was pretty crazy. Just making the final four here is huge, so that was a pretty big deal. I just kind of went into it trying to not think about where I was at or what I was doing.”
Besplug believes coming so close last year, if anything, just made Byrne that much more driven.
“That, if more than anything, pissed him off a little bit, finishing second there as great as it was,” Besplug believes. “I am sure that pissed him off a little bit and he will be hungry to win that thing.”
Byrne’s parents, as well as his fiancée, Meghan, and her family, will all be in Calgary for the next 10 days camping out at the rodeo grounds hoping their son can get another opportunity to duplicate his success from a year ago.
“It has been around for so many years,” Byrne said. “We know that if you can have a Calgary Stampede championship beside your name, you have done something good.
“That just fires me up. I want to go win it now this year.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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