PUEBLO, Colo. – By the time Reese Cates was receiving his diploma from Parkers Chapel High School in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 2006, the talented 18-year-old was already a well-decorated and successful bull rider.
Cates had won three consecutive Arkansas High School Rodeo Association bull riding titles, the North American Bull Rider Riders championship in 2006 and finished fourth at the National High School Finals Rodeo during his senior year.
In other words, it seemed as if Cates was on a path to future success.
A 2008 PBR Rookie of the Year title only solidified the belief that Cates had a bright, up-and-coming future inside the sport’s marquee organization.
Cates went 6-for-8 during the 2008 World Finals, including two rides marked better than 90 points, and concluded that season 11th in the world standings.
However, success became harder to find following his strong rookie campaign, and there was no way in that moment inside the Thomas & Mack Center in 2008 that Cates would believe he would only finish inside the Top 35 of the world standings once (32nd, 2011) in the next six seasons.
More importantly, there was no way he would be prepared for the rash of injuries that would begin to plague him, cut short his seasons and hinder his opportunities to remain on the BFTS.
“Whenever I won Rookie of the Year, I think I became complacent,” Cates admitted following his first career BFTS victory this past weekend in Baltimore. “Then injuries, upon injuries, upon injuries have kind of worn me down and beat me up.”
Just last year alone, Cates missed six months following shoulder reconstruction surgery after he dislocated his right shoulder at the BFTS event in Phoenix. At the time of the injury, Cates was ranked 26th in the world and appeared to be on pace for his best finish since his rookie season.
It was a tough pill to swallow, and then things only became more frustrating when he injured his groin in his first BFTS event back from surgery in August at the Jack Daniel’s Invitational in Nashville, Tennessee. He missed two more BFTS events, before riding Love Doctor for 83 points in Oakland, California, in his final BFTS event of 2014.
It was the latest season in which freak injuries played a role in Cates’ struggles. He first injured the groin in 2009 and it plagued him ever since. In 2013, he sustained three fractured ribs and a collapsed lung after getting on a practice pen bull during the summer break that ended his season.
Cates turns 26 next Monday and has already undergone five different surgeries.
“At first, whenever I got hurt last year, I was kind of taking it as a curse and after a few weeks sitting home and feeling sorry for myself I realized it was an opportunity to work on the mental side of bull riding. Bull riding is 90 percent mental, especially at this level, if you are healthy,”
Cates took advantage of his first opportunity in 2015. He used one of his injury exemptions to compete in the Baltimore Invitational and he rode all three of his bulls to win the event average and Round 2 to earn the overall event victory with 540 event points.
All three bulls that Cates covered changed directions on him mid-ride, and he handled the curve balls with relative ease. He won Round 2 with 88.5 points on KISS Animalize and he clinched the event average title by riding Percolator for 86.5 points.
He covered Blues Man for 85.5 points in Round 1.
Nine-time World Champion Ty Murray said that is a sign of mental strength and confidence when a bull rider is able to handle the changes in directions as well as Cates had done in Baltimore.
“Reese has pretty much struggled a lot since I have known him,” Murray said. “Those were three really good rides this weekend and all three bulls went in both directions. He looked more confident than I have seen him in a long time and with that confidence comes an aggressiveness I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Cates didn’t want to get inside his own mind to much, but he knew he couldn’t afford to have a slipup this past weekend if he hopes to earn enough points to crack the Top 35 of the world standings before his exemptions run out.
Hence, Cates had to be somewhat aggressive during the season-opener.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind, but ultimately that is thinking a little too far ahead,” he said. “I am just trying to take it one bull at a time and it is working out.”
Chase Outlaw said he was proud to see his childhood pal and travel partner finally get the monkey off his back and earn his first career victory. He has watched Cates go through the ups and downs that come with trying to overcome his string of injuries.
When healthy, Outlaw knows Cates has what it takes to compete on the BFTS.
“I remember him being hurt since I first got on tour and that was four years ago,” Outlaw said. “Man, I am just tickled to death. I can’t ask for anything better. We are about pretty much like brothers and to have him come win – shoot, he needed it because he didn’t have many injury exemptions. He had to put up or shutup.”
Outlaw added that, to him, the past couple of years were truly the hardest of Cates professional career.
He could see how it affected his friend outside of the arena.
“I could see how it affected him. It does it to everybody,” Outlaw said. “It was weighing on him so much just being hurt all the time. It will get to you (to the) point where you don’t even want to go because you know you will get hurt.
“A lot of people just give up and go to working. That shows you (his) heart. He never quit. He knew what he wanted to do and he is pretty damn good at it.”
Kasey Hayes, who finished second to Cates with 400 event points, said he also couldn’t be happier for Cates.
“Man, I am so excited for Reese because we are good friends,” Hayes said as Cates walked up the shark cage to accept his event-winning belt buckle. “He rides good and has been through a lot of injuries that have kind of held him back and hasn’t really let him perform to his pinnacle. He is a great bull rider and is really fundamentally sound.”
Cates said he always knew he could compete with the Top 35 bull riders in the world once he made his BFTS debut in 2008. Yet, he admits that as the injuries began to pile up and he began to struggle to be the best of the best that his confidence did begin to waver some.
“Well, I wasn’t always positive through all of that,” Cates admitted. “As a kid growing up through high school rodeo and some amateur semipro events, I was always the best kid there and so I always had fans and people always believed in me and supported me, but whenever you get to this level, the other 34 guys that are at this event are just as capable of winning as you are.”
He then added, “It is a huge adjustment because no longer are you the superstar. You are putting the rope up in the locker room beside the guys who have been your heroes throughout your whole career and you expect to go play with them and go beat them and ride just as well as they do.”
Looking forward to Chicago, Cates will enter the Chicago Invitational on Saturday night as the No. 1 bull rider in the world.
Cates went 2-for-3 to finish ninth last season in Chicago. He will have two more injury exemptions left to use in New York and Oklahoma City as he makes his push to stay on the BFTS full time following his 54th finish in the world standings last year.
It is why he doesn’t want to enjoy his first BFTS victory too much. Instead, Cates knows there is still plenty of work to be done.
“It hasn’t really sunk in and, to be completely honest with you, I hope that it doesn’t because I want to keep this rolling,” he said. “This is over with. I am done with Baltimore and am ready to go to Chicago.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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