SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – It was late December last year when J.W. Harris was getting his bull rope ready at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas when the thought crossed his mind.
The fire that had always driven Harris to strive to be the best in the business wasn’t there anymore.
“That fire started to dim last year at the NFR,” Harris said. “I wasn’t excited about being there. I was ready to go home. This is my ninth year here and I have seen everything. I was over it. I was like that is not a good thing.
“It was almost to a point that I was thinking of being done. I was like, ‘If you can’t get pumped up for the NFR, maybe it is time.’”
Harris finished 4-for-10 and packed up his things and headed home to Texas.
The four-time PRCA champion and 2014 PBR Rookie of the Year quickly shook off the thought of retirement and reminded himself he was too young and still had something left in the tank.
After a few weekends that drive was once again there in time for the start of the 2015 Built Ford Tough Series.
He went on to finish in the Top-10 of five of the first eight BFTS events, and he won his first career event in Kansas City, Missouri.
Harris was fired up, driven and in hot pursuit of becoming a PBR World Champion contender.
He finished second in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, two weeks later and then fifth in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Harris was quickly evolving into one of the PBR’s top contenders and was sitting a career-best fourth in the world standings.
“I did good and I was like, ‘Alright, I am back and I got this figured out,’ Harris said in Bowie, Texas, earlier this month. “Then you have a few bad spells and you think, ‘Here we go again.’
“You get inside your head and you think all this stuff is happening again.”
The 29-year-old would only place in the Top 10 of a BFTS event twice in the next five months.
He sits in second at the PFI Invitational, presented by Bass Pro Shops, following his 87.5-point ride on Legacy Friday night.
“That was just exactly what I needed,” Harris said. “He just kicked right around the left and all I had to do was sit there and not think.”
Four days with PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert, two-time World Champion Justin McBride, Ring of Honor inductee Jerome Robinson and a slew of other bull riding legends and active riders during the filming for the BlueDEF Bucking Madness reality show a week-and-half ago may have just been the flint lacking in Harris’ arsenal to bring back his competitive fire.
Harris, who served as one of the coaches for the 10 contestants, was able to spend the majority of the week thinking bull riding prior to the Thackerville, Oklahoma, BFTS event.
“Everyone is talking about bull riding and you realize you haven’t forgotten what you know,” Harris said. “It just lit that fire back. It brings you back to day one and that fire was going full blast. That was all you cared about and thought about. You ate, slept and breathed bull riding.”
During the camp, Lambert pulled Harris aside to offer him some advice.
“Lambert kind of pointed some things out to me that he felt like was causing some problems with me,” Harris said. “He explained it to me that it happens to every bull rider in his career.”
Harris explained that Lambert talked to him about finding a balance for his bull riding career with trying to be a good husband, father and man around the house. Harris and his wife, Jackie, also have been spending plenty of time working on the house they are building on 108 acres in Goldthwaite, Texas.
Throughout the camp, Harris jokingly commented to the contestants that he spends too much time thinking about cabinets instead of bull riding during the week.
“I have so much going on,” Harris said. “I am a dad and a husband. I have two great kids (Aubrey and Dillon) and my wife is awesome. I got those things at home. Some people want to call them a distraction; to me they are not a distraction. It is an awesome thing. We have so much going on at home that I don’t have time to think about bull riding. For me, this was a refresher for me to step back into bull riding and just soak it up.”
Lambert mentioned during last week’s “Road to Vegas” telecast on CBS Sports Network that his No. 1 focus in the latter part of his career was being a good husband and father.
He understands it can be a struggle for some riders, and Harris is not the first to mention such struggles.
“I rode for the love of the game, but my situation with my wife and my son was way more important to me than the gold buckle or any of that kind of stuff was,” Lambert said. “I could not stay focused enough on the riding part of it. I was focused on making a living for my family and doing it in a job where I loved my job second to my family.”
Nine-time World Champion Ty Murray has mentioned multiple times before that he purposely didn’t start a family until after his riding career was over.
Still, it isn’t impossible to find success.
“It is more me. It is not that the house or being married or having kids is a distraction to me that I can’t perform,” Harris said. “Me and Jackie got married in 2009. I won three more gold buckles after that. I know it is not her. I know it is not my kids. I know it is not the house or being home. I just let some things get in front of bull riding. My family comes first.”
Good friend Nathan Schaper, another coach at Bucking Madness, brought up how Harris is adjusting to the PBR schedule.
Schaper explained this is the first year Harris has not been rodeoing. Therefore, he has to get used to the PBR lifestyle where BFTS riders only compete on the weekends and do not have to go to bull ridings throughout the week.
“This is different for him,” Schaper said. “I am guilty of it. I get a week home sometimes and, honestly, I don’t think about bull riding at all. Then I get here on the weekends and I try and transform my mind and body to do this all of a sudden and that is bad. If you are thinking about it during the week and it is automatic and you don’t have to be thinking about it anymore.”
There is no golden solution.
For now, Harris says he needs to just try and think about bull riding whenever he has a few minutes during the week.
Whether it is on the back of a tractor or while driving to Home Depot or Bed Bath and Beyond, he needs to make sure his head remains in the game.
Professional bull riding is too tough to think you can just show up and be dominant.
“That is the hardest thing to do – flip the switch,” Harris said. “You go all weekend and you haven’t thought about it. You show up and you have to flip that switch and it is automatically bull riding. That is mentally draining. You drain yourself so mentally just thinking about it that you almost wear yourself out physically trying to get bull riding on your mind. You just have to make time for it during the week.”
Harris faces Cowboy Soul (0-0, BFTS) on Saturday night in Round 2. He will be the first out of the evening inside JQH Arena at 8 p.m. ET.
Many, such as Lambert, McBride and Robinson, feel Harris will end the season strongly following Boot Camp in Bowie.
He may have finished 0-for-2 in Thackerville, but Harris’ Friday night ride in Springfield may be the beginning of a strong push to Finals, where it is expected Harris will be a contender for the World Finals event title.
“I think we had our motors running too much last week,” Harris said. “That is an easy thing to do. Going to that school, I just had everything going and was trying to make it happen instead of going out there and letting it happen.
“We are on the right track now.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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