PUEBLO, Colo. – The plan has always been the same ever since L.J. Jenkins bought his Porum, Oklahoma, ranch in the late 2000s.
Jenkins knew that when the time was right, he was going to hang up his bull rope for good, and turn his attention toward the stock contracting business.
It may have arrived a little sooner than he expected, but that time has come.
Jenkins announced Tuesday that he is retiring from the sport of professional bull riding.
The 28-year-old, and 11-year Built Ford Tough Series veteran, admitted that his decision to retire is a result of the neck fracture (C-1) that he sustained in Nampa, Idaho, attempting to ride Strong Heart.
“If I wanted to just retire, I would wait until the end of the season. This was unexpected,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want to say I was forced to retire, but I don’t know how else to say it.”
Jenkins knew at the time of the injury that a return to bull riding was pretty bleak. He didn’t understand at first what a C-1 fracture meant, but when he was told that it was the same injury Paulo Crimber sustained, he began to comprehend the severity of the fracture.
He was able to avoid surgery, and he was told by doctors on Monday that he made a full recovery.
However, any future in bull riding was out of the question if he didn’t want to risk the possibility of becoming paralyzed in the future.
Once Jenkins heard those words Monday, Jenkins knew the time was right to retire.
“Even though I would tell everybody, ‘yeah I am ready to retire.’ I thought I had another three or four years that I would keep riding,” Jenkins said. “Then this happened and it was the reality of, ‘Hey I am done. Yeah, it was emotional for a while. I can say I am about ready to retire, but then when it is thrown at you when you don’t actually want to retire; it was pretty hard on me.”
Jenkins retires as the 24th-ranked bull rider in the world standings. He had ridden 15-of-41 bulls on the Built Ford Tough Series this season and had posted six Top-10 finishes, including a second-place performance in Seattle.
Coincidentally, Jenkins (174 points) actually beat out Crimber (172.5) for his first-career Touring Pro Division victory almost 11 years ago when he won his PBR debut event in Gillette, Wyoming, on July 17, 2005.
“One of my favorite moments, as it will be 11 years to the day next Friday on my birthday, (was) when I got into my first PBR Challenge in Gillette, Wyoming, and I was still a high school kid,” Jenkins said. “I went up and rode against all of the big-time names and I actually walked away and won that event. That was probably one my biggest moments.”
It was the beginning of a bright future for the 18-year-old from Springfield, Missouri. He made his Built Ford Tough Series debut two months later in Pueblo, Colorado – the first of 248 BFTS events.
Jenkins concludes his career with 320 BFTS qualified rides, 19 90-point rides and seven career wins. He also qualified for the Built Ford Tough World Finals 10 consecutive seasons.
From annoying kid to dominant peer
Not only was Gillette Jenkins’ first-career PBR event and win, it was also the first time he got to compete professionally alongside fellow Missouri bull rider Luke Snyder.
Jenkins spent much of his childhood in Missouri over at Snyder’s house in Lee Summit. It was there that Jenkins was the “little annoying kid” running around trying to catch the heels of his older brother, Dustin, and Snyder.
“Those were the two guys, I look up to more than anything,” L.J. Jenkins said. “Even though I was that young kid with those little steer riders, I still wanted to hang out. I didn’t care. It was awesome just to be able to ride against those guys whenever I did.”
Snyder, who is three years older than Jenkins, remembers first meeting the younger Jenkins at a youth rodeo in Missouri. He also remembers all the times he, Dustin and their buddies would pull practical pranks on their little sidekick.
“He was just a lot younger than us at first, so we were always picking on him pretty good and throwing all the practical jokes on him and pranking him,” Snyder said. “We would do everything from sticking his hand in warm water to get him to wet the bed to rolling him up in the rug and get him all claustrophobic. We pulled everything we could on him. Then as he got older, he just became one of the peers and became a dominant force and a buddy of mine. He was always that little kid that was always hanging around and then he became a good friend.”
A force Jenkins was, and like his idol Snyder, Jenkins made a major impact early on his career.
In just his second season on the BFTS, Jenkins went 6-for-8 to win the 2006 World Finals event average.
The 19-year-old began the weekend with two 90-point rides – 90 points on Black Smoke and 90.75 pints on Sir Patrick – and clinched the victory with a 92.75-point ride on Red One.
“Winning the World Finals in 2006 was probably one of my biggest achievements you could say,” Jenkins said. “I think I went in sitting second or third in the average, and I knew I had to ride him. At the time, Red One was one of the best to have, so I was stoked to have him. To start the weekend, I still remember when I was sitting down there and I looked at the computer and looked at the draw and saw that I had Black Smoke, Sir Patrick and Red Alert and I was mad. I was like, ‘Man, I am not going to do no good at this year’s Finals. To start with a 90 on Black Smoke and I kept it rolling. It turned out to be the best Finals I ever had.”
Snyder, who will be inducted into the PBR Ring of Honor this October, was 18 years old when he won the World Finals event average and is the only rookie to win the PBR’s marquee event.
They are two of 17 riders to win the World Finals event average.
“Throughout the history of the PBR, there are only a handful of guys that will ever know that feeling,” Snyder said. “It is just like a world title. That can only happen to one guy a year. Guys can have several shots at winning regular-season events, but there is only one World Finals. It is just a staple on a career where if you didn’t do anything else, it is something you have to tell your grandkids. It is the toughest bull riding in the world to win. L.J. won it when he was real young and he kept rising to the occasion.”
2006 World Champion contender Sean Willingham still remembers the deal the “naive” Jenkins made with him in October just before the start of the Finals.
“I was competing for a World Championship against Guilherme Marchi and a couple of other guys and heading into Vegas he goes, ‘Hey, I am winning the Finals,’” Willingham said. “I said, ‘Hey, I don’t care if you win the Finals if I win the World. He kept his end of the deal up, but I came up a little short in the championship round. We had a pretty good, friendly wager. At least one of us came out with a victory that weekend.”
Willingham and Jenkins are also connected through that Gillette PBR event.
It was there that Willingham first met the Missouri bull rider.
“I remember I think I won the long round there and all I had to do was ride in the short round and there was no way I am letting an 18-year-old kid beat me,” Willingham recalled. “Sure enough, he did. After that, we got talking and I was like this kid beat me and everybody else here, we need to hang out. We just went from there and right off the bat we were pretty much aligned at the hip. I tried to show him a little bit of the ropes of the PBR and help him grow into what he would eventually grow into as a professional bull rider. I tried to teach him the best I could and we had some great times.”
Jenkins called Willingham the biggest influence of his PBR career. He was also one of the few riders he reached out to for advice about making the decision to retire.
“He kind of pulled me under his wing whenever I was young and me and him have been good friends ever since,” Jenkins said. “Whenever I first got on tour I was rooming with him up until today. He was the one that kind of showed me the ropes. What is crazy is that right after I broke my neck, one week later he broke his.
“Luckily his wasn’t bad and he will be back.”
Jenkins becomes third rider to win both World Finals average and National Finals Rodeo average
Five years later, Jenkins went 6-for-10 to win the National Finals Rodeo bull riding average title.
He was always committed to riding in the PBR, but Jenkins admitted it was a nostalgic goal for him to nod his head inside the historic yellow bucking chutes in Las Vegas.
“Winning them Finals, words can’t describe how awesome that was,” Jenkins said. “Going to the NFR, that was a goal. I still made every PBR World Finals, but that was a goal. To make it there that one year and win the average, then I was done with it. I was happy.”
Jenkins is one of three riders to win the World Finals event average and the National Finals rodeo bull riding average. The other two riders are Adriano Moraes and Ty Murray.
Murray also went 6-for-10 when he won the NFR in 1998.
The nine-time World Champion called winning both Finals a huge accomplishment
“That proves without a doubt that you are a world-class bull rider and you have reached the highest level,” Murray said. “You can’t have much higher of a resume than that.”
Jenkins believes his performance in the PRCA that season propelled him to his PBR career year in 2012.
The 5-foot-10 inch bull rider concluded the 2012 season third in the world standings after posting career-highs in qualified rides (49), riding percentage (52.69 percent), Top-5’s (10) and Top-10’s (13).
“I won the NFR and then I was really focused,” he said. “I think that is what set me up to have such a good year in 2012 when I almost won a world title. I got all of that out of the way and I concentrated on the PBR and tried to go after that gold buckle.”
Unfortunately, Jenkins’ best season is also the one that still frustrates him.
It was at the 2012 World Finals when Jenkins nearly rode Asteroid (46.5 points) during the championship round. It is very possible that if Jenkins hung on for the final 1.5 seconds that he may indeed have become a World Champion.
“The one ride that is going to stick out the most has to be in 2012 when Asteroid bucked me off at 6.5 seconds. If I could have rode him, I quite possibly could have won the world that year. I look back at that thinking that is the closet I came to win a world title. 6.5 seconds on Asteroid. That is going to haunt me the rest of my life, but it is what it is.”
Roughly three weeks after he broke his neck, Jenkins began to dive back into the stock contracting business.
Jenkins started looking into acquiring more bulls and partnering with others in the business to start and build a stronger bullpen that can travel to future BFTS events.
Jenkins plans to haul Gigilo Beau, who bucked off Ross Coleman at Unfinished Business, and has high hopes for two 4-year-old bulls, Lane Freak and Rooster.
“As long as Cody (Lambert) will let me come, I think I have three or four bulls that are good enough to come,” Jenkins said. “I have been hauling some to these Touring Pro events and putting them in the short round and they have really been bucking. I am pretty excited about it. I get to go in and relax and not worry about getting on a bull now. I can go and take care of the bulls and, hopefully, I can see a bunch of my buddies be a bunch of points on them.”
Murray would often chat with Jenkins, as he did before Unfinished Business, about some bulls to keep an eye on or talk about for an upcoming telecast.
“He obviously is a guy that really understands bulls and really understands the sport and what it takes to make it,” Murray said. “That is a head start right there. What it comes down to is how much he loves it. I just feel that is how it is with anything. I think he loves it and has for a long time. It is not like he went through a riding career and then said now I am going to retire and try to go into this. He has been dabbling in that for a long time.”
Willingham agrees that Jenkins has a strong future in the stock contracting business, but is saddened his long-time buddy will be calling it quits earlier than expected.
“I hate to see him leave our sport on an injury like that. We much rather him go out on his own terms. He has always been one of those that I knew was going to retire early, but unfortunately this wasn’t his call. It was doctor orders.”
Jenkins also has a wedding to prepare for on Sept. 24 with his fiancé, Christen Dye, who Jenkins credits for being the main reason he was able to get through the hard recovery process, and he also is excited about one day becoming a father when the time is right.
“Every good bull guy needs a ranch hand,” Jenkins joked, before adding, “I am a fan of kids. Mainly, I didn’t want to have kids when I was still on the road riding. I wanted to be able to be home and be a part of their lives.”
Jenkins – the 12th ranked bull rider on the all-time money list – is thankful he has a bright future because of his PBR career.
“I really thank the PBR,” Jenkins said. “Without them, I wouldn’t have my ranch and all of my cows. It gave me one of the best lives anyone could ask for. We have the greatest fans in the world. And obviously all of my sponsors have been tremendous the last 11 years. We all know without our sponsors we couldn’t do nothing. Tyson, Monster and Wrangler have been with me the last three or four years. It was good to go with everyone behind me.”
He admits it is a tough pill to swallow when he realizes the dream that he set out as a little boy in Springfield, Missouri, and that he pursued in high school in Texico, New Mexico, is coming to a close.
“No, I don’t have any regrets,” Jenkins said. “It was an awesome career and an awesome time. I was fortunate I walked out of the arena. I am 28 years old and I had an awesome career. I can be thankful for all of that and be glad I just walked out of there.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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