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Memo to Rodeo Kids: Stay in School

by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Jul 08, 2015

NUMERO UNO: Sixth-generation ranch cowboy Jhett Johnson, who won the world team roping title with Turtle Powell in 2011, says he really learned to rope when he was at college. Jhett has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and is now the assistant rodeo coach at Casper College in Wyoming.

NUMERO UNO: Sixth-generation ranch cowboy Jhett Johnson, who won the world team roping title with Turtle Powell in 2011, says he really learned to rope when he was at college. Jhett has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and is now the assistant rodeo coach at Casper College in Wyoming.

If you’ve known me for more than 10 minutes you know how I feel about the value of a good education. It’s something I wish on every kid, including our own in this rodeo world we all share and love. There is no downside, and the upside of being as smart and knowledgeable as possible is limitless.

I grew up in the arena, and since having my sons, Lane and Taylor, I’ve been a junior rodeo, junior high, high school and now college rodeo mom. Lane and Taylor are fourth-generation cowboys, and we’ve had a blast living this rodeo life all our lives. Our next stop is this month’s College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo.

Like me, my boys have loved growing up knowing so many of this sport’s cowboy greats on a personal basis. They’ve gotten an honest look at every side of the rodeo life—from the glory of gold buckles and record runs to guys burning out from the exhaustion of the all-night drives and living on truck-stop food; some even going belly-up broke. When I’d see sadness in my sons’ eyes because they were surprised that one of their heroes was now miserable trying to figure out his next move, all I would say was, “Stay in school.”

The stack of graduation announcements on my kitchen counter and this being rodeo finals season for our young people remind me that it’s the perfect time of year to talk about school and what it can do for people. I called on a couple of my cowboy friends—nine-time World Champion Cowboy Ty Murray and 2011 World Champion Team Roper Jhett Johnson—to share their views on the subject. They took different paths. Ty went two years; Jhett four. Ty didn’t graduate; Jhett did. They’re both great cowboys and dads, and, like me, they both want the best for all rodeo kids.

I spent a ton of time with Ty during his roughstock riding reign of terror in this sport. He was determined to break Larry Mahan’s six-title world all-around record, and got it done with seven in 1998, winning two world bull riding championships to boot. Ty attended Odessa (Texas) College for a couple years, where he lived and had a large time at a little dive above a saddle shop he and roommate Jim Sharp called the Bronco House. In 1988, Jim—who won world titles in 1988 and ’90—was the first guy ever to ride all 10 bulls at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Ty Murray owned the NFR’s Thomas & Mack tunnel.

Ty Murray owned the NFR’s Thomas & Mack tunnel.

“I went to college because I wanted to go try to win national titles,” Ty told me. “The fact that I got my education paid for through scholarships through the success I’d had in rodeo was awesome. My parents didn’t have the money to send me to college. I learned a lot in college, not only from classes but also about riding bucking horses and bulls. College is an amazing stepping stone. That sounds like a cliche, but that’s what it is.

“College rodeo is the perfect middle ground between high school and professional rodeo. College really did prepare me for my ProRodeo career, and I don’t think I was ready to go from high school to the highest level straight out of high school. College took me from the high school level to being able to win the all-around in the NIRA (National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association) and in the PRCA the same year (1989).”

Ty took off after two years of college, in his words because, “My idea of what I’d wanted to do hadn’t changed since I was 3 years old, and I was going after that. In my second year of college I already had one world (all-around) championship and I knew I was going for six more.”

Ty’s road to the top wasn’t without its rocks. I remember well writing about his comebacks from knee and shoulder surgeries, only to get a call from him before the ink dried that the other knee or shoulder now needed to be fixed.

“Looking back now, I was a 150-pound 18-year-old who looked like I was 12,” Ty said. “I was like a candle in the wind. I can’t believe I never got squished. It was awesome that I was able to take advantage of a free education. And I was ultra lucky that I didn’t get hurt with a career-ending injury, not only riding as long as I did but in the three most dangerous events that you can do.

“I only had one plan, and that was to go out and do what I did. Even if you’re really good you have to get ultra lucky to hold up. All it takes is one thing to go really wrong and you’re done. It can take you from being a world-class competitor to not a world-class competitor in a split second. Everything worked out for me in a lot of ways. I was prepared as a cowboy, and the 14 years of education I got helped me a lot also, in both managing my career and in business since I quit riding.”

Why go to college? Or is the real question why not? “A guy like Trevor Brazile doesn’t come along every day,” Ty said. “There’s one of him. There are no guarantees when you’re an athlete. One wrong step in any event can take you out as far as making a good living doing it. You have to be firing on all cylinders, and that takes a lot of luck no matter what you’re doing. Getting educated is never going to hurt you. You will never say that college education wasn’t a good deal.

“Because of the way my life’s worked out I’ve never had to submit a resume. But that’s not typical. I had guts and grit and determination. I learned that from my riding. The education I got from school, and that combination has helped me manage my money and have a lot of success in life.”

Ty’s son, Kase, will be 4 next month. Will Daddy Ty encourage his kid to go to college?

“Without a doubt,” he said. “My main thing for Kase or any kid is for him to find his passion. I know for a fact that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s great and it’s helpful, don’t get me wrong. But an education will never do anything but help you. Getting an education will never be a regret. Everything you learn in school is cool. But what’s even more powerful is learning to learn and learning how to be responsible. You have to show up, pay attention and get it done. School prepares you for life.”

Being honest with yourself—in assessing your strengths and weaknesses, and how hard you work at it—has always been king with Ty.

“Nobody’s ever successful at anything because their friends do it, their girlfriend thinks it’s cool or their dad wishes he could have done it,” he said. “Those guys can’t beat the guys who love it. If I look at 50 world champions—they’re all different with 50 different approaches. The one thing they have in common is that they love it.

“They might have different reasons for why they love it, but they love it. I’d give that advice for anything. If you’re going to school to be a brain surgeon, you better be eaten up with it or you won’t make it through the school it takes. If you do, you won’t be very good at it. What I’m saying here isn’t just true for cowboys. It’s true in everything you do. The guys who are physically talented and truly love it are unstoppable. If you don’t love it, you will never be great at anything.”

Johnson’s second act

Jhett was born in Casper 44 years ago, and is a sixth-generation rancher there. His great-great grandfather homesteaded the place where his family still lives back in 1884. Jhett’s parents, Jamis and Judy Johnson, now live in that original house, and it’s the oldest lived-in two-story log home in Wyoming.

Jhett and Jenny are raising their three boys, Kellan, Carson and Kress, now 15, 14 and 6, just as they were when it comes to school. “In our family, school’s not optional,” Jhett said. “You get a degree. That’s what you do. College isn’t just about learning to be better at math. It’s about learning to be a better person. You get away from home and learn how to conquer problems and live life. That happens during those college years.”

Jhett has a psychology degree from Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell. He chose psychology because he was “interested in how and what makes people work.” He finished growing up in Goodwell, where his big brother, Justin, finished the last two years of his college career also.

“We were ranch kids,” Jhett said. “We started team roping in high school. When we were home, there was always something to do on the ranch. In college, my brother and I had time to rope. College is really where we learned to rope. (Justin earned an ag business degree at OPSU, by the way.)”

When million-dollar cowboy Jhett decided it was time to pull up from the full-time rodeo trail a couple years ago, he was sure glad to have that piece of paper. “When Casper College offered me the job as assistant coach to Tom Parker (Jhett started in the fall of 2013), the second thing the athletic director asked—the first thing was whether or not I was interested in the job—was if I had a college degree in anything. It mattered, even for a job as an assistant rodeo coach.

“When your rodeo career is over for whatever reason, there are opportunities all around you. But most employers want to know—are you educated, did you make the effort and are you trainable? Getting your degree shows that you’ll finish what you start. It’s a cliche to say you have your education to fall back on, but it’s true. Rodeo lasts as long as you do, but someday we all quit or slow down.”

I smiled when I looked down at that CNFR arena last June and saw Jhett pulling the barrier, keeping it smooth and run right, and encouraging kids. He’ll help at the timed-event end of the CNFR arena again this month.

Memo to Rodeo Kids 3

“Rodeo was very good to me, but it doesn’t always work out that way for everyone,” he said. “If you rodeo for 10 years of your life and realize you’re ready to try a different avenue, it’s nice to realize you can get a job you like and move on with your life.

“Rodeo doesn’t last forever. A lot of people quit, not because they weren’t good enough but because it’s a hard life. It’s not the life for everyone. A lot of guys can’t stand the travel and the headaches of the ups and downs of not winning. It would be sad to realize, ‘Hey, I don’t really like rodeoing like I thought I would and I don’t have a degree.’ Now you’re 25 years old and you have to go get one.

“Rodeo will always be there. If you go to college right out of high school you can get a full-ride scholarship. Work part time, if you have to. You don’t see many 19-year-olds making the National Finals anyway. Kids need those extra years to get ready on the rodeo front, too. It takes time to mature as a roper and learn to win, so why not do it on the college’s money and on the college’s practice cattle? Then when you’re done, you’re ready to go rodeo and you have a college degree. I ran in the same circles as all the world champions, and I never heard anyone say he was glad he didn’t go to college. I’m sure glad I did.”

This story is from the June 19, 2015 edition of the ProRodeo Sports News. For subscription information, click here.

Courtesy of PRCA