By: Darci Miller
PUEBLO, Colo. – Ginger Kozak and her husband Michael Payne relocated from their home in New Jersey to Sevierville, Tennessee, when she retired from her career as a payroll manager two years ago.
The couple enjoys the outdoors, and they enjoyed the mountains and hiking opportunities in past trips to Sevierville. The move also allowed them to be closer to family members.
It also had another advantage.
“Sevierville, Tennessee, pretty much came up as, ‘Okay, if we relocate down here, we don’t have to fly to so many PBR events. We can drive,’” Kozak said. “My husband is retiring in February, and so it’s going to give us an opportunity to make it to more events, and to actually drive to them, and sometimes see family along the way.”
Kozak and Payne aren’t lifelong PBR fans, but it’s a love affair that has bloomed quickly over the last seven years.
In 2013, while on a trip in Las Vegas, they were looking for something to do one day when they happened to hear about the PBR. They bought tickets to what turned out to be Championship Sunday of the PBR World Finals. It was there they saw a guy by the name of J.B. Mauney win the first of his two world titles.
Over the course of the next year, they began following the sport on CBS, and decided to return to the World Finals in 2014.
Payne said he didn’t want to go to any more than two of the five days of competition.
“That particular year we went, and we were sitting it the hotel, and he kind of said, ‘Yeah, I guess I was wrong. I guess we probably should’ve gone to all five days,’” Kozak recalled with a laugh. “And ever since then, starting with 2015, from then on we’ve gone to all five days.”
This year, for their seventh trip to the World Finals, Kozak and Payne adjusted their travel plans accordingly when the 2020 PBR World Finals were moved from their traditional home in Las Vegas to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. While they were unsure if they were going to fly to Las Vegas this year, the more central location allows them to drive – already reaping the benefits of their strategically-chosen new home in Tennessee.
In 2017, Kozak and Payne also began attending the Velocity Tour Finals. Their hotel room evolved into a tornado as Kozak worked to get her payroll duties done during the week. What used to be a quick trip turned into more than a week of being fully immersed in the PBR. Mini bull riding got tacked onto the agenda. They started attending Flint Rasmussen’s Outside the Barrel show. Last year, they watched some bullfighting.
While things will look a little different this year, with social distancing and face masks required, similar activities will still be taking place in Arlington.
“It’s kind of gone from being, ‘Well, we’re going to go out there and we’re just going to do the PBR at night and we’ll do other things during the day,’” Kozak said. “Now we don’t really have a chance to do other things during the day. The whole time is pretty much sucked up with the bull riding. So it’s kind of become an all-encompassing week.”
In the last two years, Kozak and Payne have also done volunteer work with the Western Sports Foundation, which supports the physical and mental wellbeing of Western sports athletes.
The pair works the Western Sports Foundation table on the concourse at World Finals and whatever other events they go to – usually five or six each year. This year they’ll be on hand to assist with Peyton’s Project Runway, a charity fashion show that will be held on Nov. 14.
“I always do volunteer work, and I thought, why not do volunteer work for a sport that you like, and you really enjoy, and you like the people, and like what it stands for?” Kozak said. “So that was pretty much a no-brainer.”
They’ve been to AT&T Stadium before, when it hosted the 2019 and 2020 PBR Global Cups, and are looking forward to getting back to Texas. Payne has several children in the area, so it’s turned into something of a family vacation.
Not too much, though.
“When I looked at the schedule of the stuff they’re going to have at the AT&T, I told my husband, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to see your daughter a whole lot,’” Kozak said with a laugh.
While the sport itself is undoubtedly a draw – Kozak counts Mauney as one of her favorite riders and is excited to see if he can pull off a World Finals event win this year in Arlington – she says that it’s ultimately the atmosphere that keeps her coming back year after year.
Kozak once played in a cornhole tournament with J.W. Harris and got to know him and his wife, and met three-time World Champion Adriano Moraes and his son Antonio at a WSF luncheon last year during Finals week. She’s been nothing but impressed by bull riders’ laid-back attitudes.
“I think it’s their attitude,” Kozak said. “When they’re interviewed, none of them seem to be hung up on themselves. It’s all about them and their ride on the bull, and how they support each other. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you see them, they’ll shake your hand, they’ll say hello. They’re nothing but pleasant. They’re not standoffish.
“They’re all just very nice people, and it just seems to be a very wholesome sport.”
Neither of them come from a particularly Western background – though Payne did grow up in Nebraska – but they have found their people amongst the cowboys of the PBR.
“Even all the people you meet at events – not just the riders, but the people that go to the events, they’re all just so friendly,” Kozak said. “A lot of them are very knowledgeable. If they’re not knowledgeable, they’ll ask you a question and you can help them become more knowledgeable. And you can kind of see their interest grow in the sport as they’re sitting there watching and they understand it a little bit better. So I think that’s good. It kind of helps us, the spectators, pass on our knowledge to some people that may be there for the first time.
“We just kind of went, not knowing anything about it, back in 2013. And seven years later, here we are!”
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