LAS VEGAS – Justin McDaniel has earned $81,850 so far this year.
He did it on the backs of the some of the toughest bucking horses in ProRodeo. More importantly, he did it in just four months, having to be a short-order specialist in order to qualify for his fourth straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which will take place Dec. 2-11 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
“I didn’t really want to sit out seven months, but after the finals last year, I knew I had to get things fixed,” said McDaniel, 24, of Porum, Okla. “After I hurt my back last year, I just went to the rodeos I had to go to in order to make the finals. I had a pretty good finals overall, winning two rounds, but my right leg was just dead.
“After the ninth round, I couldn’t even sit in a chair.”
The problem was two herniated discs, which were repaired during surgery Feb. 5. Once the deformity was fixed, it was months of rehabilitation, individual workouts and dreams of winning another gold buckle to match the one he earned by winning the 2008 world championship.
“While I was off, I got the deal with James Hodge Ford,” McDaniel said of the Muskogee, Okla., auto dealership, which has partnered with the cowboy in a number of ways. “Jack Hodge was in the gym with me every day, ran every mile I did and lifted weights with me. He helped me get back into shape.
“Jack pushed me to be the best. He was there every time. He’s a great guy and a good friend.”
The young Oklahoman utilized that momentum and worked his way back into the arena in early June. His back felt better than it had in years, but he had to regain his confidence – the best way to do that is getting back in the mix and on the backs of bucking broncs.
“The year was kind of up and down all the way to the end,” McDaniel said. “It came down to the wire the last couple weeks of the rodeo season, but those last two weeks were awesome. I started drawing good and started winning.”
Sitting on the outside looking in – the top 15 contestants in each event at the conclusion of the regular season earn the trip to Las Vegas and the NFR – McDaniel earned about $30,000 the final two events of the season, both playoff spots on the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour. That moved him to ninth place, and while he’s still $77,000 behind standings leader Ryan Gray, that gap can be made up with the big money available in Vegas, where go-round winners will earn $17,512 each night.
“I was kind of worried there at the end,” McDaniel said. “It came down to the last tour rodeo in Ellensburg (Wash.) to see if I’d finish in the top 24 to make the playoffs. I was 24th, and I ended up winning second in Puyallup (Wash.), which got me in to Omaha (Neb.).
“That’s what I like about rodeo. If it was easy, anyone could do it, but knowing you have to do well at those rodeos in order to make the finals puts it on the line for you.”
That’s nothing knew. Fennell, who began traveling with the younger cowboy when McDaniel was still in high school, has seen a winning attitude for a number of years.
“That’s a bad little man; you can never count him out,” said Fennell, 37, who jokes that their partnership began before McDaniel owned a driver’s license. “I’ve been telling people that since he was 15. It was fun watching him make the finals, and he had a couple key weeks in the end. I know he was really tickled about it.”
So are rodeo fans who love to watch great athletes compete. In bareback riding, cowboys not only stay atop the wild bucking broncs while gripping a rigging that’s strapped to the animal, they must also spur in time with the horse’s bucking motion. The scores on the 100-point scale come from how well the animal bucks and how well the cowboy does his part with the spur ride. It takes tremendous athleticism to spur from the horse’s neck to the rigging all in time with the bucking motion.
There are also the more than 100,000 miles of travel each year getting from one rodeo to another. Cowboys don’t live a glamorous lifestyle, but they’re following their passion.
“Some days you’re just so sore you can’t get out of bed,” McDaniel said. “There are times you haven’t been to bed in three days, but once you’ve stepped into that Thomas & Mack and you’re about to nod your head at the National Finals Rodeo, every mile you didn’t get that sleep makes it all worth it.
“To win a world championship takes the right mindset. I’ve won the world championship a million times in my head growing up. I rode in that 10th round a million times before I even got there. In my opinion, winning is a choice; you can either know you’re going to win or you can hope you’re going to win, and I usually expect to win.”