LAS VEGAS – Much has happened in the last 12 months since Justin McDaniel earned a paycheck at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
So there was a distinct feeling of joy on Friday night when the 2008 world champion bareback rider left the Thomas & Mack Center with an $8,897 check after his 85-point ride on Sankey Rodeo’s Mony. His last paycheck came in the sixth go-round of the 2009 championship when he finished in a three-way tie for sixth place with an 82-point ride on Gold Buckle Rodeo’s Jail House Rock.
“It felt really good until I got to the fence,” McDaniel said of his ride on the white Sankey horse that bucked round the front of the chute, then adjusted his bucking motion when it got close to the yellow metal poles that border the tiny arena. “That’s where I got a stinger, and my right arm went numb. I didn’t finish as good as I wanted to.”
McDaniel, 24, who rode Cervi Championship Rodeo’s Multi-Chem Pinball Wizard for 80.5 points during Thursday’s opening night, sits in a three-way tie for fourth in the all-important average race; the Porum, Okla., cowboy won the 2008 NFR average title en route to earning the coveted gold buckle. He was just 22 years old at the time.
“I feel really good, really confident right now,” said McDaniel, who earned his way to ProRodeo’s championship event by earning $81,850 in the regular season. More importantly, the young Oklahoman did that even though he missed the first half of the season because of injury and didn’t get back into competition until the first of June.
After last year’s NFR, McDaniel opted to have back surgery, which was done in February. The rehabilitation seems to have worked wonders.
“I’m healthy and confident,” he said. “I haven’t felt this good in a while.”
That has taken away all those post-surgery worries that filled his mind, even for a few weeks after he started riding again. He knew he needed to get confident in his back and his ability, especially since he’d given most of the elite bareback riders a big head start – by the time McDaniel rode at his first Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event, standings leader Ryan Gray had already earned more than $80,000; the No. 15 guy in the standings in early June was Dave Worsfold, who had pocketed nearly $19,000.
Every step, every physical therapy session, is paying off at the richest rodeo of the season, where go-round winners will earn better than $17,500 through the 10 days in Vegas. McDaniel has been through enough this season that he’s placing his focus on the competition, not all the issues that surround it.
“I’m just going to nod my head and try to ride the best I can,” he said. “I’m going to try to win every go-round from here on out, and the best way to do that is just nod your head and go at them.”