LAS VEGAS– Casey Colletti thought his victory at the Cheyenne(Wyo.) Frontier Days Rodeo in July was the best thing that’s ever happened in his career.
That fantastic feat is about to be trumped.
Colletti, a bareback rider from Pueblo, Colo., is just 25 years old, but next week he’ll play on the biggest stage in his chosen sport, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. He qualified for the sport’s grand championship by finishing the regular season 10th in the world standings – only the top 15 contestants in each event get the invitation to play for the biggest pay of the season in Las Vegas.
“It’s like the biggest dream come true,” said Colletti, who just completed his fifth season in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “I watched the NFR on TV since I was a little kid and dreamed about being there.”
Even with his itinerary scheduled and his reservations made, it’s likely the reality and magnitude of the NFR won’t hit Colletti until next week when he arrives in the City of Lights. But that’s OK.
“I don’t know what to expect, but I’m going to try to do the best I can and let everything else fall where it’s going to go,” he said. “I’m going to take it all in. I’ve been waiting for two months to go to it since the season ended, and I’m excited. It just can’t get here fast enough, but I bet it’s over just like that.”
The NFR is the biggest test of any cowboy’s season. Contestants compete all year long in order to qualify, and oftentimes they spend as much as they make in order to earn the points needed – in rodeo, dollars not only pays bills but also serves as the championship points; the contestant with the most money won in each event at the end of the NFR is crowned world champion.
How much is available in the Nevada desert? Go-round winners will earn $17,885 each of the 10 nights. To compare that to most rodeos, Colletti’s win in Cheyenne paid him $18,738 after he finished in a tie for third in the opening round, won the second and short-go rounds and won the average with the best cumulative score on three rides. He easily could surpass his Wyoming earnings in just two nights.
But this is where the elite want to compete. They test their mettle at rodeos all across this land throughout the year, but there’s nothing like getting on the best bucking horses against the top cowboys in the world for 10 December nights in Las Vegas.
“The cool thing is that you filled your dream at least one time,” said Colletti, who said he’s thankful for his partnership with Wrangler, Justin Boots and C&S Farm and Cattle, the latter being his family’s operation just east of Pueblo. “I made the NFR, and I won Cheyenne and I won Prescott (Ariz.). Who wins Cheyenne and Prescott in the same year? Those are two of the most prestigious events in rodeo, the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott and the Daddy of ’Em All in Cheyenne.
“They can’t take any of that away from me.”
There are a lot of things you won’t take away from Colletti, who got his start in the world of rodeo as a youngster. His father rode bareback horses for more than 20 years, but that’s likely not the path Chuck Colletti had hoped for his young son.
“I rode sheep when I was real little, then I rode calves during the summer once a week when I got a little bit older,” Casey Colletti said. “That was what my rodeo career growing up, then riding junior bulls, then bulls. I was 16 years old when I got on my first bareback horse in La Junta (Colo.). I entered the bareback riding because somebody told me there were no bareback riders. I’ve always wanted to win at everything, so I thought that if I was the only bareback rider, I could win a buckle.”
Instead, the young bronc rider was bucked off, but his hand was hung in the rigging, and the horse carried him around the arena for what seemed like forever. That would’ve been the end of his bareback riding career, but there was something else involved.
“The only reason I ride bareback horses to this day is that in Colorado, we had to prepay to go for the season, so when I got to La Junta, I’d already prepaid my fee,” he said. “When you’re 16 years old, $50 was a lot of money, so I was going to get my money’s worth out of that one.”
The next rodeo was in La Veta,Colo., and Colletti won bareback riding.
“I quit riding bulls altogether,” he said.
His skills on bucking horses earned him a rodeo scholarship to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, where he won the Central Plains Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, then finished fifth at the College National Finals Rodeo.
“When Casey won the region his sophomore year, I knew he was going to do something,” said Jim Boy Hash, Garden City’s rodeo coach. “I knew he had the talent.”
Colletti got his 2011 season rolling over the run known as Cowboy Christmas, which features several lucrative rodeos around the Fourth of July. The young bronc buster rode the great J.K. Rodeo horse Brother to win in Prescott. In addition, he had victories in Casper, Wyo.; Rock Springs, Wyo.; Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Jerome, Idaho; Burlington, Colo.; Douglas,Wyo.; El Paso, Texas; Phillipsburg, Kan.; San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; and Fort Madison, Iowa.
Of course, the biggest win was in Cheyenne.
“I was on my way home from taking my sons to a junior rodeo, and they were both asleep when he called me and told me he’d won Cheyenne,” Hash said. “I was screaming so loud I woke the boys up. I started crying.”
Colletti has a lot to be proud of when he replays that highlight reel in his head. From his father’s lessons on a spur board to the coaching he received in western Kansas to the countless hours sharing bareback riding thoughts with his traveling partners, there’s a great support system in place. Colletti knows that as well as anybody.
“If it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t get to too many places or do too many things,” he said. “She’s my travel agent, my banker, does my laundry. She’s a cook, she cleans. She does everything. I couldn’t rodeo without my mom.”
The good thing is she’ll be inside the Thomas &Mack Center when her only son rides on the biggest rodeo stage of his career. But so will many others who have been there in the early stages of his career.
“Last year we had Cort Scheer make it to the finals, and I wish I could’ve gone,” Hash said. “This year I’m gong to get to go for a little bit of it.
“I’m tickled I was part of their success, but I’m more tickled that we’ve still got that relationship.”