SHERIDAN, Wyo. – Chet Johnson likes Canada, especially during the summer months.
It provides a great respite from the heat cowboys can encounter while competing in rodeo in the lower 48 states. Sure, it gets a little damp, but it’s relatively cool and offers quite a bit to someone like Johnson, a saddle bronc rider who grew up in northwestern Wyoming.
Now the Sheridan bronc buster will take his talent and his drive to Las Vegas for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 5-14. This marks Johnson’s fourth qualification to ProRodeo’s grand championship event, which features only the top 15 contestants in each event.
“As I go in, I’m a long ways behind the leaders,” he said, noting that he’s earned $60,569 so far this season and is 12th on the bronc riding money list, about $68,000 behind the leader, two-time world champion Cody Wright. “I want to start off with a bang, and I definitely want to get a round win; that’s always a goal out there to get a go-round buckle.”
In rodeo, dollars equal championship points; the contestants with the most money won in each event at the conclusion of the NFR will be crowned world champions. The finale features a purse of $6.25 million, with go-round winners earning $18,630 each night. They also win a prestigious buckle, the wearable trophy that is an honored hallmark of the sport.
“I’d love to ride all 10 head and win that average title, too,” said Johnson, who graduated from Lusk (Wyo.) High School and Sheridan College. “That’s a big goal.”
The NFR average championship is the second most prestigious honor in rodeo, behind only the world championship. It signifies a fantastic run through the rugged 10-day affair that is the grand finale and will reward cowboys with the best cumulative score with a check worth nearly $48,000.
“If I don’t have a shot at the gold buckle, then I’d sure like to get the other one,” Johnson said. “I can’t worry about just staying on and being safe, because if I safety-up, I can’t stay on. I have to be aggressive. I think it goes hand-in-hand; if you stay aggressive all 10 rounds, you have a better chance at riding them, and you have a better chance to win money.”
Unlike most professional athletes, there are no guarantees for cowboys. They pay their own toward travel expenses and, at every rodeo in which they compete, they must provide an entry fee. Johnson and his traveling posse crisscrossed North America to try to make a living in the sport they love, and all three cowboys fared pretty well.
Cort Scheer, Tyler Corrington and Johnson all qualified for the NFR. In mid-November, they also competed at the Canadian Finals Rodeo, proof that they succeeded north and south of the border. In fact, of Johnson’s four victories in 2013, three were in Canada and were co-sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association: Innisfail, Alberta, Marwayne, Alberta, and Armstrong, B.C.
“They’ve always been rodeos I’ve wanted to win,” he said. “Innisfail is a big one, and they give a bronze away. It’s one that until this year, I’d only come close to winning. Armstrong was another really big one. It’s usually a tough rodeo, and it comes at a time when you need money to finish out the year. I’d won (Marwayne) before, so it’s always to do good in one spot over and over.”
Johnson has done pretty well over the course of his career, which began a dozen years ago. He follows in the footsteps of his father, Gary, who competed and worked in rodeo for a number of years. In addition, Johnson leans heavily on the support from his mom, Susan, and his sister, Tracy.
“Family is really important to me,” he said. “I’m very close to my parents and my sister, and they’re a major reason I’ve gone so far because they supported me so much when I was younger.”
Gary and Susan Johnson have a ranch near Douglas, Wyo., and Tracy and her family live in Kaycee, Wyo., where she has two children and works as a graphic designer.
“My dad did just about everything in rodeo,” said Johnson, 33. “By the time I came around, he was just picking up. That was my first exposure to rodeo.
“I was in high school when I started riding. I went to rodeo Bible camps starting when I was a freshman, and I began rodeoing pretty hard when I was in high school.”
He turned pro in 2001 and has been going hard almost every year since. He missed half the 2010 season when, after coming off his bronc, had his head stepped on by the horse. He sustained three skull fractures, bleeding and swelling on the brain and a fractured right eardrum. Johnson returned to competition in January 2011, according to the PRCA media department.
Now he returns to the NFR for the first time since 2008, and he’s excited about making his return to the Thomas & Mack Center. He finished 17th in the 2009 world standings, then suffered the injury in 2010. In 2011, he ended the regular season 21st in the PRCA but won the Canadian bronc riding title. Last year, he finished 23rd.
“Rodeo is a very unique deal,” Johnson said. “It’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle. You’ve got the different aspects of it. Riding broncs is something I love; it’s a challenge, and you’re always trying to prove yourself and get better all the time. The winning is always good. You also have a rodeo family out there; they’re your closest friends. The people you rodeo with turn into your brothers.”
Like his parents and sister, rodeo family is vitally important to Johnson, who has partnered with Wyoming Tourism and Rodeo Austin (Texas) in a sponsorship agreement.
“In Wyoming, our motto is Forever West, and I believe in that and love that my home state is supporting me in my career,” he said. “It’s one of those states that just has a lot to offer tourists.
“This is my ninth year with Rodeo Austin. They’ve been behind me the longest and have been pretty loyal through my injuries. I’ve had to sit out three times while they’ve sponsored me, and they’ve been right there. It’s a great organization with a great cause, and I’m pretty honored to be part of that organization.”
He’s also honored to be a part of ProRodeo’s elite in the sport’s biggest event.
“I feel a lot better this year than I have every other year,” Johnson said. “I come off what I feel was a good Canadian Finals, and I feel I rode what I could as well as I could. This is the healthiest I’ve ever been going to the NFR. I’m going to the gym every day, staying focused. I think a big key is that you have to have good rides to start the NFR. That’s what I plan to do.”