FOR CONTESTANTS ON THE BUBBLE TO MAKE THE NFR, KANSAS CITY IS A MAJOR STOP
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Chet Johnson really shouldn’t be in this position.
Johnson, a four-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier from Sheridan, Wyo., is the No. 19 cowboy on the saddle bronc riding money list. He’s four spots away from a fifth qualification to ProRodeo’s grand championship, which takes place in December at Las Vegas.
He needs to finish among the top 15 in the world standings when the regular season concludes Sunday, and he’s got just three chances to do it: Stephenville, Texas; Omaha, Neb.; and the American Royal PRCA Rodeo in Kansas City.
He is one of many top ProRodeo contestants on the bubble for the NFR that hope to capitalize on a solid run at Kansas City’s rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Hale Arena inside the American Royal complex.
“This is probably the sixth time in my career that I’ve been on the bubble,” said Johnson, 33, now in his 13th season in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “I’ve ended up 17th in the world standings, missing it by $4,000. I have a 50 percent success rate at it. It’s come down to the wire a few times.”
This season is no different in some ways, yet much different for the cowboy best known for his great riding style and vibrant smile. His sister, Tracy, died suddenly in May, then a close friend followed a couple months later. He spent the better part of two months away from the game as he focused on family, friends and his own grieving.
“Just to be in contention after losing my sister and not rodeoing for so long, I’m pretty happy about that,” he said. “There have been years where you’d be in the top 15 then drop out, and that’s pretty disheartening. I’ve missed so much of this season, I really had nothing to lose.”
Like Johnson, steer wrestler Jule Hazen had to miss part of this season; his was because of an appendectomy that occurred Memorial Day weekend just when he was getting ready to run at a rodeo in Oklahoma. Heading into this week’s run of rodeos, Hazen is 21st in the world standings, about $6,200 out of that magical 15th spot.
“This is really the first time I’ve been on the bubble this late,” said Hazen, a three-time NFR qualifier from Ashland, Kan. “A few years ago, I considered myself on the bubble and sealed it (two weeks before the season concluded) in Albuquerque.”
The Kansan takes a business-like approach to every run he makes. His week includes the American Royal, Omaha, Stephenville and San Bernadino, Calif. Does that mean he plans to fly to California for his scheduled Saturday run.
“I’m far enough behind that I really need that big money that’s in Omaha to go along with the checks in Kansas City and Stephenville,” he said. “If I do good in Omaha, I won’t go to San Bernadino because I’ll make it back for Saturday in Omaha. If I don’t do good in Omaha, then I won’t need to go to San Bernadino because I won’t make it anyway.
“My real chance to make it is to win a very big check in Omaha and win the titles in Kansas City and Stephenville.”
It’s a mad rush, but that’s what happens the last week of the ProRodeo season each year. Of the more than 400 entries scheduled to be part of the American Royal Rodeo, dozens are NFR qualifiers who are itching to make it back to the year-end championship, which features the largest purse all season – go-round winners will earn nearly $20,000 each night in each event for 10 straight December evenings in the City of Lights.
That’s why it’s so important to do well this weekend in Kansas City and all points in between.
“Hopefully it’s my turn to draw good and use the steers the best I can,” Hazen said. “When I was in Albuquerque last week, I felt like I had something to lose.
“Now I don’t have anything to lose. I’m coming from behind, so I’m going for broke.”