THE WOODLANDS, Texas – Richmond Champion lives life a little bit on the edge.
Why else would any sane man strap himself to a 1,100-pound bucking horse in order to make a living?
“You’ve got every wild and free thing in the palm of your hand,” said Champion, 21, of The Woodlands. “It’s awesome. There’s nothing like it. I just crave it. It’s the best job in the world. You have to feel it to understand it.”
Champion is a professional rodeo cowboy, one of the very best bareback riders in the game in 2014. Next week, he will showcase it to the world during his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s premier championship event that takes place Dec. 4-13 in Las Vegas. It’s the perfect place to put a defining exclamation point to an incredible season.
He is the seventh-ranked bareback rider in the world standings, where points equal dollars earned in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association through the rigors of the 12-month season. Champion has pocketed just shy of $90,000 in the PRCA, but his season has provided much more than that.
“My biggest win, obviously, was The American,” he said of the non-PRCA rodeo that took place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where he won the bareback riding title and $1.1 million. “That’s the biggest victory ever. The American changed my whole life and how I want to go about my career.
“Following that, I’d have to say winning Cheyenne (Wyo.) and being 91 points at the Daddy of ’Em All. Just the way that story unfolded … for different reasons, that was the biggest PRCA win of my career.”
The win in Arlington came in early March; the victory in Cheyenne came in late July. Mixed in between was a fine recipe of quality rides and key titles: Guymon, Okla.; Walla Walla, Wash.; and Gladewater, Texas, just to name a few.
“This season has been a dream come true,” said Champion, who as a collegian at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in June. “Making the NFR is a goal reached. It’s kind of surreal knowing I’m heading there. I’m really excited.
“It’s the freakin’ NFR. There’s no downplaying that. It’s going to be a stage I’ve never been on before. It’s going to be intense.”
Only the top 15 cowboys in each event earn the right to compete for the biggest pay in the game. The purse is more than $6 million for the 10-round finale. Each night, contestants will battle for the $19,000 payday for winning a go-round. The elite bareback riders will be testing their skills against the greatest bucking horses of 2014.
As an NFR rookie, Champion will also be in the field with legends: three-time reigning world champion Kaycee Feild, three-time titlist Will Lowe, four-time winner Bobby Mote and 2008 world champ Justin McDaniel – they own the last nine bareback riding gold buckles.
“I’m not going to worry about Kaycee Feild or anybody else,” Champion said. “Kaycee’s going to do what Kaycee’s going to do, and I have no doubt it’s going to be at a phenomenal level. I set my goals high, and I’m going in there confident.”
He should. He has qualified for the NFR in just his third season as a PRCA member – he finished 2012 in second place in the rookie-of-the-year race. That’s not too bad for a man who has only been riding bucking horses less than five years.
“I’ve always been involved in something competitive, whether it was skiing or riding,” he said. “I had an older brother, and you just naturally grow up in a competitive nature. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to be competitive with each other.
“We also moved around a lot. Once I got comfortable somewhere, it was time to move again and start over. I think that’s what attracted me to rodeo. You’re constantly moving. You’re constantly competing. Growing up that way, you have to adapt. I bring that with me when I’m rodeoing.”
The rodeo trail is long and winding. Cowboys travel tens of thousands of miles a year chasing their gold-buckle dreams. Oftentimes they’re away from home for weeks, even months, at a time. It’s not an easy life, but it’s one in which the competitors are following their passions.
For Champion, he finds ease in the support from home.
“My family has been there for me since I started this deal,” he said, pointing to his dad, Greg, and mom, Lori. “Mom had her questions at first; she didn’t want me to get hurt. They’ve just been so supportive of me since my rookie year. My brother, Doug, is the reason I started riding bareback horses. He turned out to be one of my biggest supporters. He got hurt and can’t ride anymore, but he’s been right there with me.
“My family has made a point to travel to come see me. They know being there is important to me. I can’t do it without them. They’ve all made changes since The American has happened. My dad has taken a lot of responsibility for me on the financial side.”
That has helped take the pressure off the young cowboy so he can focus on the task at hand. When he needs an ear, they all are just a phone call away. Doug can help with the riding side of the game, while Mom and Dad do what moms and dads do.
“They’re all successful, but they’ve found a way to support me,” Champion said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
When family isn’t available, he leaned on girlfriend Shelby Smith, who has been around the sport all her life.
“It’s a lot harder to have a relationship in rodeo, but she understands that,” Champion said. “It took this year for me to realize what it takes to have a relationship out there on the road. Your time gets limited. To have Shelby out there with me from time to time, it helps because she comes from a rodeo family. She knows how it works.
“She’s been competitive, so she can help me. She may not know the fundamentals of bareback riding, but as a competitor, she knows how to talk to me. She’s always been there for that.”
That support has been a key ingredient into the success the cowboy has seen in 2014. Of course, that also is the nature of rodeo, where there are friends at every stop along the rodeo trail.
“The best part of rodeo is the comradery,” he said. “There’s no other sport that is this tight-knit. We’re all ready to do anything for one another even though you’re trying to take each other’s money at the same time. It’s a really competitive sport, but you still try to help each other out.
“You can’t get there by yourself, and everybody knows that.”
Now that he’s there, the Texan won’t rest on his accomplishments or his bank account. He has a core group of friends, family and fellow bareback riders to keep him humble. He’s still young enough to crave all-night drives, but that’s mainly because he craves the most coveted prize in the game, the gold buckle.
He is a Champion after all.