REXBURG, Idaho – Growing up in a rodeo family, Garrett Smith has had a lifelong dream to play the game at the elite level.
At just 21 years old, he’s there.
Smith finished the 2016 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association regular season 10th in the world standings and has earned his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas.
“This truly is a dream come true,” said Smith, whose father, Lynn, has served as a pickup man, while mom, Valorie, has been a timer and has handled other promotional aspects of the sport. “We’ve been working for this ever since we were little. This is all we’ve thought about.
“It’s going to be a huge thing for me knowing that I can do it. Hopefully I can thrive off that when we get to Vegas.”
The NFR is the premier event in the sport, and only the top 15 contestants in each event at the conclusion of the regular season earn the right to play for the biggest paychecks in the sport over 10 nights in the Nevada desert.
Smith earned his way there by having the best season of his young career. In a sport where dollars equal points, he earned $94,429 over the rigors of the 2016 campaign. But that’s not the most impressive aspect of his race to Vegas.
“The start of the year wasn’t much to talk about,” he said. “I had a horrible start and only had $5,000 won coming into June. From June on, I got on a roll, and everything worked pretty good.”
That’s almost $90,000 in just four months. Those are some serious wages, and he has an outstanding chance to add to that over 10 December nights. The NFR boasts of a purse of $8.8 million, and Smith has an opportunity to earn more than $200,000 in a week and a half. Go-round winners will earn $26,231, and average champions will pocket more than $67,000 for having the best cumulative score over the 10-round finale.
He will carry the hefty momentum from the regular season into the championship, having earned nine titles through the regular season. His biggest came in St. Paul, Ore., over the Fourth of July. Smith posted an 86.5-point ride to share the title with fellow first-time NFR qualifier Garrett Tribble; both men earned just shy of $8,000 in the historic arena.
“St. Paul boosted me a lot,” Smith said. “After that, I knew I there was time I could catch up and qualify for the NFR. That was a huge win for me.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. He had been struggling to stay atop bulls, so getting one ridden to win provided the cowboy with the confidence he needed to continue his run. Consistency quickly followed, and the money started rolling in.
As children growing up around rodeo, Smith and his brothers, Wyatt and Payson, were involved in the game from an early age. They played around the chutes and had first-hand instruction from folks who knew the sport best. He transitioned through the ranks, from sheep to calves to steers.
“They let me get on my first bull when I was 13,” he said. “After that, I was just hooked.”
And he has had a great support system along the way.
“My family has been a huge part of where I am now,” Smith said. “I also had a lot of help from Allen Teller with Truth Bucking Stock. Not only is he one of my sponsors, but he took my bull riding to the next level.
“I’ve been going there since I was 14. The relationship we’ve built and the way he’s taught me has been a huge key to this whole success.”
He also has financial backing from Project Filter, Resistol, Cache Valley Cryotherapy and Streamline Chiropractic. It’s that type of sponsorship commitment that helps him make the right business decisions for this career.
But on the road, he also enlisted the assistance from traveling partners Rylan Wright and Tag Elliott, the latter of whom qualified for the NFR in 2012. Not only do they make their way along the ProRodeo trail together to split the costs associated with, Wright and Elliott have served as mentors to the young Smith.
“The experience that they brought into it was a lot of how they helped,” Smith said. “I’ve looked up to Tag for a long time, and I’ve always wanted to be like him. He showed me how not to get worked up and not worry about just one ride.
“I followed him like a puppy, and I guess it worked. Rylan’s been around the game a long time, and he taught me a whole bunch about the mental side. We’ve known how to ride bulls, but the mental stuff is what gets a lot of people in bull riding.”
It all aids in the maturity of a young athlete. That will help him greatly as he competes inside those famous yellow bucking chutes just a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip, but he’s got a trump card up his sleeve: Older brother Wyatt was a 2014 NFR qualifier in steer wrestling and, more importantly, Wyatt enlisted Garrett’s help as his hazer for the final five go-rounds.
At just 19 years old, Garrett Smith was involved in the biggest rodeo of the year trying to be in the right place at the right time for his big brother.
“The whole time, I just wanted to puke,” he said. “I’ve never felt anything like that. I’ve hazed for him at a lot of big rodeos, but that was as big of a deal with the biggest crowd I’d ever experienced.”
Now he’ll experience it all for himself as he rides for the gold buckle.
“When I hazed for Wyatt, I was so nervous because I didn’t want to screw anything up for him,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to be a whole lot easier to deal with because I should be more in control of things.”
The pressure of the NFR is intense, and Smith has experienced it first-hand as the primary assistant for his bulldogging brother. Now the compression changes as the focus is strictly on him and his bull riding talents.
That’s just the way he wants it.