APPLETON, Minn. – The 2016 rodeo season has already been spectacular for J.D. Struxness.
It might just be getting better.
Now a senior at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Struxness capped off his junior campaign by winning the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s steer wrestling championship this past June. He then utilized that success into an amazing season in ProRodeo for his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“Being able to have a year like that in my second year is a big confidence-booster,” said Struxness, 21, of Appleton. “Once I got the ball rolling, it just kept rolling, and I kept climbing in the standings until the end of the year.
“I think once I was able to break the top 15 in the world standings, it just made things easier.”
Now the Minnesota cowboy has a chance to become just the fourth man in rodeo history to have won the college championship and a world championship in the same calendar year. If he could muster that incredible feat, he would join all-around cowboy Ty Murray (1989), bull rider Matt Austin (2005) and saddle bronc rider Taos Muncy (2007).
“I think he deserves to be mentioned with those guys,” said Stockton Graves, the Northwestern rodeo coach and a seven-time NFR qualifier. “He’s not there yet, but eventually he will be. He’s been an extraordinary talent since I’ve known him.
“Very few people have made the NFR at 21 in steer wrestling. He finished 19th his rookie year and is fourth this year. It’s a pretty neat deal. We’re very proud of him at Northwestern to be a college national champion. To make the NFR on top of that is just crazy.”
It shows the type of athleticism the 6-foot-2, 240-pound man possesses. As a high-schooler at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison, Minn., Struxness was a stalwart linebacker/fullback on the football team and as a 220-pound wrestler; he was a two-time runner-up to the Minnesota state champion.
He considered a college career in both those sports but opted for grappling steers instead. He was part of the rodeo program at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo., for two years and qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in 2013. He transferred to Northwestern, where he earned the coveted title at the college finale.
“Winning the college championship helps me because I was able to handle the pressure and win when I was supposed to win,” Struxness said. “With the steers I drew at the college finals and the horse I was riding, I was set up to have success. It really helps your confidence by being able to perform in situations like that.”
That confidence sparked a fire in him, and he utilized it through the highs and lows of the 2016 ProRodeo season. Of course, there were more highs than lows, and it resulted in Struxness earning $84,435. He sits fourth in the world standings heading into the NFR, the sport’s premier championship that takes place Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas; only the top 15 in the world standings at the end of the regular season advance to the City of Lights.
“Being able to win that kind of money and going into the finals sitting fourth is pretty special,” Struxness said. “The bulldogging race is close. Going in toward the top of the standings is pretty important. Hopefully I can make a lot of money out there. With it paying $26,000 a night (for winning a go-round), it doesn’t take very long for it to add up into a pile of it.”
Money is vital. Not only is it how cowboys make a living in the sport they love, but dollars also equal points. That means the contestant who finishes the campaign with the most money earned will be crowned world champion in each event. Struxness is just $8,500 behind the leader, Ty Erickson. One go-round in Vegas could push the Minnesotan into the lead.
In fact, fourth place in a round pays $11,000, so many things can happen over 10 December nights in Sin City. The most important part is getting there, and Struxness earned a number of key titles along the way.
“I think winning Cheyenne was the kicker to really get things rolling,” he said of the Frontier Days Rodeo in Wyoming in late July, where he earned $15,643. “I’d been winning consistently and been getting close to the top 15, but Cheyenne was a big jump and started the momentum rolling toward the end of the season.”
That momentum continued. Two weeks after winning in Cheyenne, he earned championships in both Lawton, Okla., and Lovington, N.M., to pad his earnings. But none of it was possible without a strong understanding of his craft and a love affair with the sport.
“I started chute dogging in sixth grade,” he said. “My dad rodeoed in high school. I got to watch the NFR on TV, and I always liked it and wanted to try it. I started bulldogging in about the eighth grade and always took to it. It was always fun to me. With the success I had in it, I just kept climbing up the ladder.”
It’s a good thing, but none of it could be done without his family. His father, Dan, and mother, Missy, are hard-working Minnesotans who have been there for J.D. and his siblings: sisters Kacey and Lauren and brother Colton.
“My family is a big deal to me,” he said. “They’ve been supportive in what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, whether it was football, wrestling or rodeo. Now that it’s rodeo, they’re all in. They’re on the edge of their chairs wanted to know how I do every week.
“Being able to have a family like that means the world to me. Instead of telling me I needed to come home and get a job, they tell me I should be out there living my dream.”
He is living a dream, and it’s been a dream season. Even with his physical size, strength and ability, there’s another intangible that has led to Struxness’ success.
“One of his major strengths is his mental side of it,” Graves said. “Knowing the game, knowing what it takes to win and knowing what horses he needs to ride is important. Knowing the mental aspect of it and not getting ahead of himself is where he’s matured the most.
“He was a winner when he got to Northwestern, but he has matured in the mental game as fast as the physical game. That doesn’t happen very often. That’s where people become great when they can figure that out. He’s learned how to win on a consistent basis. Those that win week in and week out know how to win, period.”
Graves has been a true mentor. During Struxness’ rookie campaign in 2015, the two traveled the ProRodeo trail together, and that learning paid off for the young cowboy.
“Stockton has helped me a lot with getting my career started,” Struxness said. “Now that I’ve made the finals, he’s helped me practice and make sure the horses are sharp and I’m sharp heading to the finals.”
Now he’ll take all those lessons with him to the bright lights of The Strip and the $8.8 million up for grabs in Las Vegas. It’s almost surreal.
“Making the finals is huge; it means a lot,” he said. “There aren’t many guys that make it when they’re young and still in college. It’s a great start, and hopefully we can keep things going for more years to come.”