Champion may be retired from bull riding, but he’s got plenty on his plate
Life as a professional bull rider can be hectic. From training to travel to competing – sometimes at two locations in the same day during the busiest times of the year – there’s a lot that goes into being elite.
J.W. Harris has felt that rush for much of his 34 years. He started riding animals of some sort around 1990 and just recently announced his retirement as one of the best to have ever competed. A four-time PRCA world champion, nine-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier and three-time contestant at the PBR World Finals, it was time for him to slow down and relax a bit.
Or so he thought.
“Everybody said life would slow down when you quit rodeoing, but it sped up,” said Harris, who lives in tiny Goldthwaite, Texas, in the middle of the Lone Star State. “My kids are involved in a lot of stuff, so I’m probably running around more than I have in a long time.”
It’s certainly different from the last decade and a half of his life on the rodeo trail. He first qualified for the NFR in 2006, a fresh-faced, 20-year-old bull rider full of swagger. Within two years, he’d walk away from the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas with the most cherished prize in his game, the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle awarded to the bull riding world champion.
He followed that season with two more titles, becoming the first man since Donnie Gay to have won three consecutive bull riding championships. He was the talk of the town in every community in which he rode. He added is fourth crown in 2013, virtually solidifying his spot for the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
“I was probably getting on a big ol’ steer when I was 3 or 4 years old at the Coleman (Texas) junior rodeo, and I was talking crap to all the bull riders, telling them that I was going to spur all the hair off that steer except where I was sitting,” he said. “The next thing I know, I was laying flat on my head.”
He may have taken a tumble, but his bravado never changed. He carried that swagger with him for decades, and it served him very well. A second-generation bull rider, it takes a certain mindset to sit atop a bucking beast with nearly a ton and a half of muscle and energy flinging itself around while the cowboy tries to move in step with the animal.
Though he “farted around” with team roping, his passion was matching his athleticism with those of the bucking bovines. Over his established career, Harris rode better than 51 percent of the bulls he attempted. Three times in his career, his riding percentage was at least 60.
That’s elite status. It came from riding steers for years and jumping up to the big-boy bulls in high school. It came from being raised by a true cowboy. Mark Harris was the 1989 Texas Circuit Rookie of the Year who also worked on a racehorse ranch, where he rode racehorses. He passed that along to his son, who carried it to the top of the world.
“I think I knew I was going to be a cowboy from the start,” Harris said. “Just being around cattle, that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Talent comes in many forms, and he had plenty of it. Still, he didn’t realize that he had the talent to be successful until his junior year in high school.
“I rode steers pretty good, and I won a bunch in junior bull riding,” he said. “I struggled a little bit making the transition from junior bulls to big bulls. One day it clicked, and I realized that maybe I had a shot at making a living at it.”
Harris has certainly done that, and he shares that with his family. He married the former Jackie Woolsey in October 2009. They have two children: Aubrey, 10, and Dillon, 8. The kids are involved in rodeo now, so he’s gone from hauling himself and a traveling posse across the country to hitting regional stops for the youngsters.
“The greatest memories for me were the births of both my kids,” Harris said. “Aubrey was born in Vegas the night of the back number presentation (two days before the 2010 NFR). Dillon was born in August (2012) , which made a flying trip from Dodge City (Kansas) to make sure we were there for it.”
Their lives have always revolved around rodeo. Jackie Harris was the 2004 Miss Rodeo Arkansas, and the two met two years after that.
“The one memory that sticks out the most is making the NFR for the first time,” J.W. Harris said. “That’s where I met my wife. Everything leads back to rodeo for me. Obviously winning the four gold buckles is special, and so is winning the (NFR) average. Getting to bring my kids up in that atmosphere is great. They were raised at rodeos. I had a lot of help along the way raising them, but I just enjoyed getting to rodeo with my family. I loved that more than anything.”
A Cinch endorsee for a dozen years, he remembers the day he became involved in the Western clothier. He was competing at a bull riding in Del Rio, Texas. Since then, he added a world championship face to the defining brand in Western wear. Whether he was riding for 90 points or playing pranks on one of his friends, he carried a positive attitude and a relaxed fit everywhere he went.
“I don’t think the transition to retirement will be that great,” he said. “I’ve got plenty to do to keep me busy, and I don’t think I’ll have a hard time adjusting. I’ve been home quite a bit the last couple of years. That makes it easier now.
“I knew it was time to retire. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t want to be there anymore. When you don’t want to be there, that affects your riding. I knew I wasn’t riding the way I could. I’m not going to get myself hurt or somebody else hurt along the way.”
It takes remarkable discipline for a world-class athlete to realize when it’s time to step down from competition. It’s what’s driven him for much of his lifetime, especially the last decade and a half. But there’s more to it than that for rodeo cowboys. Weeks, sometime months, from home make outside relationships a little closer. The bonds are tighter.
“The biggest things you miss in rodeo is hanging out with your friends, either before or after you ride,” Harris said. “You’re shooting the bull, pulling some pranks with one another. We’re gone from home so much that they become an extended part of your family. You can always count on them. They’ll give you their last dollar if it means helping you get down the road.
“You don’t find that in many other parts of life, much less other sports.”
Look for Harris around rodeo in some form or fashion. When baseball season concludes, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be hauling Aubrey and Dillon around the junior circuit. If it’s not that, there may be other opportunities for him. World champions and their gold buckles are treasured, and Harris has earned every accolade that’s come his way.
“I’ll miss getting to aggravate Bennie Beutler (of Beutler & Son Rodeo); I always try to be a big pain in his side at rodeos,” he said with a laugh, denoting the true intentions of one of rodeo’s classic pranksters. “He gives everybody a hard time, so why not give him a hard time?
“I’m going to miss the people: your friends, the committee people you get to meet. Those are some special times.”