WAVERLY, Kan. – Jess Pope is an old-school cowboy living in a society driven by technology and gadgets to make everyday life a little better.
He’s a throwback. He doesn’t need an iPhone on a daily basis. A good day for him would be in the saddle in the rolling Flinthills near his Kansas home, running down stray calves and helping them find their way back home with no phone in sight.
But Pope is different from than cowboys of a generation or two ago. He is a professional rodeo hand who makes his living by riding bucking horses, and he’s one of the best of this era. At just 23 years old, he is about to venture West, off to a land known for its glitz and glam, its bright lights and ringing casinos, where he will compete at the National Finals Rodeo for the second time in a young career.
“When people talk about the greats of bareback riding in the last two decades, I want my name to be in that talk,” said Pope of Waverly, who competed at college rodeo at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri. “We only get to do this for so long, so it’s a young man’s sport. I’ve gotten off to a really good start, but I have a lot of big goals I want to fulfill.”
He accomplished a big achievement last December by winning the average championship at his first NFR. He won more than $170,000 in a week and a half at the one-year home of the NFR in Arlington, Texas; he finished the campaign with $220,029, good enough for third in the final world standings.
It was a huge first step for the cowboy, who had an unconventional start to his world of rodeo.
“I gained a lot of confidence from that,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence going in, and I was really confident leaving there. It carried into this year. I had a great year.
“I think the key is staying to the basics and taking it one horse at a time.”
Yes, that’s a bit cliché, but it’s also a sound strategy, especially for someone who travels tens of thousands of miles a year and may have to get on more than one bucking horse in a day.
“I learned last year that you have to just start with one horse,” Pope said. “You have to stay focused on the one right in front of you. I had great traveling partners this year with Tim (O’Connell) and Cole (Franks). It was easy to stay positive with them. I think that the majority of my success was staying who I am and not trying to be somebody else.”
Who he is happens to be one of the best bareback riders in ProRodeo todahy. He’s also traveling with a couple of others on that list. O’Connell is a three-time world champion who is heading to the NFR for the eighth consecutive time. Franks is the PRCA Bareback Riding Rookie of the Year who won the bareback riding and all-around titles at the College National Finals Rodeo this past June.
Pope, though, had plenty of success himself. He picked up eight individual titles through the season, but his biggest step came from finishing among the top cowboys at many other rodeos. He finished the regular season with $110,024 and will head to Las Vegas sitting sixth in the world standings.
“A lot of people pay attention to the guy that wins first, but if you’re winning a second and a third at every other rodeo every weekend and only winning one every two weeks, you’re going to make a lot of money,” said Pope, who credits his sponsors – Panhandle and Rock and Roll Clothing, Resistol, Bloomer Trailers, Veach’s Custom Leather, Emporia Livestock Sales and T Bar T Cattle Co. – with helping him get up and down the road.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If I can do my job the best of my ability, then it’s going to pay out.”
That’s a solid mindset and one of a proven winner. By finishing so well a year ago, he was invited to be part of the exclusive mix at the Calgary (Alberta) Stampede. For the first time in a number of years, a portion of the money earned in Calgary counted toward the world standings.
“Calgary was awesome,” he said. “There were a lot of people that didn’t get to go, and my thought process was, ‘Somebody’s got to win it, so it may as well be me.’ I had a killer Fourth of July (run), and I carried it on through there.”
He pocketed $17,000 in Alberta, winning two out of four rounds in his pool and placing in the other two. His roll continued after that with big wins in Spanish Fork, Utah; Deadwood, South Dakota; and Lawton, Oklahoma.
His traveling group kept winning, too. All three members of the group will be at the NFR, and only one other traveling posse was able to make that happen in 2021; of course, that group includes Tilden Hooper, the No. 1 man in the standings; Cole Reiner, the 2020 Rookie of the Year; and Kaycee Feild, the reigning and five-time world champion.
“It’s awesome that there are only two rigs that were able to do that this year,” Pope said, noting that Franks is a junior at Missouri Valley and O’Connell was a national champion while attending school in Marshall. “It says something about how Tim enters and how we’re all there. With what we have going on at the college at MoVal, I think there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Each season offers many challenges and may rewards, and this year was no different. There was some back pain that forced adjustments, and there’s always so much time on the road and away from loved ones, but that’s the life of being a rodeo cowboy.
“I learned this year that if I stay true to who I am and just enjoy life and take it for what it is, everything goes a lot smoother,” he said. “Rodeo is so short-lived and people get caught up. This year, it set in that I only get to do this for so long. The memories you make and the people you’re around is only for a short time.
“The previous couple of years, I tried to fit in. I caught myself trying to be who I wasn’t. This year, I was me, and I was more comfortable. I know who I am and what I’m capable of.”
And he has 10 days in Las Vegas to prove it to all the others.