WAVERLY, Kan. – The truest form of competitor comes out at the most unexpected of times.
Michael Jordan’s defining moment came in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, when he battled the flu but still scored 38 points in the Chicago Bulls’ victory over the Utah Jazz.
For bareback rider Jess Pope, that moment came in early July when he was sidelined with a torn plantar facia in his right foot. The injury can cause intense pain for an extended time. Pope took a few weeks off; when he returned, he quickly jumped into a race for the 2022 world championship.
“I’m excited about going back to the finals and being in a race for the world title,” said Pope, 24, of Waverly, Kansas. “Other than the injury, it was a fun year to be rodeoing. There’s a lot of young talent out there that pushes everybody to become better bareback riders.”
He actually fits into that category, though he’s now an established veteran at a young age. He earned $159,259 through the season and returns to the National Finals Rodeo for the third straight year as the second-ranked bareback rider in the standings. He did pretty well in his first two adventures to ProRodeo’s grand finale, winning the average title by having the best 10-round cumulative score in 2020 and ’21.
During those two seasons, Pope earned more than $560,000, with about $401,000 coming over 20 go-rounds at the NFR. He’ll have 10 more nights to add to that total during this year’s championship, set for Dec. 1-10 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
“What happens with everybody else is out of my control when I get there,” said Pope, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, DewEze, Mahindra, Roxor, Mack Steel, Phoenix Performance Products, Graham School for Cattlemen, Resistol, Bloomer, Panhandle and Rock and Roll Clothing, Veach’s Custom Leather, Emporia Livestock Sales and T Bar T Cattle Co.
“I’ll control what I can control. I’m going to ride each horse to the best of my ability and see how that falls each night.”
In rodeo, cowboys are scored by how well they perform against the animal they are matched with via random draw. For a bareback rider, scores are based on a 100-point scale, with half the score coming from the bucking horse; the other half is based on how well the cowboy spurs the animal in rhythm with its bucking motion.
He can’t control how well his animals will buck each of the 10 December nights. He can’t control how other bareback riders perform their tasks. His is a tunnel vision, and it’s worked well so far in his career. It’s a grown-up approach for a talented man who also has taken the right steps with his injury.
Since that day in early July, he’s taken some herbal and prescribed medicines to control the pain. Beyond that, he’s proven just how tough he is and what kind of cowboy it takes to ride bucking horses on days when it may be difficult to walk. His pointed focus has been a main contributor to his place in the standings and his ability to overcome adversity.
“I think the big thing for me since I started out is just growing up quite a bit,” he said. “When you travel as many days throughout the year, you have responsibilities at home; you have a fiancé and a family and other things you have to take care of. It makes you mature and learn how to slow down and smell the roses.
“Everybody learns how to do that, but for some people, it happens faster than others. For me, it had to come really fast. I wanted to be able to do these things and enjoy this life. You have to find the positives and make every day count.”
That’s just how Pope looks at each day. From taking care of himself and his place to feeding his animals and handling day work as a cowboy in the Kansas Flint Hills, he accepts each opportunity for what it is.
“I enjoy my life,” he said. “I enjoy every day I get to be around my house, and I wouldn’t change my life for anything.”
There are some changes on the horizon, though. It comes with that maturity and seeing what the future might hold with his fiancé, Sydney Odle, to whom he proposed this past May while at her family’s place in eastern Colorado.
That was the highlight of his year, but he had some pretty special moments in the arena, too. He won 13 individual rodeos, including the prestigious RodeoHouston, in which he pocketed more than $60,000. He also has some other key victories scattered throughout to keep him in the middle of the world-championship race from the spring to the fall.
“I’d say the best parts of being a bareback rider are the places I get to see and the people I get to meet,” Pope said. “I don’t have to show up at an office every day. I work at my own schedule. I also know if I’m pretty well anywhere in the United States and need something, I’ll have somebody I can call.”
That extensive travel may be enjoyable, but it can have its downsides to a man with responsibilities back home. He has his own herd of cattle, and they need tended to whether he’s there to do it or not.
“The toughest part is trying to have a plan for after rodeo and to make everything work,” he said. “To focus on rodeo, I have to make sure to get everything done when I’m at home. I have my cowherd. It’s just an ongoing process to make everything better so I have a good retirement one day.”
For now, though, he’s making a pretty good living in rodeo. Unlike most professional sports, there are no guaranteed contracts, and no team is going to cover his business expenses. He must pay a fee at every rodeo in which he hopes to compete, then he must beat most of the bareback riders in that field if he hopes to earn a paycheck.
“I feel like you can always improve, because nobody’s perfect,” said Pope, who attended Missouri Valley College on a rodeo scholarship. “Once you stop improving, then you’re at your max. I don’t think you can get there. There’s always something I’m working on, or I’m studying other guys to see what I can do different.
“There are probably 30 elite bareback riders, and none of us are the same; all of us do something different. It’s finding that one thing they do differently that may work for me.”
When the season comes to a close Dec. 10, whether he’s earned another NFR average title or holds the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle, Pope hopes one thing describes him.
“Consistency is the main key of it all,” he said. “They pay the guy that is supposed to be the best, and to be the best, you’ve got to be consistent. When they crown the world champion, they are giving it to the guy that was the best from the start of the year to the last day of the NFR. “You have to have a purpose to be riding, and being consistent fulfills that purpose.”