LAS VEGAS – Before the celebratory beer could flow, Jess Pope’s tears displayed just what it means to be named a world champion.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid,” said Pope, who won his third straight National Finals Rodeo average championship and dominated the 10 days of competition in Las Vegas. “The first school I ever went to, (three-time world champion) Will Lowe was the instructor – it would have been 2007. When I first walked in there, I thought he was a kid that was getting on.
“He stepped up and started the school. He had his gold buckle on, and I seen that and thought, ‘I want that,’ and now I’ve got it.”
He earned it. He led the world standings through much of the season beginning in March, then got into a late-season battle with Wyoming bronc buster Cole Reiner, who entered the NFR atop the world standings. The Pope put on a show inside the Thomas & Mack Center, riding 10 horses for a cumulative score of 860 points.
That was worth $74,150 and pushed his NFR earnings to more than $231,000. That’s a good living and a dominating performance.
“It is a lot of work getting here,” said Pope, 24, of Waverly, Kansas, and an alumnus of the Missouri Valley College rodeo team. “We sit off October and November, and it’s the fastest two months ever to get ready for this. It doesn’t feel like a long enough time, but it is what we get.
“It was worth all the work coming into this.”
In a sport where dollars equal championship points, he earned $390,620 for the 2022 campaign. That was nearly $75,000 over the No. 2 man in the standings, six-time world champion Kaycee Feild. Pope was so strong over the previous nine days, the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle was his to lose before he arrived at the arena. He spent much of Saturday trying not to think about it all that was on his plate.
“It was hard knowing that all I had to do was come knock out this one more, and I got what I wanted,” he said. “I get a goal I’ve wanted my whole life. It was God’s plan I showed up, and He allowed it to happen. He took all the negative thoughts away. It was perfect. It was the way it was supposed to be.”
Pope had a big lead in the standings heading into the Fourth of July run, then his run was stopped in its tracks. He suffered a foot injury July 1 and didn’t return for a month.
“I tore the plantar facia tendon in my right foot,” Pope said. “I had a horse roll over on me in the middle of the arena. It was hard. I didn’t know how long it would take to heal. I did everything I could, and I was fortunate to come back at Dodge City (Kansas) a month and a week later, five weeks.
“It hurt for another three weeks every time I’d’ get on. I’d get off and hobble across the arena. I did it, and it paid off.”
He spent as much time with his traveling partners, fellow bareback riders Cole Franks and Tim O’Connell, as he did with his family. The three of them battled through injuries and long hours behind the wheel and some of the baddest and best bucking horses in the world to compete together at the NFR.
They all had a good 10 days in the Nevada desert. O’Connell placed in six rounds, finished sixth in the average and earned $104,669. Franks placed eight nights and placed second in the aggregate, eight points behind Pope, and earned $146,952.
“It is an outstanding day for us,” Pope said. “I’m really thankful I get to call all them my brothers. I’m super happy they both had a great week. I’m excited to see what next year brings with them.”
His next year is already filling up. He and his fiancé, Sydney Odle, are planning a May wedding. Where life and rodeo takes him after that is unclear, but he knows he has some things to take care of very soon.
“(This money) is going to have to build a house,” he said. “The trailer house we live in now probably ain’t going to cut it.”
No, but it will be the perfect place to temporarily display the gold buckle he earned.