LAS VEGAS – The first time Stockton Graves swung his leg over a horse, his dreams were about those fabulous gold buckles awarded to the season’s world champions.
The last time Graves swing his leg over a horse, the dream was the same.
That’s just part of the life of a man who makes his living jumping off a perfectly good horse onto a sprinting steer in the world of rodeo. Oh, and he’s pretty good at it, too, qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seven times in eight years as one of the top 15 bulldoggers in the world standings year after year.
“I’m dang sure excited to be back in Las Vegas since I missed it last year,” said Graves, who last week was announced as rodeo coach at his alma mater, Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva. “Missing it last year sure set me on fire to do better this year.
“I’m glad to be there because this is what we do for a living. When we started in Odessa (Texas) and Denver in January, we want to be in Vegas in December.”
Graves finished the regular season 14th in the world standings. That’s great, because the NFR takes only the top 15 contestants in each event. But also it means he has an uphill battle if he’s going to place that gold buckle on his belt at the conclusion of the 10-day marathon in the Nevada desert.
“I sure had high hopes at coming in to the NFR higher,” said Graves, who first qualified for the NFR in 2004. “I started off this season really good, then it kind of died off this summer. I didn’t win anything. I made a little bit of a change, and I ended up slipping in there.”
Ask any cowboy or cowgirl who has aspirations of competing full time on the rodeo trail, and they’ll point to that Montana Silversmiths gold buckle as their primary focus. A competitor wants to be a champion, no matter the event. But the reality is that rodeo also is Graves’ business, and the Wrangler NFR offers the biggest prize pool of any rodeo all season. Las Vegas is where the world champions will be crowned, but $6 million in prize money will be dished out to the 119 competitors in the field.
“There’s nothing like driving into Vegas and getting on Las Vegas Boulevard, driving down Tropicana and seeing the Thomas & Mack Center,” said Graves, who credits his relationship with Coats Saddlry, Purina and Rodeo Rigs for helping him manage the business of rodeo. “It’s an exhilarating rush knowing you made it. You never get to a point where that gets old. It’s what we love to do. If a guy doesn’t get a thrill from seeing the Thomas & Mack, then he just needs to quit.
“The first time is the biggest thrill. You worked your whole life to get there, then that first time is definitely going to be more exciting than anything. I’m almost back to that point after missing a year. After not being there for two years, I think we’ll get pretty excited when we roll into town.”
The excitement comes from a lifetime of living this dreams. Graves grew up in Ponca City, Okla., where his father, Jim, works for Conoco. But Jim Graves was a steer wrestler who taught his son the techniques of grappling a farm animal. Stockton Graves’ mom, Cheryl, is a nurse, but also she was a rodeo mom.
“My dad and my mom hauled me around to all them junior rodeos and high school rodeos,” Stockton Graves said. “They did what it took to make me successful. They sacrificed a lot to make things good for me.”
If his parents spoiled him, his sisters didn’t. Whether Jamie (Graves) Burger, Kaycee (Graves) Chambers or Royce (Graves) Leather were doing things around the house or building on their own athletic prowess, they made sure their baby brother worked for everything he got. Obviously it worked.
“My sisters rodeoed through junior rodeo and a little more, but they were successful basketball and softball players,” Graves said. “They pursued that avenue.”
It’s a pretty good thing Graves has pursued his. He’s an established veteran in the sport; all that’s lacking is that coveted world championship.
“Rodeo is something I dedicated my life to,” he said. “We’ve worked hard. There’s a great camaraderie with the bulldoggers, and everybody’s friends. I’m friends with all those guys, and we all have a good family. It’s just good to be part of that family at the NFR.
When a guy gets a chance to be there, you don’t want to waste it. You want to have as much fun as you can and enjoy it. It’s not going to last forever, and everybody realizes that.”
Of course, it helps that he’s got a great partner in Gunner, owned by Jesse Peterson.
“Luke Branquinho and I are going to ride him in Vegas, and I’m pretty excited about it,” Graves said. “He’s been to the NFR more than I ever have. He’s a great horse. He’s one of the top two or three horses at the NFR. It’s nice to be able to ride him going in there.”
What’s also nice is having his fiancé, Crissi Loch, by his side, where she’s been for the last 11 years. The rodeo life means a lot of time on the road away from home, but those are the cards dealt to the couple.
“She’s been a crutch for me throughout rodeoing,” Graves said. “It’s not easy on the spouses, with us being gone and staying gone. They definitely go through a lot. She does a good job, and she supports me a lot. That helps.”
When Oklahoman Garth Brooks sang the song about rodeo, the lyrics spoke of the bulls and the blood, the dust and the mud. But there’s something special that beats in the chest of every elite contestant, and Graves has it.
“It’s something I love to do,” he said. “It’s bred into me, and it’s in my blood.”