WHEATLAND, Wyo. – Tyler Willis has had a busy fall, and it’s not been in a rodeo arena.
Willis, a 23-year-old bull rider from rural eastern Wyoming, will ride his next bull at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, ProRodeo’s grand finale set for Dec. 5-14 in Las Vegas. For the last several weeks, though, Willis has been busy with his own outfitting business, where he guides hunters on expeditions on his family’s ranch about halfway between Wheatland and Laramie.
“I grew up hunting, so I go with the hunters around our place,” Willis said. “We hunt antelope, mule deer and elk. It’s another passion, and I have a lot of fun taking people and guiding them. It’s probably more fun for me to take people on the hunt and watching them be successful than it is for me to shoot something. We have a really good set up for it.”
That’s great, and it’s one of the major benefits to living in rural Wyoming, which is the Cowboy State. That’s quite a fitting title for Willis, whose family runs a ranch along the rangeland in the eastern part of the state.
“Our legislature really likes the rodeo, and they’ve been really supportive,” Willis said. “It’s really neat that we’re the only state with a program that supports Wyoming cowboys. They’ve done a lot for the Western heritage, and I really appreciate all that they do.”
That’s all part of the Wyoming pride the cowboy takes to every project. It’s why he decided to take a few months off the rugged ProRodeo trail in order to serve a little Wyoming hospitality to those who are looking for a good time hunting.
“Most of what we do are four-day hunts, and they generally stay five nights,” Willis said of his outfitting company, which just experienced its first fall season. “They stay in our bunkhouse, and my mom cooks them all our meals. They’re pretty much stuck out there for four days.”
That’s not a bad thing. Tammy Willis offers all the comforts of home, and Don Willis is quite proud of his place.
“A lot of the ones I had this year … it was their first time for whatever species,” Tyler Willis said. “All were pretty experienced hunters, but not in Wyoming, and not in the climate change and the wind all the time.
“The first year went pretty good.”
He’s hoping his second year at the NFR goes just as well, if not better. You see, Willis had a pretty good first experience in Las Vegas. He placed in five of 10 go-round and placed third in the average. In all, he finished the 2011 season with $146,558, good enough for six in the final world standings – in rodeo, money equals points, so the contestant in each event with the most money won at the end of the season is crowned world champion.
“I want to go at it just the same way I went at it the first time,” he said. “The first time I went in blind and didn’t know what was going on. It went really good, but I need to go at it and not overthink anything.
“So far this early in my career, I think my finish in 2011 is the best I’ve experienced. That was pretty cool.”
Yes, it was. Not bad for a young man who grew up on a ranch in eastern Wyoming with is parents, older sister, Jennifer; younger sister, Kaila; and younger brother Nathan. Rodeo is in Tyler’s blood, so excited to chase that dream.
“My dad rode some bareback horses,” Willis said. “My Uncle Wes, on my mom’s side, rode bulls. My cousin rode bulls, and that’s how I got started.
“I was 9 when two calves that year, and the next year I started on a steer. I was probably 12 when I got on a big bull.”
The cowboy has gotten bigger, too. Now 5-feet-11 and 155 pounds, Willis knows what it takes to ride bulls at an elite level. He was the PRCA Resistol Bull Riding Rookie of the Year in 2009 and just missed returning to the NFR in 2012, finishing 19th in the world standings, just four spots shy of the top 15, which earn the right to play for the biggest pay in the sport in the Nevada desert. Willis attended Vernon (Texas) College on a rodeo scholarship and learned a lot about the business that is rodeo.
“Going to college should be a stepping stone to helping you compete somewhere,” he said. “It’s a lot better than going from amateur rodeo to the pros. You learn a little more consistency. It was a really good experience, because I was going up against a lot of the top guys every weekend.”
Willis has been doing that ever since. Whether it was at a small rodeo in Wyoming or on the biggest stage in the game, the Wyoming cowboy has succeeded.
“My family’s always supported me from when I first started with whatever I wanted to do,” Willis said. “They just try to give me the best advice they can when I’m in need of it. They support me with whatever I decide to do. That has played a role in my success.”