APPLETON, Minn. – J.D. Struxness isn’t afraid of hard work.
It’s coming in quite handy these days as he prepares to compete at his second Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas. He enters ProRodeo’s finale 13th in the steer wrestling standings with $76,442; it’s just inside the top 15 but still nearly $87,000 behind the leader, Ty Erickson.
The good news is that the NFR offers the biggest payday in the game, an $8 million purse. With go-rounds winners earning more than $26,000 a night for 10 rounds, Struxness can make up all that ground over four nights in the City of Lights.
“We’re practicing every day and getting the horses in shape,” said Struxness, 23, of Appleton, Minn. “I go to the gym as much as I can to get myself in shape.”
He’s doing that in his second home of Alva, Okla., where he attended Northwestern Oklahoma State University on a rodeo scholarship after two years at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. That’s also where he works with his mentor, Stockton Graves, the Northwestern rodeo coach who qualified for the NFR seven times.
In fact, Struxness spent much of the season traveling the ProRodeo trail with Graves, who focused his summer on making sure his protégé returned to the Nevada desert in December.
“Having Stockton with me this year helped a lot,” Struxness said. “He’s made it so many times, so he knew where we needed to go and what we needed to do to make it work.
“It helps a lot to travel with someone who has been there and done that a bunch of times. They’ve been in all the different situations you can come upon, and they can give you the advice you need to get through it.”
He gone through quite a bit. The 2017 season was much different than the year before. A year ago, he won the college championship and capitalized on that momentum to pick up some key victories en route to his first NFR. This year, he earned just one victory, and that came in early June.
Even without big victories, he was able to earn his way to Las Vegas by placing all along the way. His biggest single payday came at Cheyenne, Wyo., the same rodeo he won a year ago. This year, though, he finished fourth overall but still pocketed $9,781.
“Going through years like this shows there’s more work to be done,” he said. “We’ve been in the weight rook and practicing to fix mistakes. My biggest flaw is my riding; I tend to get off too early. We’ve been working on that and my transitions a little bit to get that go off my horse every time I need.
“It’s all so I can get a good head catch every time.”
It takes solid horsemanship and tremendous athleticism to be that consistent, but Struxness has it. In high school, his athletic, 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame came in handy for the Lac qui Parle Valley High School football team, where he was a star linebacker/fullback. In wrestling, he was a two-time runner-up to the Minnesota state champion in the 220-pound weight class.
He started chute-dogging as a sixth-grader and began steer wrestling two years later.
“It was always fun to me,” Struxness said. “With the success I had in it, I just kept climbing up the ladder.”
It’s a good thing, but none of it could be done without his family. His father, Dan, and mother, Missy, are hard-working Minnesotans who have been there for J.D. and his siblings: sisters Kacey and Lauren and brother Colton.
“My family is a big deal to me,” he said. “They’ve been supportive in what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, whether it was football, wrestling or rodeo. Now that it’s rodeo, they’re all in. They’re on the edge of their chairs wanted to know how I do every week.
“Being able to have a family like that means the world to me. Instead of telling me I needed to come home and get a job, they tell me I should be out there living my dream.”
And just like he did a season ago, Struxness will ride Peso, a horse he purchased from Graves last fall.
“I feel like we got along really good at the finals last year,” said Struxness, who credits his sponsorship with Arena Trailer Sales as a key ingredient to his rodeo success. “To have him this year and to work through our highs and lows worked out. He’s a horse that works everywhere. You’re just more confident because you know what’s under you.
“Vegas is a big play on confidence. We have our repetitions together, and that’s important because everything goes so fast out there.”
The good news, though, is Struxness is fast, too. With his work ethic and another year under his belt, he stands in a good place to make a big impact in Sin City this year.