Pope to defend titles in Vegas

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Jess Pope, the reigning world champion bareback riders, presents a big smile while being interviewed at the conclusion of last year’s National Finals Rodeo. He will return to this year’s finale, his fourth straight qualification.

WAVERLY, Kan. – There are times the belt that holds a gold buckle can get tight and suffocating. It’s happened to the greatest of athletes.

Jess Pope experienced it early this year. It was less like a trophy and more like a noose. The pressure that comes with being the reigning world champion can be volatile.

“I did feel it a little bit at Fort Worth (Texas),” said Pope, 25, the reigning world champion bareback rider from Waverly. “I ended up hurting my neck getting on a horse that I shouldn’t have. I knew better than to get on, but I told myself, ‘You’re last year’s world champion; you have to get on.’

“With hindsight being 20/20, I didn’t have to do anything, so it didn’t take long for me to figure that out either.”

The result of that lesson is Pope earning his fourth straight qualification to the National Finals Rodeo, a place where he has excelled. Not only is the Kansas cowboy the defending world titlist, he will arrive in Las Vegas for the Dec. 7-16 finale as the three-time NFR average champion, the second-most prestigious prize in rodeo. He’s dominant when he rides out of those storied, yellow bucking chutes.

Over his first 30 NFR go-rounds, he has pocketed $632,253. He averages more than $21,000 per night that he’s riding in the Nevada desert.

“Since last December, my year’s been jampacked,” he said. “A year ago in May, I got engaged, and then we went through all the wedding-planning stuff, go to the NFR and win the world title. The following May, we get married, end up buying some land and a house. I’ve just been staying busy.

“I got to rodeo with my brother this summer, and that was probably one of the coolest situations I’ve got put into. For me, it was just being able to see the grind that he has put into every day and being able to push him to be better while he pushes me to be better.”  

Ty Pope, who won the college bareback riding title and the national circuit finals rodeo championship in 2022, finished the regular season 23rd in the world standings. He wasn’t that far down the list from making the NFR, which features only the top 15 cowboys on the money list.

His big brother, though, battled through that early-season neck injury to pocket $127,048; he is 10th in the world standings. With go-round winners earning nearly $31,000 for 10 nights, he has chance to build on his NFR resume and continue to cash in. It’s tough to win a single world championship; it’s even harder when the target is on one’s back as it is for Pope since his Montana Silversmiths gold buckle is the shiniest.

“Winning the world title almost seems unreal,” said Pope, who credits part of his success to his sponsors, DewEze, Mahindra, Roxor, Mack Steel, J.D. Hudgins Brahman Bulls, Graham School for Cattlemen, Resistol, Justin, Boomer, Panhandle and Rock & Roll Clothing, Veach’s Custom Leather, Emporia Livestock Sales and T Bar T Cattle Co.

“It’s something you try for your whole life and that’s your goal. You went in and experienced all the high emotions of that final night, got your picture taken with it, and then it’s taken away from you for a few weeks. You don’t get it back until February, and it’s got your name on it. That’s when it really set in: ‘Wow, this is actually mine.’ ”

It’s also stamped with the year. He will forever be the 2022 world champion bareback rider.

“Then you think nobody really gives a darn about it anymore,” he said. “It’s been good, and I’m very excited and very blessed to have it, but at the same time, it’s from last year. Now, let’s try to do it again.”

It’s a cherished piece of jeweled hardware, and he added to it midway through the year when he married the former Sydney Odle near Brush, Colorado, her family’s home. The two have been together for years, and the wedding was just the icing on the cake to an already fantastic life.

“She’s been to every NFR with me either as a girlfriend or as a fiancé, and she really keeps me grounded,” said Pope, who attended Missouri Valley College on a rodeo scholarship. “She understands this is what I do. We got married on a Sunday, and on Wednesday, I took off to rodeo.”

There are times where he’s away from home for weeks at a time. That’s just part of being a professional rodeo cowboy. Riding bucking horses is the best part, but men like Pope will travel tens of thousands of miles in a year in order to make a living on the rodeo trail.

Family is big for Pope. Besides Sydney, he’s also got a load of backing in Ty, youngest brother Judd and their parents, Bret and Jennifer. They’ll be just a part of his support system for those 10 magical days in Las Vegas. The Popes will leave their Kansas homes for the Nevada desert with their camper in tow.

“It’s nice to have them there and easy to get to,” he said. “If I need to clear my mind, I can just go to the campground and kind of chill out to take my mind off everything and enjoy being around them. I wouldn’t be where I am anyways if it wasn’t for them, Mom and Dad sacrificed a lot for me when I was a kid,

“It seems like there is a whole pile of friends and family from around home that go out there, and it just really pushes me to do better because they have that much faith in me.”

When he’s home, he’s still a cowboy, and that might just be the thing he loves the most. In addition to his own herd, Pope handles day work around his part of the country. Ranchers and livestock owners will call him in to help bring in an ornery bull or help round up a herd. Being in the saddle gives Pope the comfort he cherishes and an opportunity to reflect on the things in his life.

It also helped him heal. After suffering the injury in January, he got back in the saddle and allowed his neck time to recover. He returned to competition in March.

“A guy can have a good winter or a bad winter, and it doesn’t really break you,” Pope said. “You can still make the NFR without having a good winter. I think I was in the top 40 by the time Houston came around (in March), and April and May are pretty slow because you don’t have a lot of rodeos to go to. I couldn’t get the ball rolling for a while. I was drawing in the middle of the pen, even below it, and just funny stuff was happening when I would have a good horse drawn.”

He didn’t move into the top 25 on the money list until mid-July, then he started rolling. While he finished the year with at least a share of nine rodeo victories, he capitalized on a lot of second- and third-place payouts. It all added up, and now he’ll have a chance at the biggest payout of the year in Sin City.

“It was a pretty challenging year to go from being mountain high last year, feeling unstoppable to, ‘Shoot, I’ve got to figure out a way to make this happen,’ ” Pope said. “When I show up in Las Vegas, I expect myself to win. When I show up anywhere, I expect to win as long as I can draw the horses to give me a chance.

“At the end of the day, rodeo doesn’t define who I am as a person, but I’m going to try to take full advantage of the opportunities put in front of me.”


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