Cinch NFR qualifiers recount the day of the UNLV shooting
It was a typical Wednesday, the day before the start of the National Finals Rodeo. One-hundred-nineteen contestants were at the Thomas & Mack Center with family members and friends, rehearsing for the event’s grand entry.
Shots rang out in the Frank and Estella Beam Hall, just a couple of buildings away. A gunman, identified by police as 67-year-old Anthony Polito, was the alleged mass assailant, killing three UNLV faculty members and injuring another.
Campus officials and police responded quickly; cowboys, cowgirls and others were quarantined inside the arena for their safety while first responders took action.
“Hats off to Randy Corley and everybody that was there announcing, because they did a really good job of conducting us,” said Cinch saddle bronc rider Kade Bruno, 23, a two-time NFR qualifier from Challis, Idaho. “They didn’t come right out and tell us there was an active shooter, but they said there was a situation outside.”
“They hustled us into the tunnel and were asking us to get in the arena,” said Cinch steer wrestler Jacob Talley, 32, a five-time NFR qualifier from Keatchie, Louisiana. “They were pretty vague about what was going on, but we all started looking up on the news and family started calling asking if everybody was OK.
“Once you realized what was going on, you’re worried about the people outside. You didn’t even know where it was or how close it was, but it breaks your heart for the people outside that somebody was doing what they were doing.”
The emotions were high, but both cowboys and most of the others in the building remained calm. There was fear of the unknown, but they tried to handle the situation as best as they could. The 119 NFR contestants took the traditional photos and were going about the business that they could.
“We were just going to grand-entry practice, and a lot of us were still sitting outside waiting to get started, and they called everybody in,” said Cinch tie-down roper Kincade Henry, 21, a two-time NFR qualifier from Mount Pleasant, Texas. “You could see the choppers flying around, and there was an alarm in the background, but I honestly didn’t think anything of it until they asked us to come into the arena.
“We took event group pictures and all that stuff, and everybody was just hanging out for about an hour and a half. A buddy of mine was walking around looking out the windows, and he saw the SWAT team pull up.”
SWAT officers entered the building and cleared it, but there were some intense moments inside the Thomas & Mack for everyone involved. Once armed enforcers made their way around the 18,000-seat arena, the emotions escalated.
“Me, my girlfriend, my sister and my driver all jump on the arena dirt, and people are kind of scattering, and that’s when I realized this might be real,” Henry said. “It got pretty intense fast.”
Minutes later, they were told to exit the arena, where officers helped everyone walk back to the stalls, which are west of the arena but still on the UNLV campus.
“When they brought us inside, they told us it would be only about 20 to 30 minutes, but it was pretty scary,” Bruno said. “The shooter wasn’t in the Thomas & Mack, but just knowing what was going on outside and we were just stuck in there was pretty nerve-wracking. We were just hoping and praying for the best and that everybody was alright.”
Because of the shooting, UNLV closed operations for the rest of this week. That forced the cancelation of Thursday’s opening performance. Boards from the PRCA and Las Vegas Events met Thursday morning to decide how to handle the NFR. The first round took place Friday night, and an additional performance that will not be open to the public will take place at 10 a.m. Wednesday. A moment of silence was held prior to the opening night.
“I wasn’t sure how they would handle that,” Bruno said. “I know they wanted to avoid weekends; there’s an NFL game this weekend, so they didn’t want to try to have another round over that. I think they handled it probably the best they could. Ten o’clock in the morning is pretty early to get up and ride broncs, but we’ll make it work.
“We’re just thankful at the end of the day we’re going to have 10 rounds and that it could have been worse. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families affected, but we’re happy to have 10 rounds.”
“I’m happy with the way they handled it,” Henry said. “The family members and friends of the people that lost their lives and all the students deserved a break and deserved the recognition for what they’ve been through.”
There is a great deal of emotion in and around Las Vegas this December. Flags are flying at half staff around this city. Lives were lost, hearts are broken, but people are resilient. The National Finals Rodeo will continue and with it, a piece of Americana will be shared with the world.
“It’s different, but at least we get to compete 10 times,” Talley said. “It’s bad for what happened, and you don’t want to take away from the families and the people that lost someone close to them. It’s a bigger situation than us just getting to rodeo.
“It’s just my opinion, but people that do that want to take over and try to create fear. I believe the best thing that could have happened was still have a rodeo Thursday night and to show that there are crazies in the world trying to hurt people, but we’re not going to give into that fear.”