No matter where you travel around the region, you’ll find kids
playing all kinds of organized sports – from baseball to bowling. But a
growing number of young people around the Great Lakes are embracing a
sport that’s traditionally been practiced in the Western U-S. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports:
About a dozen boys and girls are gathered outside on a chilly, windy afternoon in Kent City,
Michigan dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and hats. They’ve gome to practice the sport of rodeo. The
athletes specialize in different events, including barrel racing, goat tying and steer wrestling.
Tonight, they’re at Sue and Andy Sharp’s house to practice. Most of the kids bring their own
horses, and the Sharps have a few steers for roping and wrestling.
SUE: “You would like to be able to practice once or twice a week at least, if possible. Not all
the kids can do that, though, because some don’t have a place near them, and they have to travel
quite a ways.”
The Sharps met when they were both competing on the Pro Rodeo Circuit. But now, they’re passing on
their skills to a new generation of riders.
“In 1974, when I first started, and before that, there were rodeos. But nowhere near as many are
there now. When they went through the phase of the urban cowboy, it really started to grow east of
the Mississippi and got more notoriety and people started to get involved, and that’s continued
Still, rodeo riders aren’t exactly commonplace in these parts, but their ranks are steadily
growing – fed by the increasing number of high school rodeo teams and 4-H programs. In fact,
several of the current youth rodeo champs come from the Great Lakes States. Wisconsin is home to
the world champion high school bareback rider. Indiana hosts the world champion in pole bending.
And Michigan is the home of the national champion bull rider.
With programs like the Little Britches Rodeo Association, kids as young as toddlers can get
involved in the sport. Tonight, Cody Schmitz has the distinction of being the youngest one at the
CODY: “I’m a bull rider.”
NELSON: “You’re a bull rider. How old are you?”
NELSON: “Ten. And you ride a bull.”
CODY: “But I don’t ride, like, big bulls. I ride, like, these steers and stuff.”
Cody says just like other athletes, he gets nervous before a ride.
CODY: “You get butterflies and stuff, but once you get on, then they just go away and you’re just
having fun and sitting there. But it’s not very good to hang up.
NELSON: “What does that mean, to hang up?”
CODY: “Hang up as in, your hand’s still stuck in the rope and then it’s pulling and stuff. Well,
it’s not very good.”
Cody weighs about ninety pounds and stands just under five feet. But the steers can weigh hundreds
of pounds, so it’s a kind of understatement to say that rodeo can be dangerous. Just ask Matt
Kostel. He used to compete, but now he just watches from the sidelines.
“Had a little accident with a bull. He caught me in the forehead right here with a horn and put me
in the hospital. And they put plates in my forehead and screws and had to do reconstructive
surgery on me.”
Even so, Kostel hopes to someday return to the sport. For many – like Cody Schmitz – the rewards
outweigh the risks. Riders can win cash and even college scholarships. Cody’s only been competing
for a couple of years, but he’s already set his sights on becoming a pro. At tonight’s practice,
he’s decked out in a protective vest and mouth guard – ready to ride a steer.
(sound of rosin rubbing on rope)
“All right! Come on, Cody!”
Cody’s fourteen-year-old brother, Eric, helps him get ready: rubbing rosin on the rope for a
better grip. Then Eric and some of the other boys gather ’round to give Cody some final bits of
ERIC: “No matter what he does, keep shuffling your feet. Feel comfortable – start kicking.”
GUY 2: “Get right up on your hands, don’t get off it.”
Then Cody gives the signal, and they’re off.
GUYS: “Look at ’em buck, Cody! Look at ’em buck!”
The steer almost immediately throws cody to the ground, and the whole thing’s over in a matter of
seconds. Cody’s hurting from a hard fall on his elbow. But after a pep talk from his brother Eric,
he’s soon up and ready to ride again.
ERIC: “How bad do you want it?”
ERIC: “Then you better try. Because without trying, you ain’t got nothing, right?”
This ride goes better for Cody. He’s able to hold on a little longer before getting bucked off.
It’s a close-knit group here tonight – not just the brothers, but all of the riders. And most say
they’ll continue riding, either as pros or just for fun, because, as Eric Schmitz says, rodeo is
as much a lifestyle as it is a sport.
“I mean, everybody’s together, everybody’s friends, you help each other out. I don’t know how to
explain it – it’s just kind of a cowboy deal, I guess. And I couldn’t imagine myself doing a thing
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Wendy Nelson in Kent City, Michigan.