By now, the cowboys and cowgirls of the National Finals Rodeo are headed back to Stephenville, Texas, where it seems most of them are from, and to the other dusty cow towns. Or they will be headed home shortly, because I heard Las Vegas is plumb out of whiskey.
A small percentage are headed home with gold buckles, a higher percentage with a check from the $6.25 million purse. You ride something for eight seconds at the NFR, you rope something in less time, you ride real fast around these barrels that look like giant cans of Coors beer, they give you a nice check. But don’t spend it all at the Cowboy Christmas.
A tiny, tiny percentage is going home with the phone number of one of the black-bikini-and-chaps-wearing barmaids from Gilley’s Saloon, because I have heard from single cowpokes who say those Gilley’s barmaids play awfully hard to get. A lot harder than the Calamity Janes who tend bar in Cheyenne during Frontier Days.
One family, the Meads from Thermopolis, Wyo., or just outside of Thermopolis, is leaving Las Vegas with something way more valuable.
The Mead family consists of Luke Mead, who drives one of those big water trucks in the oil fields outside of Thermopolis; his wife, Valerie, who comes from a ranching family back there; and their daughter, Jayci, part-owner of this bull with a white face and brown ears that was entered in the Bucking Bull Games World Finals.
Now, the Bucking Bull Games, part of which were held at the Cowboy Marketplace at Mandalay Bay, aren’t directly related to the NFR, which takes place at the Thomas &Mack Center. But the Bucking Bull Games pay $1.3 million in prize money, and they also smell like the NFR. So perhaps they are first cousins.
The white-faced, brown-eared bull who Jayci Mead partly owns is called JJ’s Dream.
The bull is 2 years old; Jayci is 21, which is young for a bull owner but not unheard of.
She also has autism, which is pretty much unheard of among the bull owners at the Bucking Bull Games.
Jayci Mead’s bull had to post a minimum score of 85 to make the final go-round and qualify for a shot at the first-place prize of $500,000. JJ’s Dream was scored 81.8 by the judges.
When the chute clanged open, the white-faced bull with the brown ears kicked up his hind legs and briefly bucked like the dickens. But he landed too close to the gate. That seemed to throw off his pattern.
At least that’s what Billy Jaynes, CEO of a Texas-based company called Exclusive Genetics, which raises and transports the bucking bulls to these lucrative events so people like Jayci Mead can become intimately involved for a relatively small investment (of about $15,000), said on the microphone.
(Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona owns an Exclusive Genetics yearling bull named Big Tito, after his father.)
Valerie Mead turned to her daughter in the temporary bleachers and started to frown, even before Billy Jaynes began talking about spin patterns on the microphone. She knew the score wouldn’t be good enough.
Big Luke Mead, who had been standing, plopped down in resignation.
Jayci Mead, who had been smiling, wrote down JJ’s Dream’s score in her official program and kept smiling.
You might have heard how animal therapy can bring people with disabilities out of their shells, how rubbing a dog or a cat between the ears, or maybe caring for a horse, can brighten one’s day. Well, you can’t rub a 2,000-pound bucking bull between the ears, unless you’ve got a real long arm that you won’t be needing. But since Jayci Mead became part owner of JJ’s Dream, it was as if she moved to Alaska in summertime. The sun in her world never sets.
Jayci’s partners are L.J. Jenkins, a star bull rider on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, and a young woman named Madison Doherty. They have become Jayci’s surrogate brother and sister. This is even cooler than getting the phone number of one of those Gilley’s barmaids, if you ask me; if you ask Luke and Valerie Mead back in the bullpen after the bucking is through.
Valerie hooked her thumb toward where Jayci and Madison Doherty were carrying on like sisters. Jayci expresses herself so much better when she’s around JJ’s Dream and the other bulls, Valerie says. Jayci even has a job now, at a grocery store.
“Put things away,” Jayci says about what she does.
“You know how people send their kids to college?” her mom says out back by the bullpens. “Well, this is her college.”
Jayci now has a Facebook page, which she updates herself. She offers L.J. Jenkins encouraging words when he gets bucked off, or when those Brazilians beat him. She also offers him perspective, which goes unstated, until you speak to L.J. Jenkins.
“I mean, look at her,” L.J. said as JJ’s Dream continued to paw at the dirt and occasionally butt horns against the bullpen. “The bull didn’t have his best outing, but she’s as happy as ever. That right there lifts me and Madison up.”
Billy Jaynes came by and said Exclusive Genetics is exploring the possibility of raising awareness in autism in an official capacity. If it happens, that’s going to lift additional people up.
Finally, Luke Mead came over.
Luke Mead is a big fellow who sports a bushy goatee and once played nose tackle at Eastern Arizona junior college. He’s a tough man who does tough work, driving those big rigs out in the oil fields near Thermopolis. He could be on front of the Brawny paper towels package; he even wears a red flannel shirt.
He said Jayci was in the fourth grade when she was diagnosed with autism. “Heartbreaking,” he said. One word response. No words to elaborate.
But there is a gentleness to this man that one can see in his eyes.
After all the rodeo people had come by — L.J. and Madison and Billy Jaynes and all the rest, to say hello to his daughter; to wish her better luck next time; to make her feel that she is part of something special, which she is — there also was a redness in Luke Mead’s eyes. It appeared he had been crying.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.