It's difficult to find a more patriotic group of people than those in the rodeo industry.
From contestants, fans and sponsors to staff, administrators and rodeo personnel, there exists a deep and heartfelt respect and love of the nation's armed forces throughout ProRodeo. That was apparent Wednesday night, when the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo paid tribute to the country's soldiers, both past and present, with its opening performance.
The rodeo held "A Salute to our Armed Forces" at the Thomas & Mack Center to kick off Round 7, a ceremony that brought people to their feet and goose bumps to their skin. The rodeo and announcers Bob Tallman and Boyd Polhamus recognized the 70th anniversary of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal with a video and the inspired play of the 42-member First Marine Division Band.
Members of each of the four main branches of the armed forces marched in formation into the arena, and Sgt. Rod Rodriguez, a 92-year-old veteran of Guadalcanal from Henderson, was recognized for his service. The band then played a rousing rendition of the National Anthem, and the building was simply electric.
People cheered, they clapped, some even cried. It was a special night.
Both of my grandfathers served in the U.S. Army, and I have friends who continue to serve today, so the rodeo's opening ceremony was an emotional reminder of what some people sacrifice for the rest of us. Living in Colorado Springs, Colo. - home of the United States Air Force Academy and Fort Carson, among other military institutions - I'm frequently reminded of this, and it was nice to see the grandest rodeo of them all give those who serve a tip of the ol' Resistol, as the saying goes.
Paying homage to the country's armed forces is the norm in ProRodeo, and I've seen inspired and tear-jerking tributes to the military at rodeos across the country. American flags fly high and proud at PRCA rodeos across the nation, and there are numerous contestants who do their part to salute the troops.
Reigning world champion bareback rider Kaycee Feild went on two trips to Kuwait and Iraq, in 2010 and 2011, to give roping demonstrations and talk to troops about rodeo as part of the Wrangler Patriot Tour, and his father, Hall of Famer Lewis Feild, has done something similar. The younger Feild was honest and forthcoming about what he learned on his visits abroad with U.S. troops.
"The first year I went over there, I was just a punk kid," said Feild, who rides with Wrangler Patriot patches on his shirt and chaps. "Going over there year after year really made me grow up a lot, because everything over there is miserable. Just to go over there, shake their hand, share stories and bring smiles to their faces is great.
"You might be getting beat up on bucking horses and having a bad summer, but they live in a sandbox that's hotter than hell the whole time, and they don't get any relief from it. Then you start thinking, 'Oh, well, I need to stop being a pansy and man up a little bit. I live in the best country there ever was, and if wasn't for those guys fighting for me, it wouldn't be that way.' "
For nine-time Wrangler NFR steer wrestler Trevor Knowles, military tributes hit close to home. His father, Jeff, is a Vietnam disabled veteran, and Knowles has made a commitment to helping veterans such as his father through his success in rodeo.
"Twenty percent of my endorsements I donate directly to the American Legion and Operation Comfort Warriors, and then advertise with them," he said after winning Round 5 on Monday night. "What really drew me to them is that 100 percent of all donations - every penny - goes directly to wounded warriors. I think very highly of that - you donate and know where your money is going.
"My dad's a disabled Vietnam veteran, and I've seen firsthand how hard it can be. I wanted to get a (venture) out there that people can get behind and help."
His American Legion partnership not only allows Knowles the chance to use his standing as a professional athlete to make a difference in people's lives, but it helps to keep things in perspective through the ups and downs of the long and grueling rodeo season.
"Last night (in Round 6), I had a steer that was terrible and basically took me out of contention (for a world title) for the most part, and it's easy to get mad about that sort of thing," Knowles said. "But then you have a veteran come up and thank you for your support, and it kind of puts things right back in perspective. It keeps a guy grounded and reminds you that rodeo is awesome, but there are a lot of things out there bigger than that.
"Rodeo fans and people who live the Western lifestyle are the most patriotic people you'll ever find. Hopefully, some good things will come out of (this partnership), and we can do a lot of good for these guys."
Field and Knowles are just two of numerous examples of ProRodeo contestants who give back to the military community and veterans charities. The sport of rodeo should be proud of them and everyone who gives back to the men and women who have and continue to protect our country.
Neal Reid is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., who spent five years as editor of the ProRodeo Sports News and who has written for USA Today, ESPN, ESPNW, American Cowboy, Western Horseman and The Associated Press. This is his ninth Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.