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Exceptional Rodeo in action at NFR: Kids get into Thomas & Mack dirt

During Wrangler National Finals Rodeo week, of course all of the contestants look forward to competing each night. There’s nothing quite like riding, racing, roping and wrestling at the sport’s pinnacle.

But many of these professional cowboys and cowgirls will tell you that the Exceptional Rodeo is very high up on their list of must-do events each year. The Exceptional Rodeo allows Las Vegas-area special-needs children to get a truly unique experience, meeting the athletes and trying their hand at rodeo.

The past two years, however, COVID-19 did a number on the Exceptional Rodeo, canceling the event. It returned in a big way Thursday morning, moving back to the Thomas & Mack Center — so the youngsters got to do their thing on the same ground that Wrangler NFR contestants tread each night.

“I’m glad to see it here at the Thomas & Mack, on the arena dirt. This ground is locked down tighter than Fort Knox. It’s a great experience, one that a lot of people don’t get to enjoy,” said steer wrestler Kyle Irwin, partaking in the Exceptional Rodeo for the fifth time. “I’m super glad to see it back. The pandemic changed a lot, but it can’t change our love and compassion for each other.”

That was evident as Irwin and several of his NFR peers partnered up with 28 children who hooted and hollered their way around the arena, riding seesaw bulls and horses, roping plastic practice steers, and barrel racing on stick horses.

Bullfighter Dusty Tuckness is an Exceptional Rodeo staple, in his 14th year partnering with these youngsters. He wouldn’t miss it for the world at this point.

“It’s just a fun day,” Tuckness said. “There are really no rules. It’s organized chaos. These kids come down and have fun. It’s a highlight of my week. Putting smiles on kids’ faces is what it’s all about.”

For years, the Exceptional Rodeo was held at the Thomas & Mack, but for the past decade, it has been at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena at the Las Vegas Convention Center, as part of The Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas. Everyone welcomed its return this year to the T&M.

“It’s good to be back here,” Tuckness said. “These kids get to step in the arena where world champions are made and gold buckles are won.”

Adam Daurio is the nationwide principal of Exceptional Rodeo, overseeing these types of events at PRCA rodeos across the country. But the one held at the Wrangler NFR allows the children to get up close and personal with the very best of the best.

“It’s incredible,” Daurio said, who like everyone else raved about the return to the Thomas & Mack. “Even though this is an adaptive experience, we want the kids here with the heroes of the sport, to be on that grand dirt. It’s an electricity that you can’t create in other arenas.”

And Daurio couldn’t heap enough gratitude on the contestants who donate their time to this event every year.

“We have for years coined the phrase that this is how these athletes show the heart of rodeo,” Daurio said.

Bullfighter Cody Webster actually ended up with the same partner he had at the 2019 Exceptional Rodeo, the last time this event was held at the NFR. Webster teamed with Braden Braunlich, and the bullfighter had high praise for the youngster.

“I’ll tell you what, he can ride and put his hat in the air,” Webster said. “We’re partners now, and he’s a pretty dang good cowboy.”

Braunlich had a smile as big as Texas while hamming it up with Webster. And really, that’s what the Exceptional Rodeo is all about – miles of smiles.

As Irwin summarized nicely: “Smiles are free.”

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