One thing that all the riders, ropers, racers and wrestlers in the sport of rodeo have in common is a strong desire to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, to earn everything they get. They never want to benefit off the misfortune of their peers.
Will Lowe, a three-time world champion bareback rider, certainly has that mindset. So it was a very mixed blessing when Lowe finished 16th in the 2018 world standings, one place short of qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, yet still advanced to compete in the 10-day event that wraps up tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Lowe is here in Las Vegas because J.R. Vezain couldn’t compete. Vezain finished 14th in the world standings, with earnings of $83,376, and was set for his sixth Wrangler NFR trip in the past seven years. But on the last weekend of the regular season, in late September, he suffered a broken back and had no feeling from the waist down. So the Wrangler NFR was an impossibility, meaning Lowe was the next man up to fill out the 15-rider field.
“It’s tough, because J.R. was dang sure gonna make the NFR. It was gonna be tough for anybody else to get in the top 15 in those last couple weeks,” Lowe said, clearly saddened by Vezain’s injury and wishing his peer could compete this week. “I’d dang sure rather have J.R. here riding. That was a super scary deal. It’s one of those things that we all know can happen. This sport is as dangerous as it gets.”
Vezain was in Las Vegas ahead of the start of the Wrangler NFR for the back number ceremony. He stuck around to watch the first three go-rounds and reconnect with all those rooting for him to overcome the fluke accident on his final regular-season ride – when he already had his spot in Vegas clinched.
“It was the last rodeo, Saturday, Sept. 22, in Pasadena, Texas,” Vezain recalled. “I had drawn a new horse. He came out of the chute, then circled back around. I hit the bucking shoots and got flipped over there. At first, I had no movement or sensation below my belly button.”
The diagnosis: Vezain broke his T9 and T10 vertebrae, and the pressure of that incident shifted his spine, pinching his spinal cord and causing paralysis below the waist.
One of the first people he heard from after the terrible injury: Will Lowe.
“He called me right away,” the 26-year-old Vezain said of his 35-year-old peer. “Honestly, Will’s a veteran. I remember watching Will when I was in high school. He’s a legend, a three-time world champion. He’s a good buddy of mine. I’ve looked up to him my whole career.”
The call certainly helped boost Vezain’s spirits. A day after the Pasadena rodeo, he was in surgery, spent a few days recovering, then moved to a rehabilitation hospital in Houston for the month of October.
At the beginning of November, Vezain moved to an outpatient rehabilitation center in Sandy, Utah, closer to his and wife Shelby’s home near Billings, Mont. The progress has been slow but steady since then, a positive sign for the cowboy who finished a career-high fourth in the world standings twice, in 2012 after his first Wrangler NFR appearance and again last year.
“It’s been going good. Over the last two months, my abs are now flexing and firing, and I can sense touch between my belly button and my hips,” Vezain said. “Just in the last couple days, I’ve gotten my toes to wiggle slightly, and I’ve been able to bend my knees with my hip flexors. My quads are still a little weak. I can’t lock my knees when I stand.”
He expects more improvement in the very near future, once he gets out of the brace he’s been in since the surgery. After the brace comes off, he’ll start working on a walking machine – ostensibly a treadmill – in an effort to literally get back on his feet in a more stable fashion.
“I’m definitely excited. Any movement is great,” he said. “Two months ago, I could barely sit upright on the edge of a bed. Now, I’m standing and trying to start walking.”
And a few hundred miles south of Sandy, Lowe is competing and keeping good thoughts for his good friend.
“I dang sure want to represent for J.R., make him proud, because that’s supposed to be his spot. I want to ride hard for J.R.,” said Lowe, who had $21,500 in Wrangler NFR earnings through the first eight nights, including a fourth-place check in the opening go-round and a split of fifth and sixth in the sixth go-round. “J.R. is a great guy and has very deep faith in the Lord. I’m lucky to call him a friend, and he’s a true inspiration.”
Vezain, as humble as one can be, particularly under such trying circumstances, certainly appreciates Lowe’s support and that of everybody in the rodeo community. He visited the bareback riders’ locker room at the Thomas & Mack Center before one of the early go-rounds, and it proved good for everybody’s spirits.
“I got to go fire everybody up and receive encouragement from them,” Vezain said. “It was great to refuel my fire. I was ready to get back and get to work again. I was just re-energized.”
Vezain’s attitude has been nothing short of tremendous, and really, it’s had to be. Shelby is expecting the couple’s first child in May, a boy, and the dad-to-be wants to be fully ready when the baby comes.
“Another driving factor to get my legs back is to beat my kid to walking,” Vezain said with a laugh, before wrapping up the conversation with more of that uplifting attitude. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and something good will come out of this for everybody. When this first happened, we right away started praying for a miracle, and I’m expecting to be a walking miracle, through God’s grace and glory.
“I’m on God’s timing now.”