Much like so many other Las Vegans, Tim Keener struggled to get his head around what happened here on the night of Oct. 1. Fifty-eight lives needlessly lost. Hundreds more injured during what should have been the capper to another great Vegas experience, the Route 91 Harvest music festival.
In the days afterward, thousands of people — including Keener — turned out on the south end of the Strip to pay respects to those who died or were hurt in the mass shooting.
“The week after, I went down to the ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign and saw the tribute,” Keener said. “When it came time to work on the National Finals Rodeo, the back numbers idea popped into my head.”
For those unfamiliar with the Wrangler NFR, each of the 120 contestants wears a number on their back, based on their season-long earnings. So the top earner heading into the 10-day rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center wears back number 1, and so on down to 120.
“I thought it would be appropriate to do something with the number 58,” said Keener, vice president of event and ticket operations for Las Vegas Events, which manages the Wrangler NFR. “I thought it would be appropriate to set aside the 58 this year, to show solidarity from the cowboy community and pay homage to the victims and survivors.”
Then the idea went to Aaron Enget, COO of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, who was on board with it, as was PRCA president Karl Stressman.
“The PRCA felt it was very important to honor those tragically lost on Oct. 1,” Stressman said. “Las Vegas is a vital part of our PRCA family, and we want the city to know that we always stand beside them. Las Vegas and the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo are a perfect match, and it’s a relationship we care deeply about.”
With the PRCA all in, the idea was presented to the contestant who earned No. 58 this year — Bill Tutor, a bareback rider from Huntsville, Texas, who for the first time qualified to ride in the Wrangler NFR.
“Even before they announced the back numbers, they wanted to see what I wanted to do, because I was 58. So they called me on the phone and asked me,” Tutor said.
There was no hesitation from the 26-year-old Tutor, who quickly agreed to move down to No. 59.
“Oh absolutely. Anybody would’ve done it. I just so happened to be the guy who fell at 58,” Tutor said. “I probably speak for everybody when I say my heart goes out to all the people involved in that. What I felt when I was at home, watching it on the news, I can only imagine what Vegas felt, right here in your front yard.”
Tutor’s move meant all the contestants behind him would drop down one number as well. It was a small gesture, but that didn’t make it any less poignant on opening night for the Wrangler NFR, as it was part of an overall VegasStrong tribute to victims and survivors before the first go-round began Thursday.
“The back number was the foundation of the whole tribute,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events. “What I liked about it was how simple it is, but how impactful it is. We really just wanted to make note of it on the first night. We’re really grateful for the fan reaction, embracing the city and the whole VegasStrong idea.”
Tutor’s immediate agreement to change back numbers didn’t surprise Christenson one bit.
“He’s pretty emblematic of all the contestants,” Christenson said. “In all of professional sports, there’s nobody who conducts themselves as well as our contestants.”
Much like Keener and the many thousands who have paid tribute over the past two months, Tutor just wanted to help the rodeo community offer its backing for the victims and this city.
“Vegas is our home, too. It’s where the NFR is held, our biggest event of the year,” Tutor said. “So I think it’s great they’re doing this with the back numbers, in dedication to the victims. Nothing can change what happened, but we can show our respect and show some support.”