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UNLV students, staff find solace at NFR morning go-round

The email landed in Alexis Aponte’s inbox Monday night, triggering text messages to fellow UNLV freshmen Ty Huel, Ziad Alharbi and Kalpit Garung.

Together, they met Wednesday morning at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Time for their first rodeo — the 65th annual National Finals Rodeo.

“I just figured it would be a good opportunity to get out. Try to to get out of the house and keep moving forward with my life,” said Aponte, a mechanical engineering major dressed festively in a red Rebels hoodie, red sunglasses and a matching red cowboy hat, courtesy of his mother, Astrid.

“After everything that happened, I think it’s really important to be around the people you’re close with.”

The NFR partnered with UNLV and invited students, staffers and their family members to attend the sixth go-round Wednesday free of charge. Hundreds — including Aponte, Huel, Alharbi and Garung, all Las Vegans who met in their physics class — obliged, stretching across the arena’s lower bowl, joining first responders alongside family members and friends of the hundreds of participants atop the NFR’s first-ever day-night doubleheader.

The change in scheduling was necessitated after a campus shooting Dec. 6 that claimed the lives of UNLV professors Naoko Takemaru, 69, Patricia Navarro Velez, 39, and Cha-Jan “Jerry” Chang, 64.

“That’s awesome to welcome the people of this community and this university into our family after what happened,” said Tanner Aus, a bareback rider from Granite Falls, Minnesota, who tied with Jacob Lees of Caldwell, Idaho, to win the sixth go-round with a score of 87.

“If it provides any distraction or any solace to the people affected by that tragedy, then it’s the least we could do.”

Huel and Alharbi said they were at the university’s Bigelow Physics Building when the shooting occurred, returning Wednesday for the first time since at Aponte’s behest.

Huel parked in the Cottage Grove Parking Garage, walking more than a half-mile through an eerily empty campus.

“I feel like it’s kind of like walking through Mandalay Bay with the Oct. 1 shooting that happened,” he said. “There’s still kind of like that feeling. I don’t know how long it’ll take for that to go away — if it does go away.”

But the rodeo would help, reuniting the four students near the front of the Thomas & Mack’s Section 110, where they were wowed by the horses, cattle and bulls, and the cowboys and cowgirls who competed alongside them.

Newly hired UNLV staffer Darren Noble roamed the concourse, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of his first rodeo with a fresh UNLV flat-bill cap atop his head.

“I love sports and can tell these are amazing athletes who are the best at their craft,” said Noble, 55, the school’s director for alumni career engagement who moved from Minnesota to Las Vegas this fall.

“Rebel strong. Rebels forever. It’s been real touching how people supported everybody through such tragic circumstances.”

Asked afterward if the rodeo helped them heal, Aponte, Huel (electrical engineering major), Alharbi (computer science) and Garung (civil engineering) responded resoundingly in unison.

“Yes.”

“Yeah.”

“One hundred percent.”

“This is a good step one.”

It was comforting for the competitors, too.

“I’m so thankful they were able to be a part of it today,” said sixth go-round barrel racing winner Emily Beisel of Weatherford, Oklahoma. “The whole situation was heartbreaking and devastating … If there’s one sport in the world that is truly genuine and considerate, it’s definitely the sport of rodeo.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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