STEPHENVILLE — The 2020 edition of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals Rodeo will have a distinct Tarleton State University flair.
Fourteen riders and ropers in seven events either are current or past members of the storied Tarleton rodeo team.
National Finals qualifiers with ties to Tarleton are bareback riders Richmond Champion and Leighton Berry; saddle bronc riders Brody Cress, Jacobs Crawley and Isaac Diaz; tie-down ropers Haven Meged and Timber Moore; team roping heelers Shay Dixon Carroll and Paden Bray; breakaway ropers Jackie Crawford, Kirby Eppert and J.J. Hampton; steer wrestler Jace Melvin; and barrel racer Cheyenne Wimberly. All are university graduates, except for Bray, who’s still a student and rodeo team competitor.
The National Finals Rodeo, held annually since 1959, is the season-ending championship for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and widely acknowledged to be the world’s premier rodeo. Pro rodeo’s richest and most prestigious event usually unfolds in Las Vegas but this year moved to Globe Life Field in Arlington.
One of the top programs in the nation, Tarleton’s rodeo team has been part of a winning tradition since 1947. In its 73-year history, Tarleton has won seven national team championships and 28 individual national titles. One of the largest teams in the nation, Tarleton features 103 card holding student members in 2019-2020.
Tarleton rodeo coach Mark Eakins was at the helm for two of those team titles.
“If you think of all the students who have come through the rodeo program at Tarleton, they’ve set a standard like no other program across the nation,” he said. “They gave us something to strive for, the tradition of winning, and helped create the support that Tarleton has for our program.”
Jackie Hobbs-Crawford, a 19-time world champion who won three College National Finals individual championships in breakaway roping, is a 2020 NFR qualifier and a member of the Tarleton Rodeo Hall of Fame.
“Tarleton, the CNFR, that was just the beginning for me,” she said. “It was definitely a stepping stone. It’s always fun to have an end point to look forward to. The CNFR was that for us in college. Now it’s the NFR.
Still a student at Tarleton, team roping heeler Paden Bray was 2019’s Resistol Rookie of the Year, finishing just out of the standings for the National Finals. This year he nailed 11th place in the world, earning his first finals spot.
“Everyone watches the NFR. I’ve been watching since I was a little kid,” he said. “It’s just like every sport — you want to grow up and be the best; I’m no different. I watched the best in the world, and I just wanted to be one of them one day.”
Bray, a senior business major at Tarleton, held second position in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s Southwest Region when competition was called off in February due to the pandemic. He earned a spot in the College National Finals Rodeo for his efforts in the abbreviated season, but ultimately the CNFR was canceled.
“That was hard. I start every year with a list of goals, and one of those goals was to win the CNFR. I was pretty upset. But, hey, how many guys are getting to go to college and work in the pros?”
Tarleton’s rodeo tradition puts it in the conversation with other dominant sports programs in the nation
“Talk about Duke in college basketball, Alabama in college football, that kind of success spreads,” said former coach Bob Doty. “You get to be known as a rodeo school like Alabama is known as a football school.”