By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Backstage at hay-strewn Reliant Stadium, there isn't a trace of nerves among the world's best cowboys and cowgirls. It's nobody's first rodeo. They've come to Houston from all over the world to ride the longest, the fastest, the best — or fall off trying.
Volunteer doctors stand by, ready to heal those horned by a bull or bucked from a bronc. But as far as athletes go, these are some of the toughest. When Bobby Mote split his abs bareback riding, a few Ibuprofens did the trick. Kicked testicles couldn't keep Clayton Savage off a bull. Not even a battle with cancer would stop barrel racer Jill Moody from roping in $260,000 last year. Bottom line: These athletes only get paid when they're on top of an animal, and there's nowhere else they'd rather be.
For as rough as they are, the old world charms of cowboy culture still reign supreme. Flannel is tucked into starched jeans, cowboy hats are politely tipped at the sight of a female, and Southern drawls remain thick. In spite of technological advances, most cowboys and cowgirls still call the open road home, trailering from town to town, rodeo to rodeo. Big-city traffic still makes Isaac Diaz of Davie, Florida, uncomfortable. And nothing will strip bullfighter Dusty Tuckness of his traditional makeup.
Each spring, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo reminds us that where every highway turns into a dirt road, there's a toddler-sized Tyson Durfey, roping calves his father drugged to make them slow enough for a four-year-old to catch. There's a young Jace Garrett learning saddle bronc riding in the footsteps of his family. And if we wait around for a few years, one of the little britches getting his autograph book signed by one of the bull riders may one day grow up to be Houston's next rodeo champ.