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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

Cowboy Country
The Sankey Rodeo School is one-in-a-nation

by Paul Knight

When someone watches a professional golf event, and he wants to try out the sport, chances are he knows where to find a local golf course. Same thing with basketball: Everyone knows where to shoot some hoop.

But when someone turns out to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — more than 2 million people did in 2010 — and they think they can tame a bull or bucking horse, it's doubtful many know where to go to give it a shot.

That's where Sankey Rodeo School comes in. Located in New Caney, about a 30-minute drive north of downtown Houston, the school teaches bull riding, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bullfighting.

"It's the quickest acceleration into the sport," says the school's director, Lyle Sankey, who is one of only four men to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in each of the above-mentioned events.

The school isn't just geared toward the weekend warrior looking for a quick thrill. In fact, Austin Meier, the 2006 Rookie of the Year and currently ranked fifth in the Professional Bull Riders, Inc., is a product of the Sankey schools.

Other past students, according to Sankey, have also ridden in PBR and Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association events, and they've qualified for the National Finals Rodeo, the Super Bowl of the sport.

But there are also the adrenaline junkies.

"We had one woman who was an engineer at NASA, and she was heading off on a two-week mountain-climbing adventure after she left us," Sankey says. "We've had doctors and lawyers and playwrights — people from just about every walk of life."

Sankey started the rodeo school 35 years ago, once his professional career was winding down. His school remains the only full-time one of its kind in the country.

When Sankey was getting into rodeo, there weren't really "schools." It was mainly older guys who offered a little advice, then threw their "student" on the back of a bull.

"It used to be the old-school, trial-and-error method," Sankey says. "We've adopted a modern coaching style."

The three-day sessions in New Caney consist of classroom lectures, one-on-one sessions with coaches and, of course, riding the animals. Each riding session is videotaped, then workshopped.

The structure, Sankey says, lends itself to younger riders — the average age is early twenties — but the school has taught a 65-year-old man and a 61-year-old woman.

"We offer unlimited access to the livestock, all the riding they want, and if we think someone is physically ready, we push them to get on," Sankey says. "Everyone is different, but it's important to us how much they get out of the experience."

The next session in New Caney isn't until December, but Sankey offers another course at a facility a little farther north before then. The school, which runs about $400 for three days, requires a two-week advance sign-up.

"A lot of the beginners tell us the livestock is faster than they expected, and stronger than they expected," Sankey says. "They also say it's more fun than they ever imagined."

Best High School Team

The Yates High School basketball team wasn't just the best team in Houston; it was the best team in the entire country. Undisputed. The People Who Matter, like ESPN and USA Today, said so. But the team also drew a heavy amount of criticism for the same thing: being too good. After Yates routinely beat other schools by ungodly margins, national sportswriter Rick Reilly basically called the team a classless bunch that ran up the score. "It's Yates High School," Ronald Mumphery, the school's principal, told the Houston Press. "So we have to apologize because our kids have done a good job."

Best Sports Moment

This has not been a good year for Houston's pro sports teams. And there wasn't much more to celebrate on the college level either, little of note from any school's hoops or diamond squads other than some middling gridiron success by the Houston Cougars. Nope, you have to look across Scott Street and all the way down to the high school ranks for Houston's signature sports moment of the past year. And in actual fact, for Yates's flawless hoopsters, it was less of a moment than it was a few months of sustained brilliance and not blowing it. And not blowing it is no mean feat: Just ask Michael Young, the father of Yates star Joseph Young. The elder Young's Phi Slama Jama squad managed to spit the championship bit against NC State in one of the most heartbreaking losses in Houston sports history. Not so with the Mighty Lions and their patented 32-minutes-of-hell style of ball. They rolled into the state playoffs after beating district teams by margins ranging from 88 to a staggering, national headline-grabbing, controversial 135 points, and continued taking care of business in the postseason, cruising through the title game with a comfortable 19-point cushion. What will the pride of Third Ward do for an encore after two straight b-ball state championships and a two-season record of 68-1?

Best Weekend Getaway

Want the bright lights of a big city? Hungry for glitz, glam and decadence? Go to Vegas. Looking for something a little closer to the quiet tranquility of the rugged Texas Gulf Coast? Try Palacios, just two hours south of Houston. Called "The City by the Sea," Palacios is both tiny (with less than 6,000 residents) and big (home to more than 400shrimping boats, it's the shrimp capital of Texas). There's a bit of a boardwalk, and a few hundred yards of white sandy beach, but the lack of an extended waterfront is made up for by several piers and jetties that extend well out into the water, both of which are popular with fishermen in the early mornings and couples at sunset. Two family restaurants, the Outrigger (which serves seafood) and Palacios Mexican Restaurant, satisfy most tastes, but fishing enthusiasts can also catch their own supper and grill it at one of the many beachside picnic/barbecue shelters.

Best State Park
Brazos Bend State Park

If some developer ever paid (bribed) the right person enough money to build a couple hotels and a cluster of restaurants in Brazos Bend, we guarantee it'd be the top tourist attraction in the region. It's that cool. That will never happen — at least we pray it doesn't — and that's a good thing. Brazos Bend is about an hour's drive from downtown, and it's the perfect place to spend an afternoon or two, walking the trails, avoiding the alligators and maybe doing a little fishing. The top of the observation tower is one of the best places in the area, especially considering you can experience it and not be on vacation.

21901 FM 762, Needville, 77461
Best Park Addition

When Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack wanted to spend more than $2 million to build a soapbox derby hill in northwest Harris County, some people thought he was crazy. But he got it built, and now the area has one of the finest soapbox derby hills around. The Greater Houston Soapbox Derby hosts its events at the park — quite the upgrade from an old railroad overpass — and the county, from time to time, sponsors free-ride days for all ages. It's like Field of Dreams but better, because this derby hill should provide thrills for Houstonians for generations to come.


Cowboy Country: The Sankey Rodeo School is one-in-a-nation


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