After a three-year absence from the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Decatur’s K.C. Jones has booked a return trip to the Thomas and Mack Center this year.
At 41, Jones is the oldest of the elite 15 in the steer wrestling world rankings this year.
But age might not matter when you’re as tough as Jones.
He’s so tough he competed the last three years with a broken bone in his lower back.“I didn’t even know I’d broken it,” he said. “The pain was just getting worse and worse. It was hurting so bad I couldn’t even talk to people. I was just looking through them.”
It appeared he was just dealing with his own mortality. He thought his age, combined with the wear-and-tear of the rodeo arena, were responsible for dropping him out of the ranks of the most elite cowboys in the world. After qualifying for the NFR in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008, it was tough to take.
“You always think, especially when it takes a little longer to get up sometimes, you might be getting too old for this,” Jones said. “Three years ago my body felt like it was shutting down. I couldn’t react like I used to.”
But when he finally got an MRI last year the doctor asked, “When did you break your back?”
Jones replied he hadn’t.
The doctor told him that he had – and the fracture in one of his lower vertebra had led to spinal stenosis in his neck.
“It had led to complications,” Jones said.
Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of an area of the spinal canal. It can compress the spinal cord and eventually cause paralysis.
“I didn’t have any power,” Jones said. “And it’s hard to bulldog if you don’t have any power.
“My nerves were being crushed, and it screwed up my coordination and balance. I thought I was just losing it. I felt like I was 102. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt. I couldn’t even ride.”
He realized he’d probably broken his back sometime back in 2008, the last time he made the finals. Instead of surgery, he started undergoing treatments with a chiropractor in North Richland Hills who works with several bullriders in the area.
“I’m used to a lot of pain, but I couldn’t get away from this,” Jones said. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do nothing. He put me through a lot of traction. It felt like he was pulling my body apart.
“I went to him 90 days straight every day and I started feeling better and I was able to take off rodeoing again.”
It’s hard to escape injury in a sport like bulldogging. This past August he suffered another setback when he broke a bone in his leg in a rodeo in Canby, Ore. while sitting in sixth place in the world.
“I had a steer that ran up and stopped right at the barrier line,” Jones said. “He ran so fast and then stopped so fast that my feet swung in front of the hazing horse and his legs kicked me.”
His hazer, Tim Sparing, a 22-year-old from Helena, Mont., who is attending college at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, broke the bad news to Jones. After the ride he came up to Jones and said, “Dude, you broke it. I heard something crack.”
“I told him no,” Jones said. “My leg always sounds like that when I get up. We get in the truck and drive all night. We stop to get gas and I can’t get out of the truck. It’s locked up. Maybe there is something to this.”
But Jones still thought it was just a bad bruise and continued to compete in rodeos.
An eventual x-ray proved he’d broken a non-weight bearing bone in his knee. Trainers told him if he could stand the pain he could still compete if he really wanted to.
“Everybody is telling me to go home and stop and I’m stupid,” Jones said “But I just kept bulldogging and it finally stopped hurting.
“It’s 100 percent now,” Jones said.
And at 41, after suffering though multiple major injuries, Jones might be reaching his peak. He’s bulked up from 180 pounds to 220.
“I’m excited,” Jones said. “I’ve been putting in a lot of time at the gym. The last year I figured out this is physics. The bigger and stronger you are the quicker you can be. Looking back the last three years it’s completely different. There’s things I can do now that I couldn’t do before.
“I want to make my mark in the arena this year,” Jones added. “I wanna get the gold buckle. Once you get the taste of winning it’s a hard taste to get out of your mouth.”
Jones enters the NFR, which runs Dec. 6-15, ranked 10th in the world with $64,653 in earnings on the year. First place belongs to Ethen Thouvenell of Napa, Calif. Even though Jones is $34,000 off the leader, it’s a margin that can be bridged in only two nights in the finals.
“Bulldogging is the tightest event out there,” Jones said. “There’s not a whole lot of difference in earnings, and they give out so much money in Vegas. If you do good in the Finals you have a good shot of winning the world. You can get a lot of money put together in 10 nights. At the NFR you want to prepare where you’ve eliminated all the obstacles. You want to be physically and mentally fit. You want to go in there and just let your body react.
“I just have to go out there and have fun. If I start worrying too much about winning and getting nervous, that’s when it gets hard. It seems like a relief now to be back entered. I can just go back to being a cowboy.”
His bulldogging horse this year is a seven-year-old black mare named Smoker, owned by Jud Little in Oklahoma. Sparing is riding a former bulldogging horse named Payday.
“He’s hazed for me all year,” Jones said of Sparing. “And I’m a big believer that you dance with the girl you brought.
“Maybe I’ll steal a little youth from him every night and we’ll be an average-aged team.”
Or maybe the other competitors might like to steal a little of whatever Jones has, now that he has overcome an injury that kept him out of the NFR since 2008. After all, a year ago he thought he might be finished. Now he’s got a chance to win a world championship.
At least this year, Jones will have an opportunity to jump off a horse racing at top speed onto an angry steer barreling across an arena floor without a broken bone in his back.
While most cowboys competing in the NFR just have to worry about how they compete in the arena, Jones has started a couple of businesses on the side, including the first online fantasy rodeo.
“The first year I went out there I was just happy to bulldog and made some good money and had fun,” Jones said. “But I was also scared when I was done rodeoing I wouldn’t have nothing.
“I knew I needed to use my connections in rodeo to have something after I was done.”
So 10 years ago Jones and some friends created the first fantasy sports game for rodeo. It’s just like fantasy football except instead of putting together a team consisting of wide receivers, tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks, you compile a team featuring a steer wrestler, bareback rider, header and heeler for team roping, saddle bronc rider, tie-down roper, a barrel racer and a bull rider. Each player gets so much recruiting money and from there builds a team.
Profantasyrodeo.com has become the official fantasy rodeo game of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the NFR.
Jones also started Rodeo Vegas with his wife Gayle. It’s the official NFR after party of the PRCA that runs 10 days, non-stop during the NFR at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
Jones credits his business sense to his parents.
“I was going to rodeo and set the world on fire, but my parents had different plans,” Jones said. “I came from a working farm. Mom and dad made me give them a college degree before I could get my PRCA card.”
The businesses have proven a distraction at times, so this year Jones intends to focus all his energy on taking care of business in the arena.
“I was always promoting the businesses,” Jones said. “Going to bulldog at the Thomas and Mack became almost an afterthought. That’s hard when you really want to win. We’ve worked hard already and we’re bringing some really good help. So this year I can really just sit back and stick to thinking about bulldogging.”