Bull riding has always been a hallmark of Odessa College’s rodeo team.
Professionals such as Ty Murray, Kermit native Jim Sharp, Dustin Bowen and Cody Heffernan have worn the Wranglers’ blue vests — with the current crop of bull riders jokingly calling Odessa College “Bull Riding U.”
However, the 2016-17 group of riders might be the strongest the Wranglers have ever had on the team at one time.
Four of the top-five ranked bull riders in the Southwest Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association are from Odessa College coming into Friday night’s second performance of the 33rd annual Odessa College Wrangler Rodeo.
“It’s definitely our strength,” Odessa College head coach CJ Aragon said. “This is my 10th year coaching and this is by far the most talented group of bull riders I’ve ever had. It’s pretty neat to see a group that works that hard to be as good as they are.”
Bradie Gray of Hallsville, Australia is ranked no. 1 in the region coming into the rodeo. In the after-performance slate Gray stayed on his bull for around five seconds before falling off.
Gray has had a longer road to the top of the region than most. Two years ago, Gray broke his back — forcing him to go back to Australia and take online classes with Odessa College. Last year, he broke his jaw twice — sidelining Gray for most of the year.
But with his jaw wired shut for basically eight months straight, he worked out tirelessly in the weight room to be at his best for this season.
“It made me really sit back and notice that this is what I love to do,” Gray said Friday. “It’s a really good opportunity for us Australians to come over here and get an education and rodeo at the same time.”
In second place in the region’s bull riding rankings is Austin Allred, who competed during Thursday’s performance. In third is Layne Ward from Almo, Idaho.
Ward didn’t have a great ride Friday night, falling off his bull after only a second.
“We have a real good group of guys,” Ward said about the Wranglers’ bull riders. “We’ve come together and helped pick each other up and elevate each other.”
The Wranglers’ top three all have at least a 30-point advantage over fourth-place rider Brody Yeary of Tarleton State, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken back.
Ranked No. 5 in the Southwest Region is Odessa College’s BoDell Jessen of Altonah, Utah. Friday night, Jessen had the best ride of the performance, falling off just before the eight-second horn sounded.
“After seeing how good the guys are, especially on your team, it’s really good to have somebody that good in your corner,” Jessen said. “You’re still competing against them, but you’re still friends.”
Throughout each rodeo performance, there has been a wall of Wrangler blue vests behind the bucking chutes for bull riding. As one person competes, the others are cheering them on. In all six rodeos that Odessa College has competed in this season, the bull riding event has been won by Yeary or a Wrangler.
“They all do the fundamentals correct,” Aragon said. “They take care of their business and they do their job and as a bull rider that’s really difficult to do a lot of time. There are a lot of things going against you before you even nod your head and these guys have found a way to take care of business.”
Despite their similar results and success, qualities about each bull rider stand out.
Gray is the most fundamentally-sound. Ward is the brainy one of the group — studying engineering with a 4.0 GPA and last year, he was an academic all-American. Jessen is just out of high school with tons of energy.
“The guys take pride in being the toughest group of bull riders in the region, and I would say in the country,” Aragon said. “They’re very goal-driven.
“That’s been the one common theme through the history of the Odessa program is that they’ve always had strong bull riders. They still want to come here.”
Even with a solid lineup of bull riders returning to the team next year and not many spots on the team up for grabs, Aragon still has accomplished high schoolers interested in joining the Wranglers as walk-ons — just to be a part of the “Bull Riding U” culture.
“It’s a real big eye-opener to be following in those guys footsteps,” Gray said about being a Wrangler, just like Murray. “Everyone wants to be like those guys. They’re the best back in their day and we now want to be the best in our day.”
Odessa College has had more than 50 National Finals Rodeo qualifiers in program history in all events with Aragon saying that the biggest percentage by far would be in bull riding.
That would fulfill a lifelong dream for these current Wranglers who are also trying to write their own chapter in Odessa College history.
“I can see how it helped them and it helps us now and it’s made me a lot better being here,” Ward said. “Here at OC, we’re given the opportunity to get better. It’s whether you take it or whether you don’t.
“We have the practice bulls, we have a good atmosphere, we have a really competitive region, so you really have the recipe to push yourself to want to be better.”