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Jeff Willert, NFR 2005 World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider

With a smile, Willert autographed pictures for about an hour and a half, including one for his lifetime friend Linda Smith, before his welcome-home program. Program speakers included calf-roping champion Paul Tierney, stock contractors Jim & T.J. Korkow, and Tommy Tibbitt who introduced rodeo as South Dakota's official sport.

Once upon a time there was a little cowboy …

A childhood dream turned to gold on Sunday, December 11, when Jeff Willert, a 23-year-old cowboy, put Belvidere back on the map after winning the title of 2005 Wrangler World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider.

After 10 days of eight-second intense rodeo action Willert earned the world title, finishing top in the money with $278,168.74 and placing fourth in the average. He went into the NFR with $159,538.93 and in 10 days he earned another $118,629.81 to set a new earning record for a single year. Last year Billy Etbauer set a record of $117,745.

On the opening day of the rodeo, Willert made an 87.5 point ride on Domino’s Theory to take first.

Then the heartbreaking news of the death of Jeff’s great-uncle Kenny Willert descended on the family in Las Vegas. Kenny and his wife Debra had been scheduled to fly into Vegas Thursday and attend the final three performances.

In Saturday’s performance, Rusty Allen claimed the title and Willert took to the dirt before the eight-second buzzer.

Billy Etbauer, the five-time world champion, was first with a score of 90 points on Sunday and Willert took second with 87 points. Willert extended his lead in the standings to $187,556 and led Cody DeMoss by $31,560 after DeMoss was bucked off.

Willert made a comeback in round four with an 89-point win on Linda Lou. That ride extended his lead over DeMoss.

DeMoss stepped up in the fifth round on the eliminator stock and won on an 83.5 point ride. Rod Warren and Rod Hay were the only other qualifiers in the round.

Willert was back on track in the sixth performance with a 85.5 win.

The following night Hay and Etbauer took first with 86.5. Willert was 3rd with 86 points and collected another $9,338.94.

December 9th, Etbauer took first with 87.5 points, Willert was second with 85 and DeMoss was in a three-way split for fourth.

Etbauer and DeMoss claimed first with 87 points in the ninth round and Willert hung close behind with 83 points for third.

In the final and deciding performance, DeMoss and Etbauer shared first with 90 points.

Willert, being top in the money throughout the rodeo, was the last to ride during each performance. Each night he knew what he was up against and during the final performance Willert placed third with a score of 89.5.

Willert was all smiles -- his childhood dream had come true.

In the interview following his victory, Willert made mention of his Uncle Kenny. He knew his uncle was with him.

This year Willert changed his riding style and it all paid off.

Even though this is something Willert said he’s waited for all his life, it didn’t take long for the young cowboy to rise to the top.

Willert finished the 2005 season as the world champion and fourth in the average behind Rod Warren, Cody Wright and Billy Etbauer. DeMoss was fifth. Those figures could have changed a great deal in that final round.

Grandfather Oliver Willert said it was all highly emotional. It was tragic for Kenny (his brother) and a blessing for Jeff’s goal.

What are the odds of two Belvidere cowboys winning the world title?

Once Willert said, “It would be neat to have two Belvidere champions.” After his third trip to the NFR it happened.

The NFR records date back to 1929 – the year Earl Thode won the world. Thode had a repeat in 1931. South Dakota made a comeback in the 1950s when Casey Tibbs made his mark. Then there was Clint Johnson in the 80s, Billy Etbauer in the 90s. Now it is Willert’s turn to continue making records in the history books.

Even though the NFR has come to a close for 2005, this cowboy will keep busy riding in Billings this Friday and attending a Buckin’ Ball Party in Gillette on New Year’s Eve.

He received the Jack Daniels buckle for going into the NFR in first place, buckles for each of the three rounds where he placed first and a gold buckle and saddle for winning the world title.

Willert and his traveling partner Chet Johnson made the drive from Vegas, arriving home early Tuesday morning, December 13. Burial of Kenny Willert was Tuesday afternoon at the Belvidere Cemetery. Jeff Willert was there for that final good-bye.

Monday, December 19 was declared Jeff Willert day in the State of South Dakota, and by the Jackson County Commissioners and the City of Kadoka. There was a huge crowd at the free chili supper sponsored by area businesses and individuals.