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Western South Dakota cowboys dominate NFR saddle broncs

NFR finalists ... Meeting in the 73 Bar and Saloon in Philip for autographs and friendship were, from left: Jeff Willert (2005 World Champion and 2006 ninth place in the world standing), Chad Ferley (2006 World Champion) and J.J. Elshere (2006 sixth place in the world standing).

The open house at the 73 Bar and Saloon in honor of Jeff Willert, Chad Ferley and J.J. Elshere was for local residents to personally meet with the champions and to get their autographs. The cowboys brought along some of their buckles and saddles won in their saddle bronc event.

South Dakota was singular this year in that it had five contestants in the National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas, NV; all five competing in the same event.

Chad Ferley, from Oelrichs and a first-timer at the NFR, took first place in the 2006 world standings. Judged by how much money a competitor wins, Ferley earned $237,583 for the year. At just the NFR, he won $33,335 by taking second place in the final aggregate (average) with 723 points out of 10 saddle bronc attempts out of the chute.

J.J. Elshere, from Quinn and also enjoying his first year at the NFR, earned sixth place in the world standings with $148,229 for the year. He took first place in the final aggregate at the NFR itself with $41,088. Elshere stayed the eight seconds on nine of the 10 saddle broncs.

Jeff Willert used to dream of riding broncs with top-name contenders, and now he's completed his fourth trip to Las Vegas for the NFR. Willert, from Belvidere, rode for ninth place in the 2006 world standings with $115,676 for the year. He also earned ninth place in the final aggregate at the NFR itself.

Two other South Dakota cowboys in the saddle bronc event were Jesse Bail from Camp Crook and Bryce Miller from Buffalo. Bail took 13th place in the world ranking with $98,267, seventh in the NFR aggregate with $6,977, and also took seventh place in the All-Around Cowboy division for performing well in several different events. Miller took 14th place in saddle bronc riding in the world standings with $85,278.

Billy Etbauer, currently residing in Oklahoma, was originally from Ree Heights, SD. He took sixth place in the NFR saddle bronc aggregate with $3,876, and took seventh place in the World Standing with $144,004.

At the open house in Philip, the three bronc riders were comparing horses and their rides on those horses. Willert was quoted last year as having said, "I'd look at the draw sheets and if it didn't look good, I didn't go (to the rodeo)." This year, he and the other two cowboys noted that some horses had improved over the season.

The three men are not overly tall nor large. They are soft spoken and friendly, especially with the younger kids who look up at them in awe. The three talked among themselves and with others on a friendly basis, shaking a countless number of hands. They are in competition only when they are on a bucking bronc. Willert said, "In saddle bronc riding, you try to beat yourself every time. You do the best that you can."

Instead of talking about himself, Ferley gave credit to another South Dakotan, one who is rarely in the limelight but is indispensible in rodeo. Clint Humble of Newell was a pickup man during the season and at the NFR.

One well-wisher asked Willert, "How did you do when you got smashed in the chute that one time at the NFR? Willert calmly replied, "Not too bad, we got over that."

He must have gotten over it, because he plans on going next year. They all plan on returning.

Elshere commented, "My wife made it through this year; and we think she'll make it through one more."

Willert expects another 80,000 plus miles next year. Traveling partner, Ferley, is the "big city driver" when they are on the road. This mileage does not include the "15 or so" plane trips to rodeos.

Another newly-famous cowboy joined the event in Philip. Tyler Torrington is the 2006 PRCA Rookie of the Year. Ryan Elshere, J.J.'s older brother who also rodeos, got together with Brandon and Zack West to organized the open house.

How is rodeo, and especially saddle bronc competition, different from other things?

Willert said, "It's not much different than any other work. You've just got to have the heart and desire to do it."

Ferley said, "You just need to keep trying if you want to succeed. Never give up and it will work out in the end."

Elshere said, "Just let things roll and make sure that you're having fun doing what you're doing. Also, tuck in your chin."

Torrington summed it up simply, "You have to have the courage to go for it."