February 2006. Bareback rider Chris Harris has made the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour round at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Alone, behind the chutes, he prepares. He's chapped-up, got his neck brace and glove on. His ever-intense face looks straight forward into nothing as he methodically shifts his weight back and forth from one leg to the other.
It's a surprise to see him. The general story of his drug addiction and subsequent incarceration are known in the rodeo world, although most who know politely avoid the details. Five years removed from his last Wrangler NFR qualification, the Itasca, Texas, cowboy is an unknown commodity.
Harris first qualified to the NFR in 1998 at the age of 22, the year before he began using speed. In 1998, he was regarded as a young gun. Only two years after turning pro, he finished third in the world. Many thought he would win a world title before his career was over.
"He was a real good person with a big heart, really intelligent," said Roger LaCasse, who traveled with Harris from 1997-2002. "Then he got hooked up on drugs and screwed up his head. He was different. He was aggressive, more nervous and a different character. I tried a lot to put him back straight. He had so much talent. He's quite a guy, but on drugs he's completely different."
There was never any doubt, high or sober, that he had an intense personality. True to his event, he's tightly wound-both physically and in temperament.
"When you're a kid you want to be the center of attention. You start dabbling here and there, and before long it starts to control you and consume you," Harris said. "I had no intention starting out of becoming an addict. I kept dabbling and kept having fun and eventually it got to where it escalated and it controlled me. That's all there is to it."
The transition from recreational to addiction status, he admits, did coincide with his mother, Tammy, being diagnosed with breast cancer. Tammy's mother, grandmother and aunt all had died from the disease and she felt she was facing death. Harris told her he would prove that she could beat it by winning the Calgary Stampede. He did win it, and her cancer is in 100 percent remission now. Her recovery, however, wasn't pretty. Harris also had to suffer through the death of his best friend, Chad Ruddy, who fell asleep at the wheel after a rodeo in Del Rio, Texas. Those events, along with the tightening grip of addiction, were forcing him into a downward spiral.
More and more he began traveling to rodeos alone. He'd drive all night, stop and sleep for an hour or two, then keep going on to the next rodeo, hiding his behavior from his friends and competitors.
"The sad thing is I must have been having a lot of fun doing it, because I wouldn't have kept doing it if I wasn't," Harris said. "It was one of those deals that just escalated. It got to the point where I'd roll out of bed in the morning and already have my lines drawn so I could get it and go. It was kind of second nature."
What's worse is, in a way, rodeo enabled him to live the lifestyle. Most of his fellow competitors knew about his habit, in fact, he earned the nickname Crystal Chris. But he was able to hold his composure at rodeos. Bareback riding is so intense anyway that the gyrations, sweat and nervousness of a drug addict don't appear all that much different from a cowboy getting ready to grab a hold of a half-ton of bucking horse.
But it even went beyond that. Harris explains that for him as an addict, his head was constantly filled with negativity. Being around rodeo, though, there was nothing but positive mental attitudes among his fellow competitors. It was enough to keep him going. Those hours spent at the rodeo infused him with enough good that he could make it through the darkness that the drugs brought on.
"One of the reasons I rodeoed by myself was I didn't want anybody to know what I was doing behind closed doors," he said.
In 1999, he finished 13th in the world. The next year, he peaked. He won $122,873 and finished third in the world. A camera crew from CBS 48 Hours trailed him during Wrangler NFR, lapping up his intensity, his loose lips and flair for the dramatic. Little did they know they were documenting a druggie. After that, he began a slow slip off of the ProRodeo map. He didn't make the Wrangler NFR again.
During the week at home, he was incorrigible.
"I might be able to hold my stuff together at the rodeo," he said. "During the week when I was out on the ranch and there ain't nobody around, I was a crazy s.o.b. I was a wild Indian running around. That's all there is to it. Bona fide crazy, insane. I was a demon. If I told you everything I went through and did, it would scare the hell out of you. You would say, 'Oh my God.' I made a lot of mistakes. I got lost. I was by myself. I was a lost soul and that was all there was to it. I didn't have any hopes or ambitions. I was dangerous. It's something when I think back. I don't know why I chose to go that way or what happened.... I made a lot of mistakes. Once you become controlled by something, you're controlled."
His family tried to help. His father, also named Chris, has represented District 9 in the Texas State Senate since 1991. District 9 encompasses portions of Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties, including parts of Arlington, Carrollton, Dallas, Flower Mound, Fort Worth, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Highland Village, Irving, Lewisville, Mansfield, Plano and The Colony.
Needless to say, he is a very powerful man. As an attorney and Senator, he had certain connections and was able to put out mental health warrants for his son's arrest. The first time he was arrested, Harris was put in a mental health facility in Arlington, Texas, for 10 days with little effect. The next time he was sent to a drug rehab center in Dallas and was clean
for two months.
"I remember I went to Houston in 2003 and got on my first one there," he said of the time just after being released from the rehab center. "I'd been rodeoing. I went to Kissimmee, Fla., and ran into an old buddy there and he had it (drugs). I'm an addict and sure enough, I still think the same way, so I went and did it."
Traveling with LaCasse, he went home. The pair's flights to the Rodeo Royal in Calgary had been cancelled, so they were trying to rearrange their schedule at Harris's home. Once there, he had a terrible fight with his wife, Stephanie. She left the house hysterical and in her frightened state, had a minor fender bender. The authorities reported to the scene and Chris, fearing he'd be put back in jail, left with LaCasse for the family ranch in Itasca. His mother was there and subsequently they had an argument. Harris left for a home he kept on his side of the property. Still enraged at his mother, he called her and threatened to kill himself.
"She called, and I called back and I said, 'You know, I ought to blow my frickin' brains out instead of having to deal with people like y'all,'" he said. "That's how messed up I was. Not that I would do anything like that, but that's the kind of mean, hurtful stuff I would say. I said a lot more worse than that and did a lot more worse than that."
Of course, the police were called immediately. LaCasse, meanwhile, was at the main ranch house with Harris's mother. The police, familiar with the situation and the property, came in from two separate entrances to converge on Harris's house. The chief came by the main house and LaCasse rode with him to Chris's house.
"I came out of the house and one of the sheriffs is a friend of mine and he told me, 'Chris, turn around and put your hands behind your back.' I said, 'No, that ain't happening again. I'm tired of them (my family) being able to get warrants out on me and y'all being able to arrest me,'" he said.
About three months before his release, the program, the desire to rodeo and the obligation of being a better husband, father and son began to change the way he thought-the most important step for a recovering addict.
"Right there before I got out my way of thinking changed: I didn't care what anybody else thought of me," he said. "I got to the point where I wanted to change, I wanted to be different. It worked. It was a hell of a deal. I thank God for it."
On April 30, 2004, he was released from Huntsville to a halfway house in Waco. In the transport car a Pete Stewart song called, "The Reason is You" was playing. Harris was immediately and deeply impacted by these as well as other lyrics in the song:
I'm not a person who is perfect in his ways.
I've strayed away, but still You save me by Your grace.
I've given You my life, all that I am inside.
Now everything is becoming new, and I realize the reason is You.
That night, he had dinner with his wife.
After nine months in prison, he had about two more in the halfway house, and outlined the new goals for his life. First was family and second was rodeo.
As he waited in the halfway house, he was given his release date and started making plans around it. He would be out in time for the Fourth of July, so he entered the Belton, Texas, rodeo.
"I was standing on the back of the bucking chutes and right off the bat I see (legendary Texas rodeo producer) Bernis Johnson. He's always been a good friend of mine. He'd come and see me even when I was in bad shape. I gave Bernis a hug and he said, 'You go get them tonight, buddy.'"
The first chords of the national anthem began to play and Harris lost it. The tears streamed down his cheeks. He never thought he'd step over the chutes again.
"I cracked my hand back in there and when I slid up I came back alive," Harris said, his eyes widening to the size of silver dollars. "I remembered what I was looking for in rodeo. That high, that enthusiasm and that's what I was getting from the drugs, but this was natural again. You could have given me all the drugs in the world and you couldn't have made me as high as I was when I slid up on him. I was sky high. Ever since I was a kid, that's what I wanted to do, that's what I chose to do and that's who I am. To nod my head that day was something else."
He won the rodeo.
The next rodeo was in Pecos, Texas. Harris broke his leg there. It didn't matter, he just kept riding. Then, later in the month, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and had to have surgery. It wasn't cruel fate and it didn't present an overwhelming temptation to fall back into addiction. Rather, it was a reminder.
"I had goals, and my goal was first to reunite with my family and be a good son, a good husband and good father," he said. "As soon as I got back to rodeoing, I got wrapped up in it and wasn't taking care of business. When I got hurt, I didn't get mad, I said to God, 'Oh, I know what you're doing here.' We made my list and that's what I needed to go after. I said, 'All right, I understand what you're doing,' and I went and took care of my family."
His girls, wife Stephanie and daughters Hailey and Jesse, couldn't have been more thankful. But Harris is the one who is truly grateful.
"I was fortunate. They supported me. I could have ended up losing all of that," he said. "I love rodeo and it's been great, but I couldn't have lived without my family. They'd do anything for me."
While he admits he's not perfect, he learns something new every day and grows more with each new lesson. He claims he's not a strong Christian, but references God more than some who do make that claim.
"I still make mistakes all the time. Now I can recognize the mistakes I made. Before, I couldn't even recognize my mistakes, that's how wrapped up I was in me," he said. "I'll always be addicted to it, but for me to not crave it anymore means that I know that anything else that I fail at, since I beat drugs, I can beat that too. I still get upset about certain things, I still act like an idiot sometimes and I don't know how to handle things, but I can recognize it now."
The ability to step back and see himself is what's given him the most confidence. After picking up a load of horses-Harris has a burgeoning bucking horse program-he was driving down a narrow highway with his daughter napping in a car seat. He had a blow out on the trailer and no way to change the tire. Crystal Chris? He would have gone berserk, cussing slamming his fist and kicking the trailer. The new Chris? He stopped, pulled over and calmly looked around. As chance had it, he was a quarter of a mile from some property his family owned. He pulled his rig in, unloaded the horses, unhooked the trailer and got back on the road. His daughter never woke up.
"Four years ago it would have made me crazy," he said. "After it was all over, I told myself that I had learned something. I'm growing. And I keep growing every day. I'm always going to make mistakes. I'm a fallible human being."
After rehabbing his ACL and recovering, he went to and won some rodeos during the 2005 season, then tore his posterior cruciate ligament. He didn't have enough healthy time to make a full-fledged comeback. He traveled with LaCasse again, however, and credits their time together as another step in his recovery.
"Traveling with Roger set me up for 2006," Harris said. "It was important for me to travel with him because he is so positive and driven. A lot of people don't understand him, but he's a heck of a guy."
"I think Chris Harris will win the world championship one day," LaCasse said. "I've got a lot of faith in that guy. He's young, he's mentally strong and if he keeps a good mental attitude he will win the world."
That brings the story back to February 2006, the beginning of Harris's first full, healthy season back in the arena. Standing behind those chutes in San Antonio was the real start of his new rodeo life. He had gotten things on the right track with his family and he and his God were working through their list.
After the national anthem was sung, he called for Kesler's NFR bucking horse Alley Ways, the signature red chutes at San Antonio flung open and Chris Harris didn't stop spurring until the 10th round of the Wrangler NFR.
It was the kind of comeback season that is only scripted in movies. He finished 10th in the world standings, won $33,594 at the NFR and made $104,160 for the year.
"The NFR was great," he said. "I rode pretty good. I didn't ride my best; you'll see another Chris. It was another learning experience. I know I've got to do some things different this year and that's my goal. Yes it was pretty good, but I want to be Will Lowe. I want to be the guy up there on the stage. I want the gold buckle. I want people to know that just because you're down, don't mean your out. I want people to know you can come back as long as you believe and you try. A lot of people might get to the point where they believe but they don't want to try. They've got a fear of failure. They've already been through so much failure; they don't want to fail again. I want people to understand that you're always going to fall down, but you've got to get up and try again. That's always been a motto of the cowboy. That's what I'm learning to do again."