Wade Sumpter's 2008 season is the kind of year that rodeo cowboys dream about.
To begin, he won $54,000 at RodeoHouston. Later, he won the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo and Cody (Wyo.) Stampede. Plus, he placed at countless rodeos large and small along the way. By the end of August, he had amassed $121,019 in earnings to lead the field by over $33,000. And that's not counting his biggest win of the season: a $112,500 jackpot at the Calgary Stampede, which does not count in the Crusher Rentals PRCA World Standings.
When he's at home in Fowler, Colo., you'd never know he's cashed checks worth nearly $250,000. He drives a white 1975 single cab Ford truck that looks like it's been beat all over with a tire iron, pulls a homemade half top trailer that might rattle to rust and is everybody's best friend up and down the Arkansas Valley.
Before Sumpter was atop the professional steer wrestling heap, he was a standout athlete in the small southern Colorado farming community. His dad, Rich, is the high school basketball coach with a ranching heritage. His mom, Cindy, also works for the school system. As a prep athlete, Wade was the consensus 1A Football Player of the Year each of his last two seasons and led the state with 40 rushing touchdowns as a senior. Today, he ranks third in points scored by a high school football player in the state of Colorado, third in touchdowns scored and fifth in yards rushing.
Throughout high school, though, he didn't spend his summers or spare time at the gym, in football camps or on traveling teams. He spent his spare time horseback, day working for local rancher and amateur steer wrestler Grady Grissom, shooting coyotes and playing cards with the other ranch kids in the area or driving that same white Ford to 1980 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Average Champion Paul Hughes's for practice and pointers from him and his son, Kyle.
"I wanted to rodeo more than I did anything," said Sumpter, who also won the Colorado High School Rodeo steer wrestling title twice. "I wanted to rodeo right out of high school, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't go play football."
So when the University of Northern Colorado came calling, he signed up. The Bears, however, weren't as interested in Sumpter's offensive abilities as they were his tackling and coverage skills. After redshirting his freshman year, he was a fixture in the defensive backfield and on special teams until his senior season, when he started as an outside linebacker.
"I coached him in high school basketball for four years and he not only performed well for me, he went on to other venues, like football, and showed that he's a tremendous athlete not only physically, but mentally. He's always been able to perform well under pressure," his father, Rich, said. "I think his steer wrestling complimented his football and kept him healthy and the weight-room strength he got in football helped him in the arena. We're real proud of him."
He made 52 tackles his senior season as well as three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. With the abundance of arena and semi-professional leagues, he might have had a chance to continue his football career. But despite his talents on the gridiron, the lifestyle did not suit Sumpter.
"With football you always had to be somewhere," he said. "I don't like making plans, and they pretty much have your life planned for you. Not that I didn't like it while I was there, but I didn't want to do that the rest of my life. I was ready to be done."
After getting his degree in communications, Sumpter was ready to launch his rodeo career. Beginning in 2005, he and longtime friend Kenneth Lewis, whose family owns a trucking business, decided to try their hands professionally. Lewis had an extremely talented mare, Anna, that they both rode. The Mountain States Circuit experiment went well, so they decided to hit the big rodeos in the fall in an effort to make enough money to qualify for entry into the big rodeos in the winter and spring of 2006.
At 44 rodeos, Anna carried Sumpter to $17,848 in winnings. The professional rodeo world was about to find out that his athletic abilities weren't limited to the football field.
Despite it being his de facto rookie year in 2006, Sumpter had his breakout season. Still, he and Kenneth were new to the game and had lots to learn about the behind-the-scenes business of rodeo such as how to find a rodeo they'd never been to or the nuances of entering.
"We were lost all the time when we first started," he said. "We'd get lost everywhere we went. That first year was an experience."
Yet he extended the experience by qualifying to his first Wrangler NFR, finished ninth in the world with $107,925, proved he was talented enough to ride Rodney Burks's great steer wrestling horse, Zan, and started dating Linsay Rosser, granddaughter of the famed rodeo producer/owner of Flying U Rodeo Company Cotton Rosser.
Wade had arrived. In just one year of rodeoing professionally, the magnetic personality that made him everyone's best friend in the Arkansas Valley, made him a comfortable fixture among rodeo's best.
Perhaps debunking the myth of the gristle-head steer wrestler, Wade and his buddies would play chess and cards between the trailers before performances. At Reno, and other Flying U-produced rodeos, Sumpter would be called upon to step up as part of the family and feed the bucking stock and, on occasion, serve as a pick-up man.
Unfortunately, there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. Anna had the talents to be a great rodeo horse, but she did not have the temperament for travel. Almost mysteriously she would emerge from the trailer injured. Throughout the 2007 season Sumpter and Lewis mounted out on their friends' and competitors' horses when Anna was recovering from injury. Incidentally, Sumpter had his own injury to deal with when he broke his jaw when a steer set up on him.
Nevertheless, he continued to compete with his jaw wired shut, although he lost almost 30 pounds. Wade had the talent to qualify to the NFR despite having to beg, borrow and steal rides, but that wasn't the future he wanted.
Good steer wrestling horses are notoriously hard to come by. Among the top 15 cowboys in the world standings today, there are between seven and 10 top horses. Mounting out is common in the event, whereas in team roping or tie-down roping each cowboy will have his own horse.
Yet, it was common knowledge among the steer wrestlers last year that Birch Negaard was planning to quit rodeoing full time and was ready to sell his horse, Wick. Sumpter and Lewis felt Wick would be the missing piece of their puzzle.
"We were real fortunate to get him," Sumpter said. "Birch was ready to be done bulldogging full time. That horse was for sale for quite a while and had some problems with lameness when he was younger. A lot of people were interested but nobody would buy him.
"We were going down the road and we were afoot. We were headed to Deadwood and Birch was going to be there so we called him and told him we'd like to try his horse."
Sumpter had ridden the horse previously that year at another point when Anna was sore, so he was familiar with his abilities. Soon, the deal was done. He and Lewis went in together as partners.
"A horse like that, I paid an awful lot of money for him, but he doesn't owe me a dollar," he said. "I've been real fortunate. There hasn't been a day that we couldn't ride him that we needed to. We do take pretty good care of him. Even if I can ride that horse for 15-20 rodeos a year, he's going to pay for himself."
And while Sumpter may not spend any of his considerable winnings on a new truck and trailer to keep up with the Joneses in the rodeo parking lot, he feels his money is well-spent when it comes to horses and looks to protect his investment.
"There isn't anybody other than me and Kenneth that can show up at a rodeo and count on riding him," he said. "There's guys out here with nothing to ride and there are a lot of horses out here that can take a lot of runs for a long time, but it catches up to them. Every run that someone else puts on Wick is one less I get to put on him. I'm not in the mount business one bit. The day that I have to rely on somebody else's horse to win I'm going to quit and go home. I think I can make that horse last 10 more years, he's 11 now."
The missing piece was in place and Sumpter took the step from consistent threat to feared dominator. As the 2007 season wound down, he won the final stop of the Ariat Playoffs in Dallas and rolled into the Wrangler NFR as one of the favorites in a packed field.
He won round one and quickly had the inside track for the world title. But as quickly as he was in the lead, he was out of it when, in a freak accident, his right arm was knocked off the steer's horn by the hazing horse in round four and he took a no time-going out of the average.
"I wasn't disappointed," he said. "I made a lot of money and I missed one steer that could have cost me double what I did win. You're always frustrated when you don't do your best, but you just hope you have a chance to go back."
Finishing sixth in the world in 2007 may have been frustrating, but in retrospect it served as a launching pad for his remarkable 2008. He still won $46,000 dollars in Las Vegas and, as he was returning home, bought a young steer wrestling prospect he named Vegas.
Though inexperienced, Vegas quickly earned the respect of his owner.
"He's a neat little horse," Sumpter said. "He's not as big and strong and powerful as Wick, but that horse is a winner. That's important. A lot of people are that way. They might not do something as good as somebody else, but they figure out a way to win because they're winners. He's real tough, he shouldn't be alive right now. Somehow he got a three-inch piece of wire in him, and it went all the way through his esophagus, his small intestine and into his cecum."
In California at the time, Sumpter took him to the vet hospital at Cal Poly where they found that the infection from the wire had caused his cecum and stomach to begin to fuse together. They operated and he is now recuperating in California, where Linsay's grandmother, Linda Rosser, is looking after him.
It must run in the family because Linsay, who had relocated to Fowler and taken a job with the Professional Bull Riders, based 20 minutes away in Pueblo, Colo., is taking care of an injured hazing horse and keeps Wick in shape when Wade and Kenneth give him some time off from the road.
"Me and Kenneth owe her a lot," he said. "Anytime something gets crippled and hurt, it's her problem. We leave to rodeo."
It's something she understands.
And for now, Sumpter won't be home much. The playoff push has begun, and that's a format in which he has proven he thrives.
The elimination-style tournament puts the pressure on competitors and Sumpter seems to rise to the occasion. When he won Dallas, it was a final-four playoff atmosphere. RodeoHouston has recently changed their format to a bracket-style tournament and the Calgary Stampede's is very similar. The biggest wins of his career have come when the pressure is on.
"I really like the competition," he said. "These tour finales are really fun. Omaha and Dallas and Houston, where there are 12 guys and what you've done before don't mean nothin', I like that. It's fun. It's do or die. I've had pretty good luck in that format. The last three I've been in I've been lucky enough to win. You're unconscious pretty much. I don't remember any of it. [The competition] doesn't give you any choice, you have to be fast."
And so far, he has been. Historically, the fight for a world title during the Finals has come down to the last round. There's almost no margin for error among the steer wrestlers. So to give himself as much margin as possible, Sumpter needs success at the playoffs and end-of-the-season regular rodeos going in to Las Vegas.
And just like everyone competing, the world title is the goal. So why not Sumpter?
"It hasn't been over until the last steer in Las Vegas and it will be that way again this year," he said. "It's hard to come in there and dominate there."
There's no standout force in the event. Luke Branquinho is the only cowboy who has consistently been in the mix for the title over the past few years. He is mounted as well or better than Wade and it could come down to those two. He'll also face stiff competition from his traveling partner, Lewis, who will make his first Finals this year.
"Everybody wants to be a world champion," he said. "The main thing is to stay competitive. Get to the point where, when you show up at a rodeo and back into the box, everybody thinks you're going to beat them. I'm not saying that to be arrogant, anything you do you want it to be good."
At the moment, he's there. But rodeo success can be fleeting and Sumpter knows that. What he treasures more are the things rodeo has given him that have more permanence.
"The best part is the people that you meet and the friends that you have," he said. "I've learned a lot just from watching people. There are a lot of people who are amazing athletes. Whether it's with horses or competing or whatever. There are a lot of people who don't compete but are in the rodeo business, whether it's TV or stock contractors or committees. There aren't very many towns in the western U.S. that I can drive through and I don't know somebody who lives within 30 miles of it. We go to six or eight rodeos in almost every state and you meet somebody new there every time."
To watch Sumpter wander around a rodeo grounds is like watching him at a branding or weaning back in the ranch country south of Fowler. He knows everyone. He talks with ease to the committeemen, clowns, roughies and television crew. He's engaging, smart and laughs easily.
In three short years, he's come from a rookie no one knew to a fixture in the short round and a favorite among rodeo's support crew and competitors alike.
"I'd like to accomplish everything in the next five or six years," he said. "I wouldn't mind being done by the time I was 35. It would be hard to finally call it quits and go home. I can see myself retiring and still going to 40 rodeos a year. There's a real bad supply problem with good horses in the bulldogging business. I'd like to go home and make some horses."
But talking about the future isn't where Wade seems comfortable. As he said, making plans isn't his forte. It's not that he's in denial about the fact that rodeo won't always be there, rather, it's not what excites him. He's a man who prepares for a situation and seizes opportunities. As a 27-year-old competitor, it's the here and now that stirs his imagination.
With a world title in his sights, who can blame him?