When steer wrestler KC Jones gets the number of his steer before a rodeo run, he goes to the pen to meet the animal. The steer is about 600 pounds, and in just a little while, the 215-pound Jones will slide off his horse, Bumble Bee, grab the steer by the horns and try to wrestle him to the ground.
“I take a good look at him down there. I make sure there’s nothing wrong with him—make sure there’s no swelled-up eye or broken horn or anything,” says Jones, a six-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo competitor. The 3-year-old steer has no name, but instead has been assigned a number—No. 4.
“Then I look him in the eye, and I say, ‘You’re going to be famous tonight.'”
Steers in the National Finals Rodeo—which comes to the Thomas & Mack Center December 5-14—are experienced. That’s a good thing, Jones says, because they know what to expect: They’ve been “laid down” before.
This is the scene at the 2012 NFR: A little while after meeting his steer, Jones heads to his chute in the Thomas & Mack, where 17,000 rodeo fans are on their feet. Jones, small for a steer wrestler at 5-foot-11, gets up on Bumble Bee. Next to him is No. 4. On the other side of No. 4 is a horse and cowboy known as the hazer, who will keep the steer running in a straight line.
The gates open. They all take off running, reaching about 30 mph—Bumble Bee and Jones, Steer No. 4 and the hazer. Hooves pound, dust flies. “I just concentrate,” Jones says. “It’s so loud in there, it’s awesome, but I’m thinking first that I want to get a good start, and then that I just have to be aggressive. Be aggressive.”
Jones—competing with a broken fibula—then leans out of his saddle and grabs No. 4 by the horns as they run. Bumble Bee moves aside. Jones digs the heels of his boots into the dirt and cranks the steer’s head back and to the side, over his own chest, forcing the animal to flip onto its side. Time: 3.4 seconds.
That was Round 8 last year. Jones tied for first in the round and came in fifth overall, bringing his pro rodeo career earnings to more than $942,000. He’s since topped the million-dollar mark, and he’s back this year.
It’s a brutal sport. And that’s frequently been the issue for rodeo: As the cowboy wrestles the steer, the rodeo wrestles its controversial animal-welfare image. Nevertheless, rodeo brings a lucrative celebration to Las Vegas, and the Strip welcomes fans with parties all over town—not least of which is Jones’ creation, Rodeo Vegas at The Mirage, where cowboys and fans meet, greet, knock back a few and listen to live country music.
And then, after the nation’s biggest rodeo competition is over, Jones—at 42, “the oldest bulldogger in the event”—will go home to Decatur, Texas, along with Bumble Bee, who, at 14, is middle-aged in competitive horse years.
And Steer No. 4? He’ll be retired. One year is enough for a steer in this event.