Riding high: Fresno State rodeo team takes passions outside classroom

Four years ago, there was no scholarship program available for kids who wanted to enter rodeo competitions at Fresno State. Therefore, these students were going to other colleges out of high school, since they were offered scholarships.

Enter Dr. Allen Clyde, a podiatrist and horse-packing-station owner who created the Bronc Riders of California, a nonprofit organization that pays for 90 percent of a student’s tuition and allows him or her to pursue dreams of rodeo while still getting an education. Rocky Steagall, a current national judge for rodeos, is the vice president. Clyde’s wife, Deborah, helps out the organization as secretary.

“Five years ago, I started getting interested in what I could do to rodeo to enhance and promote it,” Clyde said. “There was decreasing participation in bronc riding. I wanted to do it in a way that would promote it educationally, while focusing on techniques and safety. It had to be tied to education in the form of scholarships as well.”

That vision has given four students bronc-riding scholarships. On average, their GPAs are 3.4.

Justin Lawrence, a fifth-year student at Fresno State and current scholarship recipient, is ineligible to play because of rules against riding after the fourth academic year. Since he is not able to compete this year for collegiate competition, Lawrence is currently a teacher’s assistant to the rest of the rodeo team.

“I came here because of Fresno State’s academics,” Lawrence said. “I even thought I wasn’t going to be able to come here because of my financial situation. Then Dr. Clyde offered me a five-year scholarship here. He is one of the most generous guys I’ve met.”

Unlike other sports at Fresno State, rodeo is NCAA exempt, which means that the students have the opportunity to ride professionally and make money.

“Every weekend is a new adventure,” said rider K.C. Nabors. “I get to travel every weekend and do what I love. Every weekend is a new memory.”

Bronc riding is not an easy sport to master. It’s physically tolling and therefore results in a lot of injuries. In high school, when competing for his second state championship, Lawrence had not been healthy.

“When I went to state for the second time, I rode with a broken shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, a cracked sternum, a bruised tailbone and torn ligaments in my foot,” said Lawrence.

The sport has its dangers – primarily concussions. Lawrence has had seven of them. Nabors, who competes in both bronc- and bull-riding events, had eight and recalled a frightening moment that happened during a meet last August.

“This bull came down and split this $600 helmet I was wearing and knocked me out,” he said. “I blacked out for five minutes. I wasn’t able to talk for another hour and a half. The next day, I was just in my mom’s office shivering. My brain had swelled up so much, it touched my skull which made my nervous system go haywire, and I wasn’t able to move my legs for a while.”

Another scholarship recipient, Colin Letson, admitted he has had a lot of injuries doing rodeo as well.

“I have had five or six concussions, lacerated my liver, broken my ribs, leg, and have broken both collarbones,” he said.

Knowing the dangers of the sport, it is always a wonder why these students would put themselves in harm’s way. There’s no guarantee that an injury is not going to happen. As Letson said, “You’re going to get bucked off. It’s not if, but when.”

In the end, these riders don’t see it as just a sport.

“It’s more like a way of life; it’s something you’ve got to love,” said Nabors. Most people do it to impress their girlfriends. For me, there’s nothing else I love to do more.”