J.W. Harris's bull riding career looked to be in serious jeopardy early in the 2008 season. A world title seemed out of the question, a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualification in serious doubt, and his long-term health shaky at best.
Early in the season he suffered five concussions, including one particularly bad blow in San Antonio in which his left cheekbone, eye socket and jaw were broken. Doctors on the Justin SportsMedicine team warned him that many more severe blows to the head could indeed threaten his life.
He decided the best course of action was a helmet. If it affected his riding, it wasn't for long, and in fact the best riding of his career came under a helmet.
"I'm not in the SportsMedicine room quite so much getting to talk to them about what month it is or what day it is," he said.
Soon, he was back to his winning ways. His biggest win came at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up, where he won $10,848 and jumped from 13th to seventh in the Crusher Rentals World Standings. From that point forward he added another $32,000 to his world standings total to come into the Finals in the fourth hole.
In his first two Wrangler NFRs, Harris was solid, yet unspectacular.
"I came here on a mission and I stayed focused on that and it worked out," he said. "I think it has a little more to do with the experience. I wasn't quite so nervous and looking at the lights and cameras. More relaxed."
And really, there wasn't much pressure on him. Chance Smart came in as the favorite to win his first world title and big things were expected from a streaking B.J. Schumacher. Plus, everyone was interested in how reigning World Champion Wesley Silcox would return from a broken leg. Harris was overlooked. The pressure was off and it worked. In the first six rounds, he rode five of his bulls.
"I was feeling great," he said. "I wasn't sore. I was thinking I've really got a shot at doing this and I need to stay focused. I was feeling good after the sixth round. I could do no wrong. Bulls were jumping underneath me and it seemed like whistles were coming early."
All of a sudden, the pressure was on. With Smart only covering one of his first six bulls, Harris looked like he'd run away with it.
"Then little things started happening," he said. "My bull last night pulled me into his hand. Then War Zone stumbled with me and jerked me down and I slapped him. Tonight I was setting a trap and tried way too hard to ride that bull when I just needed to relax. Then on the last few rounds I got to pressing a little too hard."
Instead of lapping the field and sewing up the title early-which he had a chance to do-the world title came down to the final round. He, Bobby Welsh and Smart all had an opportunity. If Harris rode, the title was his. Donnie Gay had told him that fact the night before, and Harris probably had too much time to think it over. He bucked off.
"I've been in pressure situations, but not to this extent," he said. "I've been here before and I should have learned to relax."
As the last bull rider to go, all Smart had to do was cover his bull to win it, but about six seconds in, he came off.
"It was exciting, it made it interesting for the fans," Harris said. "Me and Bobby (Welsh) fought it out at the last of the year to give ourselves a chance to give Chance a run for his money. It was a lot of fun up until (the final round). That was nerve-wracking. There wasn't much fun in the locker room I didn't think. Everybody else was relaxing, but I had a gold buckle on the line."
The title, in his own words, fell his way. He never said it, but it's only human nature to want to win your first world title in a blaze of glory instead of bucking off your last three. Regardless, the man who rode the best for 10 days in Las Vegas won the world-the way it should be.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I grew up around the sport, and I always said I was going to wear one of them gold buckles, and this year it finally came true."