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2019 Kansas Biggest Rodeo Champions

Bareback Riding Champion: Shane O’Connell

The best week in 2019 for Shane O’Connell was during the Phillipsburg rodeo.

That’s when the bareback rider won not only Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo, but Great Falls, Montana, and Regina, Saskatchewan.

It was a good seven days during what O’Connell calls his “sophomore slump.”

In Phillipsburg, he rode the Beutler and Son Rodeo horse Nutrena’s Anything Goes for 89 points and $2,955. It was the second time the Rapid City, S.D. cowboy had ridden the gelding. “I cracked that horse out in Tucson a handful of years ago,” O’Connell said. “He was just a colt when I had him the first time, and he bucked hard then. There’s a reason he goes to the (National) Finals.”

The horse wasn’t friendly to O’Connell as he got on him. “He tried to bite me in the chutes a couple of times. You can tell he’s Uncle Ben’s horse,” O’Connell joked.

And he nearly didn’t make the buzzer, either. “Five seconds into the ride, I remember my hand starting to come undone. It was hot that day, and I told myself ‘you’re too far into (the ride.) You have to finish it.’”

After qualifying for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo  in 2018, O’Connell finished the 2019 season in thirty-first place in the world. His best week of rodeo was the first week of August. “I couldn’t get anything going during the winter. That one week was the best week I had. I won $10,000, and that was half of what I won (for the year), dang near. It was one of them weird years.”

Phillipsburg is special to the 24 year old cowboy for a couple of reasons. The rodeo “is in the middle of nowhere but it’s a cool little place,” and it’s also where he heard the news, four years ago, that the younger brother of a buddy had died in a car wreck. Tucker Easton, who was sixteen, was a budding bull rider who his cowboy friends called “little brother.” Every year, when O’Connell rides at Phillipsburg, he wears a blue bandanna in honor of Tucker.

First buckle he won: In 2004, at the age of eight, in Belle Fourche, S.D. at a 4-H rodeo. “I won the junior calf riding,” O’Connell remembered. “I also did well in the horse events and got the all-round. I still have that buckle, in my trophy case.”

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving: “I catch up with a lot of old buddies on the phone.” He’ll also “throw in a Netflix movie, not to distract me, but to keep my mind going on those long drives.”

Favorite meal to cook: “I’m a bachelor, and I make a mean plate of steak and barbecue beans. It’s ranch raised beef.” He opens a can of baked beans but adds his own special ingredients: brown sugar, ketchup, barbecue sauce, a couple of spices, some ham and onions. “I spice it up.”

Most influential persons: “My mom and dad (Jiggs and Ann O’Connell). They’ve been there for everything. Dad pushed me. He didn’t let me slack around. It was all business with my dad. When you come, you show up to win. He was there to make me excel. And my mom is tougher than nails. She’s beat breast cancer twice. There was no room for softness growing up.”

Steer Wrestling Co-Champion: Blair Jones

Blair Jones is the steer wrestling co-champion for the 2019 Phillipsburg rodeo.

The Colby, Kan. man turfed his steer in 3.6 seconds, tying for first place with Denell Henderson.

The 28-year-old cowboy was aboard a horse owned by fellow steer wrestler Dru Melvin. Nitro, a fifteen-year-old gray gelding, was the mount for Jones, Lane Herl, and Richard Coats, who all made a run in Phillipsburg. Herl tied for seventh place on Nitro.

The horse is an expert at his job. “He’s pretty simple,” Jones said. “Just get him in the corner (of the box) and he does his deal. He’s pretty solid. He makes your life a little easier.”

Jones, who grew up in Monte Vista, Colorado, attended Colby Community College where he met his wife, Brooke. They have a two-year-old daughter.

When he’s not rodeoing, Jones is a carpenter. He qualified for the Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo in 2019.

First rodeo prize he won: A saddle he won in middle school while team roping with Joe Norris at the rodeo in Monte Vista.

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving: Play pitch in the truck.

Favorite meal his mom makes: Beef wellington. “She likes making it but I know it’s a lot of work.”

Most influential persons: Steer wrestlers Todd Suhn, Sean Mulligan, and Luke Branquinho.


Steer Wrestling Co-Champion: Denell Henderson

Denell Henderson could be playing basketball, but instead, he’s jumping steers.

The 6’8” cowboy tied for the win in Phillipsburg in the steer wrestling with a 3.6 second run.

In fact, he turned down seven offers from NBA teams to steer wrestle.

“I always wanted to rodeo,” he said.

The son of a bull rider and steer wrestler, he loved rodeo. But by the time he was in junior high, basketball took precedence.

In college, Henderson played at Connors State College in Warner, Okla. and after graduation, played at Oral Roberts. He was an “undersized center,” he said. “Most of the centers were towering over me at 7 feet.”

His friends thought he was crazy to turn down a professional career, but he is fine with the choice he made. “I don’t regret it at all. I love it, and when I’m not winning, I still love it. But sometimes when you start running out of money, it’s like, ‘you’re an idiot.’”

Henderson was the 2019 Steer Wrestling Rookie of the Year.

First buckle he won:  Chute dogging in the Arkansas Junior Rodeo Association.

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving:  “If we have down time, we play cards or play golf. They (his fellow steer wrestlers) did try to each me to play pitch but they’re not friendly teachers. They just beat me all the time. I don’t like it when they pull those cards out and say let’s play pitch because I know I’m going to lose.”
Sometimes Henderson will play basketball during breaks between rodeos. “When we’re on the road, a few of us will get together and play. I try to take it easy on them.”

Favorite meal his mom (Denis Tyus) makes: “My mom makes a lot of different things and they’re all good, so it’s hard to say.”

Most influential person: “My dad (Deoan Henderson). He is just a hard working individual. He’d always tell me, take pride in everything you do. He’s just always a positive person. He rodeoed all his life. Matter of fact, if he catches a wild hair, he’ll still get on a bull.”

Team Roping Co-Champions: Clay Tryan and Travis Graves

Four is Clay Tryan’s favorite number in Phillipsburg, Kansas.

Or maybe it’s number one.

For the second consecutive year, the Billings, Mont. cowboy won the team roping at Kansas Biggest Rodeo, with heeler Travis Graves. He and Graves tied with Clay Smith and Jade Corkill.

And for the second year in a row, their time was 4.0 seconds.

Tryan remembered his run, even after several months. “It was probably the best run we made all year, probably the fastest,” he said. “We were the first team out. The steer ran to the right, I reached through the rope, and my heeler did his job. It was a wild run, for dang sure.”

Tryan was aboard his fourteen-year-old sorrel named Johnson, who he has owned for the past five years and who was in the running for the Purina Head Horse of the Year.

Not only has Tryan won two Phillipsburg buckles, back to back, but in 2017, he and heeler Jade Corkill tied for second with Cale Markham and Austin Rogers (4.5 seconds for each team).

First rodeo prize he won:  “I remember the first time I won a saddle. It was at a roping in Missoula (Mont., in 1993 at the age of 14). I was the high point winner for my number for the weekend. It was not so much the saddle but I won quite a bit of money and I hadn’t won any money before that. The saddle was cool but the money was just as cool.”

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving: “Sleep. In the summertime, if you can get some rest, get it.”

Favorite meal his wife Bobbie makes:  “She makes a lot of good things, but I would say I like her spaghetti.” 

Most influential person: “I’ve had a lot of influential people in my life, and it never stops, honestly. But without my dad (Dennis Tryan), I would have never started doing any of what I do now. He’s the main reason I rope. If he wouldn’t have gotten me started, I don’t see any other way it would have happened.”

Travis Graves heeled for Tryan.

Team Roping Co-Champions: Clay Smith and Jade Corkill 

Clay Smith was on the heading end of the second team that claimed the championship at the 2019 Kansas Biggest Rodeo.

He and heeler Jade Corkill put a 4.0 second run on a steer to tie for first with Clay Tryan and Travis Graves.

Smith, the two-time and reigning world champion header, loves coming to Phillipsburg.

“Philipsburg has always kind of been our spot, it seems like,” he said. “I’ve had good luck there.” In the past seven years, he has placed at the rodeo or won it five times.

Phillipsburg is also on the way to his home in Oklahoma after a grueling summer. “It seems like when you’re coming home from the summer, Phillipsburg is the closest place to home. I can never wait till Phillipsburg. Even as hot as it is, I love that rodeo. It’s a good paying rodeo and we always seem to have good luck there.”

First rodeo prize he won:  “My biggest win was when I was eleven and I won a pickup truck at a Booger Barter team roping in Athens, Texas. My dad drove me to school in it the first day after I won it, and my dad took me and my brothers to ropings in it.”

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving:  Sleep, “or try to. But we (he and wife Taylor) have a baby who is two years old, so I play with him. He keeps us entertained.”

Favorite meal his wife Taylor and mom Tammy make: “Probably their chicken fried steak. They both cook good, so that’s a good thing.”

Most influential persons:  “Besides God, the most influential in my life have been my mom and dad (Tammy and Mark Smith.) They’ve been people I could always look up to. They always took care of me.” His wife’s parents, Jason and Jennifer Richey, are role models to him as well. “It’s nice to have a good set of in-laws. I’ve always heard in-laws were a bad thing, but they’ve been good for me.”

Jade Corkill heeled for Tryan.

Saddle Bronc Riding Champion: Hardy Braden

Hardy Braden is the 2019 Kansas Biggest Rodeo saddle bronc riding champion.

The Welch, Okla. cowboy rode Beutler and Son’s horse Wound Up for 88.5 points and a check for $3,158.

It was the second time he’d ridden the horse. “I’d been on her in San Antonio in the short round,” Braden said, “and I was a little more nervous as far as not wanting to mess her up. She had a heck of a day, that’s for sure. She made me work for it.”

The 31-year-old cowboy went to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2017, but 2018 didn’t go as planned. “It sucked in 2018,” he said. “Coming off of 2017, I thought it would be good in 2018. But it wasn’t the case.” Because of the slump, Braden has gained a new perspective. “It made me take a step back and reassess things. It’s more important to have fun and enjoy it while you can.”  He finished the 2019 rodeo season in 28th place in the world standings.

When he’s not rodeoing, he’s at home on the family ranch raising cattle with his dad.

First buckle he won: An ACRA (American Cowboy Rodeo Assoc.) buckle at the age of 19. “I didn’t rodeo as a kid because I was big into baseball, and baseball always fell on top of my rodeos.” Braden had a junior college scholarship to play baseball but declined it, “because I didn’t see it going much past that, so I thought rodeo would be a better choice.”

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving: Watch movies. “It makes the time fly. I’ve watched so many movies. I’ll swing into a Red Box and if they have something I haven’t seen yet, I’ll get it. Once I’ve watched it once, I can usually listen to it.

Favorite meal his mom, Tammy makes: green chili burritos. “Those are my and my sister’s favorites. Homemade tortillas, homemade green chili, hamburger, cheese, baked in the oven and a big old pot of green chili sauce she’ll pour over them. They are so good. My hat is off to my mom. She’s a heck of a cook. She can cook about anything.” 

Most influential person:My dad (Butch) for sure. You know, I hope to be half as good a person as he is,when I grow up. There was a time, when I first started, that mom thought I needed to get a solid day job. But dad didn’t want me to do that. He wanted me to rodeo as long as I possibly could so he made sure I was able to stay on the road a little bit, especially when I was younger. He wanted me to have the opportunity that he didn’t necessarily have when he was growing up. It’s one of my favorite things, to have my dad at a rodeo, on the back of the chutes, helping me.”

Tie-down Roping Champion: Caleb Smidt

Two-time world champion Caleb Smidt is also the 2019 Kansas Biggest Rodeo champ.

The Huntsville, Texas tie-down roper stopped the clock in 8.0 seconds to win $2,724 and the gold buckle. It was a run he remembered, since “I remember all my winning runs and forget my losing runs,” he said. “I had a really good calf, probably the best calf I’ve had in Phillipsburg. (The times) were soft when I roped. There weren’t too many fast times. I went and made a good run.”

Smidt rode Pockets, a gelding he’s ridden the last five years at the Wrangler National Finals. The horse is “awesome,” he said. The “big stout bay makes my job a lot easier. Pretty much every time I nod my head, he gives me a chance to win. If I don’t win, it’s my fault.”

The thirty-year-old, the father of a four-year-old son and an eighteen-month-old daughter, has competed in Phillipsburg six times.

First buckle he won:  A saddle, when he was six years old, for winning the all-around at a youth rodeo in south Texas. Smidt competed in every event he could; the breakaway roping, ribbon roping, goat tying, barrel racing, and pole bending. “I did it all.”
He was so excited to have won the saddle that as soon as the family got home, he wanted to use it. The only problem was it was the middle of the night. “My parents had to saddle my horse when we got home at 3 am, just so I could ride it.”

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving:  Eat sunflower seeds. “I have a bus now, so I’m usually up there by myself. Either my kids are running back and forth or they’re watching TV. I eat sunflower seeds (dill pickle flavor is his favorite) and listen to the radio.”

Favorite meal his wife Brenna makes: “My wife’s chicken fried steak.” No gravy, however.  “If it’s good enough, you don’t need gravy.” 

Most influential person: “My father-in-law is a very good businessman, as far as it comes to making money. He’s been very influential. In the rodeo world, Justin Maas, because he’s very positive and influential when it comes to roping. I rodeoed with him and lived at his house for a long time.”

Barrel Racing Champion: Michelle Darling

Michelle Darling made the fastest run of the Phillipsburg rodeo last year to win the 2019 barrel racing title and a check for $3,211.

The Medford, Oklahoma cowgirl was aboard her eight-year-old mare, a palomino whose registered name is Morning Traffic but who Michelle calls “Martini.” The mare “is a ball of fire,” she said. Michelle has owned her since she was a two-year-old. Fellow barrel racer Stevi Hillman futuritied on Martini when she was four and five years old, and then Michelle got her back.

She’s a diva, Michelle said, and she likes to be left alone. “She likes everything a certain way, and she’s not a mare that likes to be touched much. She can be a handful to ride, but she always does her job when you ask her to. I feel like she really loves to run barrels.”

Michelle, the wife of Cody Darling and the mother of sons Talon (15), Case (7) and daughter Demi Lynn (4), is a full-time mom and a part-time barrel racer. The kids travel with her in the summertime, when school isn’t in session. Last year was her third time to compete in Phillipsburg and the first time she’d pulled a check there.

First buckle she won:  The all-around buckle she won at the age of eight at an Oklahoma Youth Junior Rodeo, where she competed in the barrels, poles and goat tying. “I still have that buckle. I keep all my buckles.”

Favorite thing to do to pass the time while driving: “I’m on the phone a lot. On the side, I  ride a lot of colts and horses that I train and sell. I’m usually on the phone with a customer or a client.”

Favorite meal: Homemade cinnamon rolls. “I make those and that is a meal for me. I could live off those. I love carbs.”

Most influential person: Four-time world champion Kristie Peterson. “When I was just getting started in my career, I always looked up to Kristie. I remember the first time I watched her and Bozo at Ponca City, Okla. She was one of my role models because she was very kind and there was no drama. Bozo won a lot of money for her, and that was her partner. I had a lot of respect for them.”

Bull Riding Champion: Sage Kimzey

The year after Sage Kimzey got his PRCA permit, he won money in Phillipsburg.

That was in 2014, and since then, there’s only been one year he hasn’t been at the rodeo pay window

The six-time world champion bull rider came away with the gold buckle at Kansas Biggest Rodeo again this year, with an 87 point ride on Beutler and Son’s Record Rack’s Tombstone.

It was a ride that threw him for a loop. “He’s a really nice bull,” Kimzey said. “He turned back a little close to the chutes and hit his head twice on the chute. That threw my timing off pretty bad but with a lot of try I got by him.”

Phillipsburg is a rodeo familiar to the 25 year old cowboy. His dad, Ted Kimzey, was a barrelman and bullfighter in Phillipsburg for years, and he and his sister Dusta and brother Trey accompanied their dad as he worked the rodeo. “I remember when I was little bitty coming up here with my dad,” he said. “I love this rodeo. It’s a pretty special place for me.”

He loves small town rodeos and the people in them. “The people in this small community, you just don’t find anywhere else. There’s just something about true country people. They can call this a fly-over state all they want, but the people are as good as you’ll ever run into. I think that’s what really makes these rodeos special, the people who are here.”

Kimzey, who is engaged to marry Alexis Bloomer, lives in Salado, Texas.