By: Kendra Santos
—Big Bulldogging Hits for Rodeo Coach Stockton Graves and Student Athlete Bridger Anderson.–
This month’s steer wrestling Cinderella story revolves around rodeo coach Stockton Graves and student athlete Bridger Anderson, and is about as cowboy classic as they come. The most recent chapter of this feel-good fairytale started with Graves’ $62,500 win on June 1 at the $1 million Titletown Stampede in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It came to a spectacular close two weeks later with Anderson’s National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association title at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming.
“We’ve had a good month and a good 2019,” smiled Stockton, who’s a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo steer wrestler and is 40 now. “Those couple weeks were pretty amazing. The two national championships (Anderson’s and breakaway roper Taylor Munsell’s) we won is even cooler for me as a coach than winning Green Bay. I’ve had big wins in my career, but getting to see these kids excel is awesome.”
Graves has served as the head rodeo coach of his Northwestern Oklahoma State University alma mater in Alva since the spring of 2012. The timing of the job opening was perfect for Stockton and his college sweetheart and fellow NWOSU rodeo alum, Crissi, who’s his wife now.
“I was riding around the arena at the (annual) Duvall Jackpot (in Checotah, Oklahoma, AKA The Steer Wrestling Capital of the World) talking to (fellow steer wrestler) Kody Woodward,” Stockton said. “Kody was a student and the interim coach after the previous coach left the program. He asked if I’d be interested in coaching at Northwestern.
“At the end of 2011 (Stockton made the NFR in 2004-09 and 2011), I told Crissi we needed to start our life. I was ready to start slowing down on the rodeoing, and we wanted to get married and start a family.”
They did just that, and are now the proud parents of daughter Sequin, 4, and son Gus, 2. Stockton also serves as a mentor to his rodeo students as he leads the charge of the NWOSU Rangers Rodeo Team. Breakaway roper Munsell is the first female national champ in NWOSU rodeo history, by the way.
Graves—the 1997 Oklahoma High School Rodeo Association steer wrestling champ—graduated from NWOSU with a bachelor’s degree in ag business, which is the same diploma Anderson is working toward. When he was at Northwestern, Stockton was a three-time CNFR qualifier who twice won the Central Plains Region steer wrestling championship and still holds the 3.4-second CNFR steer wrestling record, which he set in 2001. He’s been there and done that when it comes to climbing the rodeo ranks, so Anderson listens closely to Coach Graves’ words of wisdom both in the arena and beyond.
“Stockton’s an all-around coach, whether you’re talking about college rodeo, pro rodeo or just being a good person,” said Anderson, 20, who grew up in Carrington, North Dakota—a rural farming and ranching community of a couple thousand people. “He knows how to do all of it. Stockton’s a very well-respected guy in the rodeo world. He stands up for the right thing, and is there to look out for all the cowboys, not just himself.
“On the steer wrestling side of things, he focuses a lot on the mindset of it. We’re here to win. Stockton’s taught me a lot about winning—by going out there and being aggressive and confident. He’s also smart about making business decisions, like when and how hard to push the barrier. I’m still doing a lot of learning, and Stockton’s a great teacher.”
Bridger’s been blessed that way, with a strong crew of family and friends in his corner from the beginning. His mom and dad, Robin and Glenn, have been his biggest influences since day one. Both roped in their younger years. Glenn—who you’ll suspect of human cloning if you see him standing next to Bridger—trained horses for a long time, and taught his son a ton about horsemanship.
Robin’s a brilliant businesswoman who brings worldly, big-picture perspective into the relatively small rodeo pond and is great about cheering for her son and everyone else’s, too. Bridger’s sisters, Dawsyn and Cedar, are a pair of personality-packed pistols who are the perfect cowboy combo. They stand and scream their lungs out when Bridger bulldogs, and manage to keep their big brother humble all at the same time.
When Bridger was in sixth grade, Robin dropped him off with timed-event cowboy Tyler Schau and his breakaway roping, barrel racing wife, Jackie, who are dear family friends.
“They were great,” Bridger remembers from back before he shaved. “They welcomed me, and we roped and threw some steers on the ground. They both used to coach at Iowa Central, so they were really good teachers. I continued to spend a lot of weekends with them in the wintertime, and a week or two at a time in the summer when I was in high school. I spent a ton of time with them my senior year.”
The Schau family’s Diamond S Performance Horses—which also includes Tyler’s dad, Mike, and his wife, Mary Lou—is where Bridger’s bay pride and joy, Whiskers, came from.
“Whiskers is a big-made, framier-built horse that came off of the track,” Bridger said. “I’ve owned him two years.”
A lot of the footage from Bridger’s early career highlights reel—including this month’s CNFR win—features Bridger on Whiskers’ back. In 2017, Bridger won the inaugural Ote Berry’s Junior Steer Wrestling World Championship in Las Vegas aboard Whiskers, who also was his ride when he made the short round at the big winter rodeo in Denver as a high school senior.
Anderson won the 2015 International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee, Oklahoma, aboard another Schau-made horse, Roanie, who also was his ride when he won the North Dakota High School Rodeo Association state steer wrestling title in 2016. Bridger—who wrestled for 11 years up until his senior year of high school, won a state title wrestling at 170 pounds in 2016 and was a member of two state championship wrestling teams his sophomore and junior years that won both individual and dual state titles both years—won a second straight NDHSRA steer wrestling championship his senior year in 2017 on Whiskers.
Before we circle back around to Stockton, it’s important to loop in five-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho, as he, too, is part of Bridger’s bulldogging village.
“I learned how to steer wrestle and rodeo from Tyler and Jackie,” Bridger said. “Then my junior year I went to Luke’s, and he kind of revamped my style. I took what he taught me back to the Schaus’, and Tyler and I worked on it, took some of the old and some of the new, and formed my own style out of it that works for me.”
The Schau Connection came up again when Bridger was deciding where to go to college.
“When I was looking at schools, Jacob Edler—who’s also learned a lot from Tyler and Jackie—was going to school at Alva, which was kind of the steer wrestling capital of college rodeo,” Bridger said. “Stockton was a big part of my decision. It was a big chance to learn from a seven-time NFR bulldogger, and it was for sure a smart decision. It’s done my career a lot of good to be able to rodeo with Stockton and be around him.”
Their two-man buddy group—which this summer also includes two-time NFR steer wrestler J.D. Struxness, who won the first of NWOSU’s now three national championships at the 2016 CNFR—has had a fine time of it in the early going of World Champions Rodeo Alliance history. Both Stockton and Bridger have been staples at the $500,000 semifinals and $1 million majors.
At last summer’s $1 million Days of ’47 Cowboy Games & Rodeo in Salt Lake City, Stockton didn’t place, but Bridger represented with a third-place medal for $14,400. Then came the November 2018 WCRA Semi Finals at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma; the $1 million Windy City Roundup in Chicago in January 2019; another $500,000 WCRA Semi Finals in Guthrie in May; and the $1 million Titletown Stampede in Green Bay. Both placed at all four.
To date in the WCRA, Bridger’s banked right at $33,000 at those five rodeos.
“And that’s not doing great at all of them,” he noted. “We just kind of skimmed along at some of them. I missed a steer in Chicago, and still won $1,400.”
After spending about $1,500 in total Virtual Rodeo Qualifier (VRQ) System nomination fees, Coach Graves has won right at $100,000 at those same five WCRA rodeos, including the W at Green Bay and second in Chicago. He won over $10,000 between the two Semi Finals in Guthrie alone.
It’s new money. And perhaps the best part is that it did not come from the pockets of other cowboys.
“We’re planning to build a new house,” Graves said gratefully, also giving honorable mention to 2017 World Champion Steer Wrestler Tyler Pearson for hazing for him and Bridger on his great gray horse Metallica at both Chicago and Green Bay. “The whole goal is winning money and making a living rodeoing. That’s the greatest part about what’s going on here. You still have to win. It’s a sport and a competition. But you have an opportunity to earn money that makes a difference. There’s more money in my savings account right now than there ever was when I was rodeoing hard.”
Stockton’s racked up a lot of career highlights, so has a lot of history and experience to draw from.
“Making that first NFR is always a highlight,” he said. “That’s a big deal. Before that, you wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’ Getting that done is a confidence thing. Winning San Antonio and Houston in 2011 was a pretty big deal, too.
“What’s going on with the WCRA right now is exciting. It was a sold-out crowd in Green Bay, and they were riled up about rodeo. Winning $62,500 there is definitely another career highlight for me. That’s the most I’ve ever won in one night.”
Anderson ended up fifth in Green Bay.
“I missed the barrier a little bit, didn’t take a sharp enough start and it was super fast,” he said. “I basically got out late, ran one to the back end, tried turning him back and got jerked on my head. But that’s the highest paying 6.8 of my life—I won $6,400.
“When we first started in the WCRA, it was cool, because I had no standing or credibility in the rodeo world. A lot of top PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) rodeos only let you in if you’re one of the top guys in the world. In the WCRA, you can get qualified for the big events without going against the best guys. Then you get to go head-to-head with everybody. It’s a pretty great opportunity for a guy like me, and it’s been really good to me so far.”
Bridger, who will be 21 in August, had one memorable CNFR in Casper this year. It was his sophomore season and his second College Finals. In 2018, he missed his first steer, then came a whisker away from his coach’s 3.4-second CNFR record (which he co-owns with University of Montana Western’s Taylor Nahrgang), winning the second round in 3.5. Anderson won the Central Plains Region this year, and got hot in Casper straight out of the blocks. He was 3.9 to split the first round, 3.8 for second in the second round, then a solid 4.7 in Round 3 to lead the pack into short-round Saturday. His 6.7-second short-round run was ugly and not exactly according to script, but effective.
“I wasn’t too nervous the whole week,” he said. “And I was less nervous before my short-round run. It was quite the opposite as soon as I missed that left horn. I went into straight panic mode. I used an old high school wrestling move, and pushed him over with my knee.”
Grit worked. Anderson won the national title by two-tenths of a second.
“Getting that done meant a lot to us, because it was part of our goal process this year,” Bridger said. “Rodeo’s far from an individual sport, because so many people help you out. It’s always a team effort. It’s your name in the results and standings, but it’s always a team effort.”
The buddy group of Graves, Anderson and Struxness just set sail for the summer—Bridger’s first full time on the rodeo trail—with Stockton’s 10-year-old blue-roan bulldogging horse, Freeway, Whiskers and Struxness’s hazing horse in the trailer. Back when the Schaus still owned Whiskers, Struxness won Cheyenne on him in 2016, which partially accounted for his first Finals that year. There’s a picture from the Cheyenne short round on Anderson and Struxness’ fridge in Alva.
Both Stockton and Bridger will be back at the $1 million Days of ’47 in Salt Lake City next month, before it’s back to school for the both of them in August.
“What the WCRA is doing is ground breaking, and it’s been really good for our team,” Graves said. “They’re doing their best to revolutionize rodeo, and are giving insight into what’s to come. It’s unbelievable. This is rodeo’s future, and it’s making a very solid impact. Four rodeos a year that pay the champs at least $50,000 is insane.
“Bridger and I are at different stages in life, but the WCRA fits us both really well. I wish this would have happened when I was 20 years old, but you’ve got to start somewhere and I’m just glad to be a part of it. Young guys like Bridger have a lot to look forward to, that’s for sure. Maybe it really is possible for cowboys to make a living and have a life, without driving day and night like gypsies all the time. How great would that be?”