By: Kendra Santos
For 30 years, Rob Smets made a living the hard way. The Kamikaze Kid, as he was known, took bullets for bull riders and heart-stopping chances without hesitation to serve as cowboy lifesaver and wow rodeo crowds coast to coast. He was legendary for leaping fire-breathing bulls the likes of Harry Vold’s notorious Crooked Nose in a single bound, and taking hits so his cowboy friends could walk away to ride another day was his calling card. In recognition of decades’ worth of those and so many more iconic feats, Smets was just inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
“This is the icing on the cake,” said Smets, who was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs in 2006. “I worked my first NFR (National Finals Rodeo) in Oklahoma City, and won my first world championship (Rob is a five-time Wrangler World Champion Bullfighter) in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City is where it all started for me, so it can’t get any better than this. Just to walk through this Hall is a very humbling honor in itself.
“The chance to get together with old, true friends who’ve been with me from the beginning to celebrate how this all came full circle all these years later means the world to me. I’m talking about people who’ve been there since before the dream started, back at Bolado Park (in Hollister, California) in 1976.”
I was there that day to see Smets get bit by the bullfighting bug with my own two eyes. Yes, he liked to rope. But he loved fighting bulls. Fueled by the fire of a fierce competitor, Rob went on to compete in the Wrangler Bullfights at the NFR 17 times. He worked the bull riding as an NFR bullfighter six times, and nine times saved his bull riding buddies at the PBR World Finals.
Smets, who was appropriately born on 9-11, broke his neck three times in his in-arena career. He broke his leg one year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and on July 24—which is Pioneer Day in Utah, and commemorates the Mormon pioneers passage into the Salt Lake Valley from Emigration Canyon in 1847—suffered a 4.5-inch goring that stopped at the base of his spine in Salt Lake City in 1985.
“I was blessed to play a game I loved,” Smets said. “People ask me about the most important traits it takes to be a great bullfighter, and I always say the biggest one is heart. Because no matter how good you are, when you play this game at that level you’re going to get knocked on your ass sooner or later. That’s when you find out how much heart you have and how bad you want to play the game.
“When a bull mops the floor with you and you finally realize you aren’t Superman, that’s when you find out what you’re made of and how bad you want it. I took a little from the playbooks of Jimmy Anderson, Miles Hare, Skipper Voss and Wick Peth to make Rob Smets the bullfighter. The biggest blessing was God giving me a big heart and a will to win. Getting knocked on my ass just fired me up a little more. Part of that probably comes from the boxing I did back before I started fighting bulls.”
After he hung up his bullfighting cleats, Smets did some announcing in the PBR and PRCA. Rob’s latest career chapter is as WCRA Alliance Relations Manager.
“I go and talk to different associations and promoters about them becoming alliance partners with the WCRA, so contestants can nominate their events to earn points to qualify for our $500,000 WCRA Semi-Finals (the next one will be held at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma in January 2020), along with the four $1 million WCRA majors we’ll have in 2020—in Kansas City in February, Guthrie in May, Salt Lake City in July and Tacoma in August, all of which will be broadcast on CBS Sports,” said California native Smets, who now lives with his wife, Carla, in Rossville, Texas.
“It’s so great to work in the field that I really know and love, which is rodeo. Working with associations at every level of the game keeps me in close touch working to make this sport better alongside old friends, and is giving me a chance to make new friends, too. We’re not competing with anyone for dues. The WCRA is truly trying to put money into cowboys’ (and cowgirls’) pockets, and we’re talking about life-changing money for some people.”
On behalf of bull riders and rodeo fans everywhere, continued thanks and congratulations, Rob Smets!