By: Kendra Santos
GUTHRIE, Oklahoma—Riley Wakefield is doubling down here at the $500,000 World Champions Rodeo Alliance Semi-Finals. The tie-down roping team roper is one of only a handful of contestants competing this week at the Lazy E Arena in two events, so statistically has twice as many chances as single-event competitors at punching his ticket to the $1 million, June 1 Titletown Stampede in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Being one of the elite eight from this week’s WCRA Semi-Finals that will advance to Green Bay would, of course, be quite cool for a young man who in June will compete at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming. But it won’t make or break this 22-year-old college senior from rural O’Neill, Nebraska. Wakefield has a lot more perspective than most young men. Life taught him a tough and pivotal lesson in perspective at a very young age.
In the summer of 2015, Riley was competing at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyoming. His big brother, Brady, was on his way there to watch Riley rope when he blew a back tire. The truck he was driving rolled. Brady—who like his little brother was a popular, talented young timed-event cowboy—died at the scene. He was 20.
The rodeo world lost a rising young star, and was stunned. But no hearts were more badly broken than those of Riley, who was an 18-year-old high school senior at the time, and his parents, Jim and Susan. They’ve sure done Brady proud in how they’ve chosen to honor his memory by helping others.
The gate on the Wakefield Ranch Arena is always swung wide open to kids of all ages, who pull in for everything from basic training to top-level tune-ups. Then there’s Brady’s Bunkhouse, where rodeo friends new and old from far and wide can spend the night with good company in a warm, happy place that’s decorated with rodeo pictures and memorabilia from the best of times for the Wakefield brothers.
“It’d be amazing to get to rope for $50,000—or in my case, $100,000, if I made it in two events—to Green Bay,” said Riley, who’s heeling here at the WCRA Semis for Kansan Billy Peters. “If I do well here—or anywhere else—it always feels great to win. But if I don’t win, it’s OK, too.
“Brady’s passing has taken all the pressure off of me. And it honestly makes rodeo more fun. It’s all about perspective. And whether I win or lose, my parents will love me just the same and all my friends will still be there for me. Winning and money mean very little to me. I don’t live or die for those things.”
Don’t get him wrong. Riley loves to rope—and win. He also has a passion for helping people, which has inspired and motivated his educational path. Wakefield opened his college years by earning an associate’s degree in elementary education from Gillette (Wyoming) College. He’s spent the last couple years at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, where he’s working on a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Once he gets that goal checked off the list, Riley has his sights set on a master’s degree in elementary education.
“When I get done with school, I’ll be able to teach any grade from K-6, but I’d really like to teach fourth or fifth grade,” he said. “I like to read, and that’s when kids really start reading bigger chapter books.
“Teaching is a good fit for me for a lot of reasons. I love kids, and I’ve had quite a bit of experience with them from so many young people coming to the house to practice. I have a kid’s sense of humor, and a way of making them laugh. I start a lot of colts, too, and that’s taught me a lot about patience. I’m really slow to anger, and it takes quite a bit to get me shook up.”
The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s 2019 Central Plains Region tie-down roping champ will rope calves at the CNFR next month. He’ll finish up his bachelor’s degree classes next year, and is strongly contemplating a master’s degree, which would also open up the possibilities of additional opportunities in academia, such as principal or superintendent positions. One option Riley’s considering for his post-graduate work is Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, which would also allow for a fifth year of NIRA eligibility.
“I spent my spring break in Stephenville this year with Denton Halford, who’s one of my team roping partners,” Riley said. “His mom, Vanessa Halford, owns an elementary school there—White Horse Christian Academy—and the students are about 70 percent kids from rodeo families. I would love to work somewhere like that. It just seems like a really cool fit, because I could really connect with rodeo kids.”
Meanwhile, the WCRA is the perfect fit for Wakefield, who just finished this school year two weeks ago.
“I can rarely miss school,” Wakefield said. “When I do go to a rodeo, I have to make that time away count. How better to do that than to nominate a rodeo where I’m already competing. That way, one rodeo counts twice. The WCRA is a big opportunity for a guy like me, who can’t go all the time right now.”
Jim Wakefield actually nominated a few events—open rodeos and jackpots—without even mentioning it to Riley, just for fun.
“We didn’t spend a lot of money, and we picked events where we thought Riley had the highest odds of winning,” grinned Jim, who joined Riley on the journey to the WCRA Semi-Finals this week. “It’s all gambling when you rodeo, but you can hedge your bet a little bit, and increase your odds.”
Riley’s happy to be here in two events, which is his regular routine.
“I’ve always been an all-around guy,” he said. “I’ve focused on these two events—tie-down and team roping—my whole life, and they’ve always been equally important to me. I need to finish up my education first and foremost for now. The WCRA will let me rope at big events while I get that done and beyond.”
He plans to rodeo harder after he gets a strong foundation for his future built beneath himself. But winning will never be everything for Riley Wakefield.
“The biggest thing Brady’s done for me and my family is letting us know how much things—and which things—matter,” Riley said. “I took things very seriously in high school. When we lost Brady we found out what really matters. If I go out there and throw it in the dirt, I’ll be upset. But I’ll still be OK. Losing Brady taught me not to live and die in the arena.
“A pretty sunrise and good friends mean more to me than anything that goes on in that arena. If I miss or break out, no worries. You can’t win enough in the rodeo arena to completely fulfill you. I love to rope, but rodeo does not define me. In the grand scheme of things, what matters to me is that I try as hard as I can and give out the maximum effort. The only thing that makes me mad at myself is lack of try. As long as I give it my best, I can deal with whatever happens and go on.”