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Meet Rodeo Austin's cowboy ambassadors

Pierre Bertrand
Chet Johnson rides broncos that don't want him to stay on very long. Last year, he recovered from a horse hoof to the head.

Cowboys and girls from across the country will converge Friday in Austin, and a little piece of creative thinking has helped raise Rodeo Austin's national profile.

Six years ago, Austin rodeo officials wanted to expand its national reputation, so they launched a sponsorship program that uses a technique made popular by sports brands. The rodeo pays cowboy ambassadors to wear Rodeo Austin gear wherever they compete.

Rodeo Austin's two current ambassadors, saddle bronc rider Chet Johnson and bullfighter Lance Brittan, are the human faces of the rodeo, and wear special shirts and chaps emblazoned with the red "Rodeo Austin" logo. They are required to attend year-round promotional events, sometimes in hospitals, participate in Rodeo Austin promotional videos and advertisements, sign autographs and even, at times, teach how to rodeo at Rodeo U, a type of rodeo 101 course taking place March 17.

"We were the first to do that for a professional rodeo," says Jennifer Paladino, Rodeo Austin marketing coordinator. "Really, it was just a way to promote Austin and the rodeo."

Ten years ago, Rodeo Austin was ranked 120th. Now, it's the fifth largest indoor regular-season rodeo in the nation, Paladino says. It's expected to inject $54 million into Austin's economy, according to the Austin Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

Though Johnson spreads the word about Rodeo Austin, he's a cowboy first and has been a cowboy since age 16. He says it's all he has ever done and will likely ever do.

He grew up on his family's Wyoming ranch, and at 14 attempted saddle bronc riding for the first time. He was knocked off his horse — unscathed — and vowed to get in shape. He built himself up, taking wrestling classes near his hometown of Sheridan. Four years later, in 1999, the 18-year-old became Wyoming's saddle bronc riding champion. Johnson now competes every chance he gets.

For Johnson, saddle bronc ridding is his calling. He tries to hold on as best as he can to wildly bucking horses, score as many points as possible, and hope to place. The only thing that keeps him in the saddle is a rough rein, but Johnson does not remember losing his in July, or tumbling off his horse, or the hoof that would crash into the back of his head. Except for a couple of flashes and the vague sound of people requesting a head board, it's all blackness to him. His skull was fractured in three places, and his brain swelled and was bleeding. Six months later, he was recovered and started competing again.

"The first couple of horses afterward, I was pretty nervous," Johnson says. "I always pray and stretch. The best thing you can do is nod and hope for the best."

With his dark eyes and short blond hair, Johnson speaks with gentle drawl that's neither Southern nor Texan, and he's very quick to smile. For Johnson, rodeoing is more than a promotional stunt, it's his livelihood. Though Rodeo Austin ambassadors do get an undisclosed yearly stipend, Johnson's ability to place in competitions means prize money, money that will be used for travel to the next rodeo. Depending on a rodeo's size, competitors can win up to $100,000 or lose anything from $100 to $500 just in entry fees. Rodeo Austin has a total winnings purse of roughly $365,000.

"I think what people don't realize is how much traveling there is," Johnson says. "We travel over 90,000 miles a year and are gone 200-250 days out of the year."

In the first weeks of February, Johnson traveled almost 1,000 miles from Rapid City, S.D., to Austin for a Rodeo Austin sponsored media day, then 50 miles to compete in a rodeo in Belton. Then he packs up again and travels 436 miles to Jackson, Miss., to compete in a rodeo there that ended Feb. 17. And then on to San Angelo and Tucson, Ariz., before coming back to Austin.

Though there are those like Johnson who ride and compete, there are others who have to be ready for anything. Rodeo Austin's other ambassador, Brittan, will be among those hovering around the arena anticipating trouble.

Brittan would rather stare down a raging bull than speak in front of a group of people. He fiddles with his wedding ring and wrings his calloused hands together nervously, but when he's in the arena, he is Zen. He has to be, or else a cowboy could die.

"I'm there to save the cowboys and try to entertain the crowd with the bull," Brittan says. "We have to be savvy. We want to have that bull's attention before the cowboy hits the ground." As a bullfighter, he rushes into the thick of things, helps direct the bull out of the arena and distracts it just enough so that it loses interest in who was riding it moments before.

Facing down a bull is second nature to him, but he says he must periodically make eye contact with his wife and two daughters. They are what keeps him together. After a bull comes too close for comfort, he must find them, and share a wave with his family. It's his way of saying he's OK.

"My job is almost like being a paramedic. It's exciting," Brittan says. "You know I won't say that my wife doesn't get nervous, but she knows it's what I like to do."

With a slight smile on his face, Brittan talks down the instances where he's been hurt. He admits he probably had every rib broken at one point or another, and he almost became paralyzed when a bull stepped on and compressed his spine. But getting hurt is an occupational hazard.

"When I step up in front of a bull, I know it's going to hurt," he says. "But if I can step in and relax, and let the bull take me where it wants, it hurts me less."

Brittan has been fighting bulls professionally for more than a decade. Each year, he participates in 15 rodeos and performs in the arena roughly 90 times. Each night, he has to fight and sometimes jump over about 15 bulls. When he comes to Austin in a couple of days, it will be no different.

His career started as a 19-year-old bull rider, but he quickly realized in order to have a professional career, he had to be able to win competitions. Brittan figured he was spending more money than he was winning, and after six months, made a career shift toward bullfighting. Like contract workers, bullfighters are typically hired by rodeos to stay put for the entire competition. Good thing, too, he says, his family from Windsor, Colo., can travel with him.

"I thought about that — 'Gosh,' I said. 'I got it pretty good,' " Brittan says.