Minnesotan is an unheralded horseman

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2013 - 9:58 AM

A Minnesota cowboy has one of the toughest jobs in the World’s Toughest Rodeo. “I’ve been dreaming of doing this since I was 5 years old,” he says.

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Jeff Rector is the only black “pickup man” on the pro rodeo circuit. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, Jill, but learned to ride in Kansas City when his grandfather bought him a horse in sixth grade.

Photo: Liz Condo, Special to the Star Tribune

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Jeff Rector never set out to make history. The Minnesota rodeo rider is just doing what he’s always wanted to do.

“I’ve been dreaming of doing this since I was 5 years old,” he said.

Rector, who will ride into town with the World’s Toughest Rodeo this weekend at Xcel Energy Center, is what’s called a pickup man. It’s a job that goes unnoticed by most rodeo fans, but it’s one of the most important because the safety of both rider and animal is at stake.

Rector is the only black professional pickup man in the country. In fact, as far as he knows, he’s the only one in history.

“Not that there aren’t other African-Americans involved with rodeo,” he said. “There are some bull riders and bronco riders.”

The job is nonstop action: At full gallop, Rector and a cowboy on another horse will race up to bucking broncos and bulls, 1,500-pound animals thrashing and flailing their deadly hooves. One pickup man will grab the rider and pull him to safety while the other works frantically to bring the beast under control.

Rector doesn’t know why other African-Americans haven’t become pickup men. He just knows why he has.

“A bull rider gets to compete for eight seconds,” he said. “I’m out there for 80 percent of the rodeo. And I love every minute of it. I love the pageantry, the music, the excitement. Every rodeo is like Christmas for me.”

Although the spectators might not notice the pickup men, the riders do.

“The two [pickup men] and their mounts are, by far, the hardest working members of the World’s Toughest Rodeo team,” said Tommy Joe Lucia, the organization’s vice president. “The cowboys of WTR ride at ease knowing Jeff will be riding to their rescue after the eight-second horn blows.”

Although typically associated with the West, rodeos are extremely popular in Minnesota, said Jill Scott, secretary of the Minnesota Rodeo Association. Last year the organization sanctioned 17 rodeos within the state, plus another 10 in western Wisconsin and eastern parts of South Dakota and North Dakota. Add the high school competitions and ones held at county fairs, and there were a total of 35 rodeos in Minnesota in 2012.

A cowboy in Minnesota

Until two years ago, Rector had to augment his rodeo income by working for a Twin Cities staffing company. (He has a college degree in sociology.) But since then, he has been able to make a career on the circuit, which he travels with his five horses and, when she can get away, his wife, Jill.

“She grew up around horses but had never been to a rodeo until I took her to one,” he said.

Even though he was obsessed with horses, Rector, 36, grew up in Kansas City as a full-fledged city slicker, a status that changed when his grandfather bought him a horse in sixth grade. The family found a stable to board the animal, and the owner agreed to let young Jeff work off some of the cost by doing chores.

By the time he was 16, he was a paid employee. By the time he was 18, he was working rodeos as a professional.

When his rodeo career began to take off in 2006, he and his wife moved to Minnesota. Realizing that he’d be on the road as much as 30 weeks a year, he wanted Jill to be near her family.

“Minnesota is my home now,” he said. “I love it here.”

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