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.”
Always on alert
In the arena, pickup men have to be ready for anything — from having an angry bull turn on them to a rider getting tangled in a bronco’s reins, a situation that can quickly turn disastrous. Rector plays down the danger, especially when his wife is within earshot.
“I’ve had a few broken bones and a lot of bumps and bruises and dislocated fingers, but nothing too serious,” he said. “I’m actually pretty good at what I do.”
But they take precautions at the World’s Toughest Rodeo.
“You will notice the pickup men wearing heavily padded chaps,” Lucia said. “This is because pretty much in every rodeo they endure multiple shots from the kick of a bucking horse.”
Rector worries more about injuries to his steed than to himself. He spends years training the horses. It’s exhausting work for the animals, which is why he travels with five of them so he can rotate their rodeo duties.
“Having a really good horse is 50 percent of the job,” he said. To race up next to a bucking bronco, “they have to be fearless and fast. They have to know which angle to take so they don’t get kicked. You want to stay away from the back feet.” He paused before amending that comment: “Actually, you want to stay away from all the hooves.”
He figures that he can work the rodeo circuit for another 10 to 15 years. After that, he has his sociology degree “to fall back on.” But first he has one more goal: to make it to the annual National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s equivalent of an all-star game, held each fall at the end of the outdoor season. Only two pickup men are selected from the 30 touring pros.
“It’s a very elite crowd,” he said. “But I think I can make it.”
He hasn’t had trouble making history before.