Jeff Rector is working the dream job of many kids. He’s a cowboy.
He has the dangerous job of rodeo pick-up man. If you saw the recent Cinch World’s Toughest Rodeo at St. Paul’s X, you saw Rector at work. “My job is to get cowboys off the bucking horses safely. If they make the whistle, obviously they don’t want to jump off,” he said. “Our job is to help them get off safely and get the horse taken care of as well.”
A cowboy from Kansas City, Mo., Rector recently moved to Minnesota to accommodate his girlfriend and their 15-month-old. “They wanted to be here because her family is closer to here. Got to keep her happy,” he said.
Rector has a degree in business and sociology from Northwestern Oklahoma State and his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card. Now that he’s a family man, he has a job in St. Paul that frees him for 30 weekends to work rodeos.
Something funny happened while I was shooting video of Rector feeding the horses at his City Slicker Ranch, a boarding facility in Elko. I also can’t remember the last time an interview subject called 30 minutes before I was scheduled to arrive to see if I was having trouble with directions. “I feel I was raised the right way. It’s kind of the cowboy thing to have manners, think about others first,” he said. “I knew you didn’t know where you were going!”
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: I always had a fascination with horses. When I was about 10 I talked my grandpa into buying a horse for me. We had to board it at a facility in Kansas City called Benjamin Stables. At that place they had a huge 4th of July rodeo. When I would go out there to ride or whatever, I met the right people and they ended up giving me a job during the rodeo, helping chase out cattle. One thing led to another. I just really fell in love with it.
Q: What do your siblings do for a living?
A: My brother manages a foster care program in New York City. We have a very different style of living.
Q: How many years have you been doing this and what are your rodeo goals?
A: I got my card in 1995. I’m a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. From day one, I wanted to be the first African-American pick-up man at the National Finals Rodeo, kind of like our Super Bowl. Happens every year in December in Las Vegas. There haven’t been any African-American pickup men. … My goal is to be selected for that.
Q: I didn’t realize you were unique.
A: I didn’t get into it [thinking], “I want to be the first black.” I don’t think about skin color that much, but once I started noticing, “Wait, I’m the only one doing this. This is kind of cool.” Then people were telling me You know, you’re the first one and I started having a little success.
Q: How long does it take to be selected for the National Finals if you’ve been doing it 20 years?
A: It takes a while. I’ve been trying to do something that has never been done. It’s not going to be anything that happens overnight. Whether I get there or don’t get there, I’m having fun along the way.
Q: You don’t wear a cowboy hat to your other job?
A: I don’t. It’s an office job, 9 to 5. My rodeoing is like a football-basketball player. I don’t walk around with my uniform on all the time.
Q: Before you were in a relationship, did you notice how cowboys are a little like professional athletes? Women gravitate to them.
A: It can be like that. Especially somebody like me who is in the arena a lot. The average cowboy is in the arena maybe a moment or two. In a 2½-hour rodeo I’m usually in the arena the whole time. With me being a different color than most of the people, I definitely have had a few who have liked me.
Q: Have you been called the N-word at the arena?
A: That’s just the way of the world. I don’t think there is more in the rodeo world. When people see what you can do, they respect you. The racism I’ve faced has not been from my rodeo family. It’s people in the stands. I stay focused on what my job is.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on FOX 9’s “Jason Show.” E-mailers, please state a subject. “Hello” does not count.