(Photo courtesy: PBR)

LAS VEGAS – The dust in the arena had barely settled and the check had yet to be cleared. But already, Jess Lockwood was looking to the future.

The teary-eyed 20-year-old stood in T-Mobile Arena, hoisting the PBR Built Ford Tough Series World Finals trophy above his head, having just earned the PBR’s $1 million bonus for completing a world championship-season, the youngest athlete to ever do so, to cap a $1.5-million 2017. But those close to Lockwood understood the celebration, though grand, would be short-lived as the Volborg native turned his attention to 2018.

“It’s funny, this morning, as we tape this interview, I see (Lockwood) on Twitter and he says, I’ll paraphrase, something about, ‘A lot of people reach the top and they’re satisfied with what they have done. I’ve never been more focused in my life to do better.’ And then he put ‘#BackToBack,’” PBR arena entertainer and fellow Montanan Flint Rasmussen said in late December. “Oh yeah, he’s a true athlete. He hates to lose. There are those special ones. As we look back in history, Joe Beaver was one of them, Tuff Hedeman was one of them. JB Mauney is one of them, and Jess Lockwood is one of them that hate to lose and they’re not afraid to show their emotion when they lose. He’s that guy. So it’s going to be interesting. I know coming into New York next week, he’s ready. I bet there’s nobody as fit as he is.”

It was in the Big Apple where Lockwood’s roller-coaster 2017 began, as the then-19-year-old cashed a $117,183.33 paycheck after winning the Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, splitting first-place money in the opening round and going runner-up in the second round.

But Lockwood’s promising start to the season, along with the No. 1 ranking in the world, faded in February when a torn right groin took away five weeks of his season. The nagging groin was only the beginning in what would become an injury-riddled 2017 – the concussion in early September; four broken ribs, lacerated kidney and punctured lung at the end of the same month; followed by pneumonia and a hospital stay in Bismarck, N.D. after the cross-country road trip – but Lockwood rehabbed his way back from each, eventually regaining the No. 1 ranking at the World Finals and capturing the PBR’s top prize.

Overcoming those injuries, and the odds stacked against him, to win the world title, was a feat Rasmussen has rarely seen in all of his years in the sport.

“If you look at the number of events he rode in to win that world title compared to the guys right behind him, it was not even close. If he stays healthy this coming year, and I hate to be a predictor, but he is just, look out. Two times in a row. … I’ll tell you the person I can compare, there’s a couple. Years ago, Justin McBride, in the very last event of the regular season broke his ankle really bad. He got it pinned and rode in the world finals and became a world champion,” Rasmussen said. “But the one that battles back consistently and is just as good when he comes back is JB Mauney. I mean, that’s a name in bull riding now, he’ll go down as one of the greatest ever.”

“I think the thing they don’t see, he knows how to work out,” Rasmussen continued. “Don’t forget, he was a state champion wrestler in Montana and he knows how to work out. He just spent a week with the U.S. wrestling team for God’s sake, you know? He knows how to do that, and there are a lot of guys that just don’t get it. Ask Jess Lockwood. He won $1.5 million and made another hundreds of thousands in endorsement stuff. Why not? Why not work out and don’t leave money on the table?”

Rasmussen, who has a more than 30-year career in the rodeo world, has noticed certain trends in Lockwood’s young career. The Montana cowboy became only the second PBR athlete to win a world title one year after being named rookie of the year, joining three-time world champion Silvano Alves. Rasmussen says he saw a “JB Mauney- and Justin McBride-look in his eye” when Lockwood won the first three rounds of the finals in October.

Rasmussen doesn’t use those comparisons lightly after working with legends like Tuff Hedeman, Guilhermi Marchi and Adriano Moraes. Lockwood still has an entire career to cement his status as one of the all-time greats, but Rasmussen says he has watched him grow immensely since the first time the pair met.

“I’ve known his mom forever and his aunt Lisa (Lockhart). And his dad, Ed, was riding at the Montana Circuit Finals Rodeo when I was clowning the Montana Circuit Finals,” he said. “So here comes little Jess, he’s a freshman or sophomore in high school with my girls and weighs 90 pounds, and through high school we used to visit all the time. When he made his debut on the big tour, the Built Ford Tough Series two years ago, it was a real cool thing that, here’s this kid, and he told me, ‘It was an honor to be in the same arena as you.’ And I felt the same way about him, actually.”

Lockwood’s 2017 will remain in Rasmussen’s memory for some time after the Volborg teen won five tour events, with eight finishes of more than $5,000, not counting the largest pay day at the World Finals. That’s when Rasmussen noticed that look of determination in Lockwood’s eye, where the happy tears were still drying, that showed his focus for the 2018 season and beyond.

“He grew up with a work ethic and he works his butt off. It kind of comes back to that Montana, gritty, just-get-it-done attitude that a lot of the rural kids in this state have,” Rasmussen said. “I guarantee, will Jess Lockwood win the world title again this year? I don’t know, but I’ll guarantee he’s top five. And just so the people of Montana know, he represents, whatever you think of Jess Lockwood, he represents our state really well. He does. He’s classy in interviews, he’s great with the fans, and I’ll say this, when they say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, up next is the kid from Montana, Jess Lockwood,’ every girl under the age of 25 stands up with their phone on to get his picture. Man, that must be nice.”