J.R. Vezain: The Will to Walk

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 08, 2019

MELSTONE — He’s been to the top of pro rodeo’s highest cliff.

J.R. Vezain is a six-time qualifier at the Wrangler National Finals and a former Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Rookie of the Year.

On this calm June morning he is home on his family’s ranch in Melstone, doing his part to herd, brand and tag calves — life when he’s not on the rodeo trail.

Last September, with time running out on the regular season, Vezain was on the bubble of qualifying for the NFR, also known as the world’s richest rodeo. A great December run in Las Vegas can earn a guy around $200,000 in 10 days. That’ll feed a lot of mouths and cover a lot of gas money.

But from hundreds of riders across the country, only the top 15 in each event get in. Vezain was 14th in the bareback standings and sure didn’t want anyone to catch him. Rodeo standings are clearcut, determined in order of those who win the most money at regular-season events.

So, Vezain made one last push all the way to Texas chasing enough cash to make sure he earned that lucrative invite to the NFR.

“You only go to them rodeos if you have to,” he told MTN Sports. “(It’s that) type of a deal, because they’re so far away from home and it’s hot and muggy.”

Off he went with his traveling partner to the Pasadena Livestock Show and Rodeo in mid-September, 2018.

He’d ridden bareback more than a thousand times, but this time, Vezain had drawn a horse with only one showing on the PRCA.

“When she bumped back into the chute, she went to flip — and I’ve had them flip over on me like that before, 100 times — and I’m pretty catty, I can get away,” Vezain recounted over lunch outside at the house in Melstone. “She went to flip, I kind of set up to decide which way to go whenever she came. Well, she didn’t come straight over, she kind of loaded on her hocks and jumped in the air and it run my hips off my rigger. I didn’t have any weight. I knew I was just like a duck sitting out of water.”

Melstone bareback rider J.R. Vezain tries to escape during a fall in September of 2018 that broke 2 vertebrae in his back. (Photo courtesy Pasadena Livestock & Rodeo Show)

Vezain says he recalls every moment of the ride.

“She hit and I immediately felt my back break,” he said. “When she rolled over, she rolled away from my hand so my hand could come out and … I remember trying to yank my hand out. As soon as my hand got out, then she got up and gut stomped me right in the guts. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t catch my air and immediately I was … I went to sit up and I couldn’t move my legs. I just barely posted up on my elbows and I didn’t know how bad it was, but I knew it wasn’t good.”

Vezain described the break as right behind his belly button, the T9 and T10 vertebrae.

“I caught, basically, on my shoulder blades and she rammed the rigging right to my chest. Folded me right in half,” he said, then adding with a sense of humor and a chuckle, “Pretty western.”

Vezain was rushed to a critical-care hospital in Houston, where doctors told Shelby, his wife, they worried more about fatal internal bleeding than his broken back. The news she heard by phone brought tears as she recalled it.

“‘Shelby, it’s really bad,’ He said the horse, like, flipped over and broke his back. He said, ‘We’re going to life flight him to the hospital and keep in touch with you,’ and then handed the phone back to J.R. and J.R. said, ‘I love you, and I need you to get down here as soon as possible,'” Shelby Vezain recounted. “I just kept, I just kept praying and then right after that, I just felt a peace over me and I swear God was just telling me, ‘No matter what, Shelby, it’s going to be OK.'”

They braced for a punishing highway of physical therapy. Vezain chose Salt Lake City for two reasons: Closer to home, and buddies with similar injuries had left with reassuring results.

“They say you’ve got to stand before you walk, and we force myself to stand so I can get walking soon,” Vezain said to a camera crew while rehabbing in Utah, “But there ain’t no better feeling than standing up.”

The cowboy grinded away for five months at therapy near Salt Lake City. Toward the end of March, Shelby still by his side, the two felt it was time to make their way home.

“We call this the Melstone Muscle Maker,” J.R. said, spinning his wheelchair into a make-shift gym that used to be the garage. “We got all this equipment set up. This bench, we do a bunch of core stuff here. From my knees, I’ll do a bunch of squats. Once we got here, it didn’t take us long to rig up our own walking machine.”

All this while keeping his physical therapists in Utah updated.

“I videoed it and sent it to Jan, and she said, ‘Wow, that’s impressive.’ She said, ‘You just keep doing that. You keep sending video back and forth,'” J.R. said.

Shelby’s brothers, Sage and Nevada Newman, learned to help with hand placement on J.R.’s feet as they tracked the treadmill. It seems easy, but it’s nearly as much of a workout as J.R.’s. Both Newmans, knees on the ground, were sweating before the three-minute mark on this June afternoon.

“J.R. has always been a hard worker since I met him,” Shelby said in the couple’s living room. “When he started therapy I knew that he wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself or take it easy, he was going to work as hard as he could. And he has since Day 1.

“The doctor said he would have little to no movement and very slight chance to walk again,” she continued. “And he’s already had movement and things, so we know God’s working. Literally to watch J.R. every day is inspiring, because it really put things into perspective for me. J.R. has it way worse than we do and he still gets up and does things every day, just a little different.”

Reacclimating to a new life in Melstone, the Vezains’ latest milestone was about to arrive. It had nothing to do with walking. Merely a month before J.R. broke his back, Shelby became pregnant with their first baby.

“He definitely puts a smile on our faces,” Shelby said of young Ryatt Boyd Vezain, born in mid-May. “When days are hard, or therapy doesn’t go as planned or something happens that’s hard, we just look at him and know that he’s such a blessing and God knew what he was doing when he gave us Ryatt.”

“It was a feeling you can’t even describe with words,” J.R. said. “My heart was full. Definitely ain’t what I pictured, my first kid, you know what I mean? You expect to be able to stand up and hold them, and throw the ball, and teach them how to saddle their horse and all that stuff. That’s still my goal, to be able to do all that stuff, but you never picture holding one in a wheel chair, you know?”

Lately to make ends meet, J.R. has become handy at crafting leatherwork: purses, rodeo gear and such. At first, it was for peace of mind. Later, when a friend prodded him into selling his work online, J.R. was reluctant.

“I don’t know if I’m that good,” he thought. He gave it a shot and nearly has more orders than he can handle on Facebook (Lazy SJ Leather).

J.R. is also judging rides on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour, another venture he had to be talked into.  Cody Lambert is a co-founder and vice president. Vezain knew who the bull riding legend was but said they had only met a couple times.

“He (Lambert) reached out and said, ‘I’ve been wondering how I could help out. I could give you all the money in the world you need, but I think the best way to help out is to get you a job,’” Vezain recalled to MTN Sports.

And that’s exactly what Lambert offered.

“And he said, ‘What do you think about judging?’ And I kind of giggled and laughed and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, Lambert,’ and he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, just from being a rodeo cowboy the last thing you ever want to be is a rodeo judge,’ and he laughed,” Vezain said.

And the deal was made.

The old saying, ‘It takes a village,’ might have never been more true. J.R. is barely a year removed from thriving in front of sellout crowds at the Super Bowl of his sport. He was a rookie of the year on rodeo’s biggest stage.

Now, he recites a scripture, James 1: 2-4, at the kitchen table.

When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and needing nothing,” he said. “I guess the message I want to send to people is, whenever you have a struggle or a trial that is out of your control, put it in God’s hand and find the little things to be thankful for.”

Now, J.R.’s drive and optimism are his are his sharpest tools.

As for that village? Shelby totes the patience and encouragement. Family literally shoulders the physical strength. Doctors offer the knowledge. His hometown of Cowley, Wyoming, nearby communities like Roundup, friends he’s made along the cowboy trail and folks he’s never even met, are delivering time, tools, exercise equipment and donations to help with medical bills.

And the family’s freshest buckaroo? Good luck even imagining the inspiration he carries.

“When I’m laying in bed at night and think about the things that have been taken away, which then reflect the things that I’ve been given, this baby is a gift and a blessing,” J.R. said. “The wife I have is a gift and a blessing. The things I’ve been given … the recovery I’ve made thus far, far outweigh the things that have been taken away. And character that it’s producing inside of me is far greater, and I’ll be far better off further down the line, and I’ll be better off than I was before. And I believe that.”

(Video by Brandon Sullivan/MTN Sports)