LAS VEGAS— Among the many compelling story lines at this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the best may center on a cowboy not even competing.
Melstsone's J.R. Vezain returned here for the first time since a bareback riding injury left him with broken vertebrae in his back and no feeling in his lower body. The wreck happened during a Texas rodeo in 2018 when Vezain was chasing late-season money to assure himself a qualification to that year's NFR.
"This is home man; this is my family," Vezain told MTN Sports from his wheelchair in the familiar Thomas and Mack Center hallway he roamed among six NFR qualifications.
The homecoming could certainly be considered a passing of the family torch to Sage Newman riding in his first NFR.
"And of course having Sage here, my brother-in-law for the first time, it's been awesome getting to be a part of it, seeing him kicking butt and riding good," Vezain said.
Vezain's rodeo pals couldn't be happier to see him hanging out in the locker rooms. One after another routinely walks by with an enthusiastic smile or fist bump.
The best news, though, is that Vezain was recently accepted into a clinical trial allowing him to walk with the help of robotic leg braces. But he's far from satisfied, determined as he has been since the accident to walk on his own.
"I won't stop here."
Montana Cowboys behind on holiday shopping
With Christmas two weeks from Saturday, we wanted to know who's ahead of the shopping game -- and who's not.
"I'm really behind on that," laughed Parker Breding who leads the NFR bull riding average. "This is a good place to get that done and I do that every year — I leave here with nothing, then have to go home and figure it all out."
Three-time world champion team roper Clay Tryan knows he's also behind, but too busy to catch up in Las Vegas.
"I've got to wait. I'm that last minute guy," Tryan told MTN Sports. "It's too hard here, I've got too many things to do. I've got kids roping over here at the South Point, and doing some autographs and sponsor stuff. I'll have to do it when I get home."
Stevensville bareback rider Richmond Champion was on the same page.
"I've always been a last-minute guy, but I'm really pushing the limit this year," he admitted with a hearty laugh. "Katy Lucas from The Cowboy Channel said, "Hey, come do an interview,' and I said, okay, I've got nothing going on. Well, that (holiday shopping) was the theme and I just started sweating like, I am in such deep crap right now. I've got some work to do once this is done for sure."
Richie's clearly not the only one with work ahead.
But we did find one Montana cowboy that seems to have everything in check, which likely means he's likely off the hook for spending any of the $97,000 he's pocketed during this NFR run.
"I'm done," Miles City world champion tie-down roper Haven Meged proudly admitted. "I did everything before I came out here — all my Christmas shopping — so I'm done."