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JR Vezain: Step by step

JR Vezain Leg Braces.png
Posted at 5:55 PM, Mar 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-06 20:16:10-05

BILLINGS - He's only two-and-a-half years old, but Ryatt Boyd Vezain walks around the National Finals Rodeo like he owns it. Mom and Dad are teaching him to greet others with a simple, howdy partner.

On this particular Friday night in Las Vegas, Ryatt proudly sports a championship rodeo buckle almost bigger than he is. It belongs to his dad, JR Vezain.

Prior to NFR Round 9, Ryatt and his mom Shelby ride up an escalator, present tickets at the Thomas and Mack Center entrance, and head to their seats in section 121. It's an arena where, not long ago, JR showcased his talents to sellout crowds as one of the world's best bareback riders.

Thing is, Ryatt has never seen his dad ride competitively. At least, not in person. That's because just a few months before he was born, the unthinkable happened at a rodeo in Texas. JR described it this way to two summers ago.

"I knew I was just like a duck sitting out of water. She hit and I immediately felt my back break," he said.

"And when she rolled over, she rolled away from my hand, so my hand could come out. As soon as I got my hand out, she immediately gut-stomped me right in the guts. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't catch my air and immediately, I went to sit up and 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."

No, it wasn't.

Vezain, originally from Cowley, Wyoming, had broken multiple vertebrae in his back and couldn't move from the waist down. But when clarity struck, he vowed -- swore up and down -- he would find a way to walk.

"The doctors said he would have very little to no movement, and a slight chance to walk again," his wife Shelby said.

There would be surgeries, along with endless months of rehab and physical therapy in Texas and Utah. There was also an overwhelming outpouring of support from family, friends, fellow cowboys, and folks the Vezains had never even met.

Eventually, back on the family's Melstone, Montana, ranch, they would convert a garage into his gym.

"We call this the Melstone Muscle Maker," JR said, wheeling himself inside to lead a tour. "We got all this equipment set up... this bench to do a bunch of core stuff from here. From my knees, I'll do squats with this (bench) and a ball."

Shelby's brother Sage Newman was by JR's side, literally helping him every step of the way, to the point of guiding his feet through treadmill exercises.

"Slow and steady wins the race, right," JR said, taking a step at a time on the treadmill.

Months turned into years as frustrations, dead ends, and disappointments tried to break his spirit. But Vezain never lost sight.

And amid the gradual progress in 2019, Shelby gave birth to Ryatt Boyd.

"The situation isn't ideal and it ain't what we had pictured," JR explained from his living room. "Definitely ain't what I had pictured for my first kid, you know what I mean? You expect to be able to stand up and hold him, throw the ball and teach them how to saddle their horse. You never picture holding one in a wheelchair, that's for sure."

Wheelchair Dad is all Ryatt had ever known until just a few months ago.

"I've never worked at anything harder in my life," JR told at this recent NFR in December, recounting a breakthrough moment.

After another long series of tests, JR was approved for an extremely exclusive trial. There was hope for the slightest, outside chance he may be a candidate for robotic leg braces.

"I think they picked four people (nationwide)," Shelby recalled from her seat in Section 121, Ryatt planted on her lap. "If JR had sat in that chair and not stood and worked out for the last three years, he wouldn't have been able to do this trial and get that walking machine."

Doctors in Texas needed to be sure JR's bones density, muscle mass and tendons were healthy enough to even justify the new exoskeleton braces. And they were.

"After the first day of being in that machine, I said, I need to get one for at home," JR recalled.

"Let's do it," Shelby said without hesitation. "Then he told me the price and I said, oh my gosh, how are we going to do that?"

The device, not covered by insurance nor sold to just anyone, had a price tag of roughly $100,000.

"JR was in the green, meaning everything looked normal in all the tests, so he was a perfect candidate," Shelby said. "After being down there (Texas) for a month, we decided as a family we needed to figure out a way to get one. When we heard the price, we were like, okay! Let's get busy on what we can sell to purchase this."

The decision didn't come without a lot of thought.

"It's really hard to explain to people why getting this meant so much to us," Shelby said. "I had a few people say, 'Oh my gosh. That is so expensive,' (not in a rude way), but I kept thinking about that. And my answer was, we as a society have no problem buying a $30,000 to $80,000 vehicle or horse trailer, but those legs... I can't even explain what they did for my husband; the ability to stand next to him - something I haven't been able to do in three years; the ability to go for a walk with our son, something we didn't know would be possible three years ago; the ability to walk out to his horses. This wasn't just a purchase for us, this was a life-changing device.

"That is when God just started placing these amazing people in our lives to make that happen, the main one being Lori O'Harver, founder of Bronc Riding Nation. She looked JR right in the eyes and said something along the lines of, 'We are going to get you those legs, my friend.' Lori is such an amazing human being."

"The rodeo family rallied together once again," JR said. "Lori O'Harver put on a fund raiser, Mitch Pollack said come have an auction at my bronc match, Western Sports Foundation paid for half the machine."

After enduring more than three years of pain and uncertainty, it took less than two days of JR's new adventure for Shelby to notice the difference.

"You could just see it on his face, just to be able to get up and walk," she said with a smile. 

J.R. conceded he had no idea the impact these robotic leg braces would deliver.

"I didn't realize the change it would have in my mental morale," he said.

"I asked him, what's the most exciting part of it," Shelby said, "...because I'm thinking there's something that was just crazy. And he said, 'To literally look somebody in the eye when I'm talking to them.' My heart sank. I stand next to someone every day and look them in the eyes and talk, and I'm not sure that I've been thankful for that. The little things in life, right?".

The little things took a long time to align. After weeks of testing in Texas, summer passed before J.R.'s robotics finally arrived.

"I got it in Billings on the 14th of October," he said. "The company is out of Ohio. They flew in a specialist, trained me and the therapist for a couple days, and then I had another three weeks to a month of training on it, and then pass a test."

Which he did.

It was then that Ryatt became not only more curious, but more excited than ever for his dad. Shelby will never forget it.

"I think the most emotional I've been since JR's accident was the first time Ryatt saw JR walk in his walking machine. I didn't think he would really understand it, but JR stood up in the machine and Ryatt said, 'Dad, you tall!' And then Ryatt was just bossing him around like, Dad, c'mon!"

JR smiles as he recalls it.

"C'mon, Dad, let's walk!" he remembered Ryatt exclaiming. "Then he wanted me to carry his jacket. 'Enough of me taking care of you, you're taking care of me,' he said."

It's a story JR tells as he knots a tennis shoe to one of his leg braces. Right on cue, Ryatt emerges from the house with pajamas pulled around his ankles, and no shirt.

"You probably should've put a T-shirt on to be on the news," JR deadpanned.

Shelby can't stop reflecting on the rodeo community's generosity.

"The people that helped... I feel like we owe everyone that has ever come into our life a huge thank you. I kept wondering to myself, why are these people so good to my husband and family? I haven't come to the end conclusion, but I think it has a lot to do with JR and how he treaded and helped people his whole life.

"I remember when he was rodeoing, he was always trying to help someone get down the road or lend a helping hand. They say, what goes around, comes around and I honestly think we're living that 'comes around' part right now, and we are so humbled. It honestly brings tears to my eyes."

In the meantime, Shelby's brother Sage Newman - the unselfish ranch helper - exploded for his best year in PRCA saddle bronc riding and ironically qualified for his first NFR. Naturally, that demanded a family road trip to Las Vegas where they'd watch all 10 nights.

"He (Sage) deserves to be here and he's worked hard at it for a long time," JR said at the Thomas & Mack Center. "Winners hang with winners, man."

In front of family, Newman placed in a couple rounds finishing as high as second with an 87-point ride, won over $30,000 at the NFR and finished 11th in the PRCA world standings.

While he carved his own name into NFR lore, visited JR gaining ground on his own legwork in the back yard of an AirBnB home the Vezains rented just a couple blocks off the Las Vegas Strip.

For three years, Newman had given everything to JR's recovery and that didn't stop, despite being pulled a variety of directions at his first NFR.

"Sage has been right there every single step of the way," Shelby explained before Round 9, choking up with appreciation. "Even here (in Las Vegas), you would think the kid would be hanging out with buddies, and Sage is still making sure JR's chair gets loaded. That's the kind of person he is."

"It makes my heart swell up," JR said.

His heart wasn't the only one swelling. 

Nine evenings earlier, JR's big reveal caught nearly every cowboy by surprise. He strapped on and cranked up his robotic braces for opening night at the NFR, and with the aid of an aluminum walker, made his way into the arena, down an elevator, through the narrow contestants' hallway, around a corner and into a locker room filled with his unsuspecting bareback buddies.

Among those touched by the moment were Vezain's close friend Richmond Champion (Stevensville, Mont.) and long-time travel partner Caleb Bennett (Corvallis, Mont.)

"There wasn't one guy in there that didn't maybe stand on his feet, clap, go high-five him, shake his hand, go hug him," Bennett said.

Champion, in the moment, was caught between disbelief and bliss.

"To have him down in the locker room and hanging out with us the first night he walked in on his new robotics... and standing up... it's amazing. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it," he said.

"I was one of the first guys down to the hospital whenever the accident happened," Champion recalled, eyes starting to water, "...and that rattled me pretty good."

Bennett was actually somewhat privy to the surprise appearance.

"We had talked a little before he got down here and he was like, 'what do you think about me trying to get down in there? I'd like to walk down there on these robotic legs and show these guys what's up.' And I was like, we're going to try to make that happen," Bennett said. "I think he ended up making it happen on his own, so when he come down in there, it kind of surprised me because I didn't know how much pull I hadn't really found anybody to help get him down there."

"I was one of the first guys down to the hospital whenever the accident happened," Champion recalled, eyes starting to water, "...and that rattled me pretty good."

It was Vezain's long-awaited return to the Super Bowl of Rodeo since shortly after his wreck in 2018.

"This is home, man, this is my family," he said with a wide grin inside the confines of a hallway he'd walked so many times.

Vezain would hang out for all 10 rodeo nights in that locker room, the final nine in his wheelchair to avoid the rigor of navigating crowds and tight hallways in his robotics. Just a half hour before Round 9's grand entry, he rolls in while bareback riders kick around a hacky sack.

"Can I join?" he asks with a smile.

"First time I saw him on his robotics, I said, you got spur mode set on that thing yet, or what," Champion joked. "Every night you get a fist bump from him, you head out... he wants to see a good spur ride, so we're going to give him one."

Both Champion and Bennett say they're beyond inspired by their pal's determination.

"Him and I both qualified for our first NFR together in 2012," Bennett said. "Clear up until his accident, we'd done it every year until then.

"Seeing him down there really humbles you and shows you what life is all about, for real. That's one of the most optimistic, inspiring, positive people I've ever been around in my life."

A guy would be hard-pressed to find any other answer from any other person to meet Vezain. Of all the ways JR appreciates and describes his life-altering leg braces, permanent isn't one of them.

"It's bittersweet. I pictured my first steps being different, but they're steps nonetheless," he said. "It takes obedience. I have my rough days, too, but I have a job out here and it's to inspire and encourage people along the way and that's what I strive to do."

Naturally, the one closest to JR and encouraging him is Shelby.

"She is my rock," he said. "On all my bad days, she's there to pick me up. All the days I want to be lazy, she's prodding me along, reminding me of what my dream and goals are. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for her."

Shelby deflects much of the credit to the rodeo world.

"I have five pages of thank-you's to everyone who's helped purchase JR's legs," she said. "But we have to give credit where credit is due; that is to God and Lori O'Harver. Some people want to keep their donations anonymous, but they know who they are and we can't thank them enough.

"I love this life with JR because I'm truly learning the importance of perspective and thankfulness."

Word is, Ryatt will climb on and ride just about anything.

"Such a good little helper and he is heck on his mother," JR said. "He's wild and he's fun and going a million miles an hour.

"Riding in this arena is one thing, but being a dad makes your heart swell up. Makes you want to poke your chest out. I'm sure proud to be that little boy's dad."

Don't blink. It may not be long before we see that "little boy" ride at the NFR chasing his own championship buckle.

Howdy, partner.