Southern Arkansas University Rodeo team members – Bull rider Griffin Strode and barrel racer Leslie Jennings took time out of their busy week preparing for the 31st annual National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) rodeo at SAU to respond to a few questions and to share why they rodeo.
With a mother who was a barrel racer and a father who roped calves, Jennings has been around rodeo her entire life. As a child in Daingerfield, Texas, Jennings grew up with a strong love of animals. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but somewhere along the way, that dream changed.
“I realized that there would be times that I couldn’t save the animal and I think I would take that too personally,” she said.
Jennings, a sophomore, is pursuing a pre-physical therapy degree at SAU, but her passion for rodeo is still a motivating force. She won the Ozark Region barrel racing event in and was Academic All-American her freshman year.
“When I started rodeo, it was because I had grown up with it,” said Jennings. “But, now, it’s because I love it and couldn’t imagine my life without it.”
Jennings admitted she loves the feeling after a win. She wanted to continue getting that fix beyond high school. A couple of friends were already at SAU and she was invited to tour the campus. Upon her first visit, she knew she wanted to be a part of the SAU Rodeo team.
“We’re closer than any other rodeo team I’ve ever been around,” she said. “Everyone knows everyone and it’s never boring. You won’t find a team anywhere whose school and community does more for them than this one. We have so many luxuries that other teams do not have because of the great support we receive.”
SAU Rodeo Coach Rusty Hayes, who was deservingly awarded Coach of the Year in 2011 by the NIRA, is the backbone of SAU’s nationally competitive team. His support and encouragement is a big factor in the team’s success, according to his team members.
“He’s always there for us when we need help,” Jennings said. “Most of us couldn’t get by without him.”
“Coach Hayes will give you the shirt off his back if you need help,” Strode said, in agreement. “Not only does he give us rodeo advice, he tries to give us advice on things in life because he cares about the team.”
For Strode, Hayes was a determining factor in his decision to come to SAU, where he is pursuing a dream of becoming a college agriculture teacher.
“I had looked into quite a few schools. I talked to Coach a few times and then went down for a visit of the campus,” said Strode. “I really liked it. Coach and I talked more and my decision was that I was going to SAU.”
Being a part of the rodeo team is like a family away from home for Strode, a sophomore transfer student from Monticello, Ill.
“Our rodeo team has some of the best people I’ve met. We’ve only known each other for a couple of months and we are already like a big family. It was a good decision. It’s a good environment and have facilities that not many teams could even dream of having.”
Strode never questioned or waivered from his childhood dream.
“I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy as long as I can remember at least,” he said. “I started out breaking stick horses.”
Personally inspired by his father and his grandfather, Strode drew strength from his role models.
“My father plays a huge role for me, but it’s his father who has made me and my dad what we are today,” said Strode. “My grandfather was blind since my dad was six months old. Anytime my dad or I would get down or think things were just impossible, we look at the things my Pap did and realize that all things are possible.”
Professionally, Strode was inspired by the late-Lane Frost (world renowned bull rider killed in competition). Bull riding became his sport of choice, though he enjoys roping as a “hobby.”
“I’ve been rodeoing for about eight or so years. I’ve always been raised around livestock,” said Strode. “Our hometown rodeo rolls around every summer and one summer I kept telling my parents I wanted to ride bulls and it kind of stuck.”
For Strode, the best thing about competing is the thrill of the win.
“It’s the rush you get when you know you’ve won,” he said. “Winning is by far the best feeling in the world and knowing that your hard work paid off.”
Each rodeo team member preps for the annual event in different ways.
For Jennings, the barrel racer, her energy goes into taking the best possible care of her teammate, her horse. Strode finds balance in taking a day off from practice while continuing to exercise, since staying fit helps him brace for hard work in the arena and helps prevent unnecessary injuries while competing in the naturally dangerous sport of bull riding.
The 31st annual Southern Arkansas University Rodeo starts Thursday, Oct. 25 and continues through Oct. 27 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Magnolia. Events begin at 7 p.m. Thursday and admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children age 7-12. Children six and under are admitted free.
The Southern Arkansas University Rodeo team competes against Ozark Region opponents from other universities in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Louisiana.