Although he didn’t really plan for the year he’s had, Bridger Chambers of Stevensville has had the ride of a lifetime this past year. And it’s not over yet.
The lanky 6’6” cowboy was probably best known in the Bitterroot for many years for his skills on the basketball court but rodeo was always on his mind. He began riding at a young age and, along with his brother Boone, competed in the Ravalli County Junior Rodeo rodeos. He went on to compete in high school rodeo and then was on the rodeo team at both UM and UM Western. (He also played basketball there while rodeoing and is the only known basketball player/rodeo cowboy to compete in the NAIA Men’s National basketball tournament and the College National Finals in the same year.)
During high school and college, Chambers focused more on tie down roping and team roping. It wasn’t until he was in college that he got the bug to compete in steer wrestling; after all, who, in their right mind, would want to jump off a perfectly good horse running full steam onto the back of a steer? Chambers did and found he was pretty good at it.
“Even when I was young, I thought about rodeo,” he said. “The National Finals Rodeo was the only time we got to stay up late to watch television.”
Well, Chambers will be staying up late for the next couple of weeks. He is one of the top 15 steer wrestlers in the world and will be competing at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The ‘Super Bowl’ of rodeo runs from December 6 to the 15. He goes into the rodeo ranked 8th in the world with earnings of $81,178.35. Only $24,830.97 separates him from Curtis Cassidy of Donalda, Alberta, who leads the event with $106,009.32.
With a chance to win or place in 10 go arounds plus the average, the standings can change drastically by the end of the rodeo. Each contestant receives $10,000 for qualifying alone. Then, if they win a go around, that’s another $26,239.77. Go arounds pay six places with sixth place winning $4,230.77. On top of that, the winner of the average in each event wins $67,239.23. That is decreased down to 8th place with winnings of $6,346.15. Each event, saddle bronc, bareback bronc, tie down, steer wrestling, team roping – heading and heeling, bull riding, and ladies barrel race pays out $253,846.15.
With this much money on the line, Chambers said this will be a life changing event. A member of the PRCA since 2013, he had been content to rodeo in Montana, and the Northwest. He had earnings of just over $21,000 over the four years and had qualified for the Montana PRCA Circuit Finals. In fact, just a year ago, he was practicing for the Circuit Finals which is always held in Great Falls in mid-January.
There, he won the average and $6,900 but more importantly, he won the right to compete at the Dodge Ram Circuit Finals in Kissimmee, Florida. There, competing against many of the top steer wrestlers in the nation, he found out that he was in their league. He finished second overall and came away with more than $17,000 and the confidence to go rodeoing full time.
“It had always been a dream to go full time, and I even tried to go, but money was a factor,” said Chambers. “Winning in Florida was the first step.”
He sat down with his wife Kristin, and parents, Keith and RaCille Chambers, and they made a plan. Chambers and Kristin have four children, Maddie (13), Hudson (11), Crewe (4) and Case (3). Although he will always call Stevensville home, he and his family now live in Butte. Chambers and his dad, Keith, are partners in a drug dog business where they go to various schools throughout the state and a few surrounding states checking for illegal drugs.
The family agreed that rodeoing would be a daunting task but that it was worth it and so Chambers sat off on the rodeo trail. He won big in San Antonio and that gave him the funds to keep on going. The drive to rodeo and win was even stronger.
“It was like I craved it. It was all I thought of, getting to the next rodeo.”
But it was scary too, with everyone’s hopes on him. He said that he hasn’t been on a practice steer since last April but that he had been rodeoing every week and sometimes entered up in back to back to back rodeos.
Chambers said he figured up his entry fees for the year and spent around $14,000. Then there was the gas, food, auto expenses, vet expenses and incidentals. Considering that he only won one rodeo all year, it was the second and third places that he won that added up to his qualifying for the NFR.
There’s a lot of driving involved and figuring out logistics to be in Casper, Wyoming one morning, Great Falls that night and then Cardwell Idaho the next morning. Most of the time he and his traveling partners split the driving. He traveled with Curtis Cassidy from Canada at first and then other Canadians throughout the season. Chambers won enough money to qualify for the Canadian National Finals in Red Deer, Alberta, in October but said he didn’t do very well.
One week this summer, Keith Chambers was the driver. After that grueling week, he said, ‘it’s not all glitz and glamor.’ Chambers said he lived on gas station food and burritos.
He took his horse, Rooster up to Canada and the horse earned him a bunch of money too. If a steer wrestler uses someone else’s horse and wins money, the horse owner gets a percentage of the winnings. Although Rooster earned his keep in Canada and in rodeos here in the US, Chambers will be riding Blake Knowles’ horse.
“He’s use to the small pen (arena),” said Chambers of theThomas and Mack Arena.
Even if his dad wasn’t with him all the time, Chambers relied and relies on Keith’s coaching background of over 20 years to help him. “He was a basketball coach, but he’s still a coach.”
Chambers said hitting the road like he has requires not only a sound body but also mental toughness. That’s where Coach Chambers came in. The two would talk and/or text almost daily with Coach Chambers giving him tips on keeping his focus and coping with the stress of the road and being away from his family. Of course, competition is strong in the Chambers family and it didn’t take much for him to get back on track. The entire Chambers family will be in Las Vegas for the finals so you can be sure that Coach Chambers will be there with words of wisdom.
There are a lot of obligations that come with being one of the top 15 cowboys in an event. The steer wrestlers will be staying at the Mirage and will have autograph sessions each day. The cowboys in each event will stay in a different hotel. There are sponsor appearances along with trying to get sponsors for next year. All while trying to focus on doing your best under the spotlights and on national television. Chambers is ready. He said he had a lot of practice when he was younger and was playing football and doing high school rodeo. Friday night would be the varsity football game. Then they would leave for some part of the state and rodeo for two days and drive back late Sunday night. After school on Monday, there would be a junior varsity football game somewhere. He said it was all practice to learn how to focus.
With a strong family and community behind him, Chambers said that is one of the coolest things about this adventure.
“It’s not just me, it’s the people you meet along the way. I want to represent where I come from but I also want people, especially young people to be positive and never, ever give up on your dreams.”
*Follow the Bitterroot Star’s Facebook page for updates on Bridger Chambers at the NFR.