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Golden Circle of Champions the best part of NFR week for many contestants

After a successful steer wrestling run at the Thomas &Mack Center on Sunday night, Riley Duvall got off the dirt, lifted both hands in the air and pointed at the stands.

It’s not unusual for Wrangler National Finals Rodeo contestants to pay tribute to their fans or family members in attendance. But Duvall’s acknowledgement went a step further.

Earlier in the day, he participated in the Golden Circle of Champions luncheon, an event that honors children who have fought or are fighting cancer and other life-threatening diseases. The kids hail from rodeo communities across the country and here in Las Vegas.

Emery Balch was one of those children. And Duvall pointed right at her following his first-place run.

Balch was among 20 youngsters and their families who came to the South Point Hotel and Casino for lunch, gifts, rodeo swag and a few hours with NFR contestants.

Then they loaded on buses, dressed like rodeo contestants, wearing shirts with sponsor logos and a big Golden Circle of Champions patch. They all had cowboy hats and new championship belt buckles, too, as they headed to Thomas &Mack for the fourth go-round.

Participants were hosted by various rodeo committees and foundations. Balch, diagnosed with lymphoma, was hosted by the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation.

The Golden Circle of Champions has become a favorite part of NFR week for many contestants.

“It sure is a reminder to count your blessings and not take anything for granted,” said Duvall, a father of two from Checotah, Oklahoma. “When I left Emery, I told her if I did good at the rodeo I’d come see her. I found her in the stands and pointed at her after the run. She’s such a fighter, and I want to encourage her.”

Duvall clocked 4.3 seconds in Sunday’s steer wrestling go-round, tying for first place with Will Lummus. The victory was worth more than $24,000 for each of them.

Lummus was also among the contestants who participated in the Golden Circle event, and Sunday’s effort earned him his first check of the 2021 NFR.

“I wasn’t feeling great about what was going on here [at the NFR],” Lummus said. “Seeing those kids and spending time with them changed my outlook and was a bright spot in my day. It reminded me that winning money here wasn’t that big of a deal. There are things a lot more important than money, and I just hope that we could help those kids and their families put their cares behind them for a bit and have some fun.”

The Golden Circle of Champions was started by the Santa Maria (Calif.) Elks Rodeo in 2016. This is the third year that the NFR has hosted families.

“This was a great opportunity for our family to have some fun,” said Monica Gafford of Dayton. She was there with her husband Malcom and their daughter Maliya, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2019.

Maliya’s cousin Madi also made the 400-mile trip to participate, courtesy of the Reno Rodeo Foundation. They spent time with bull rider Boudreaux Campbell.

“Seeing the girls and the other kids smile and have some fun is what matters,” Gafford said.

All of the rodeo contestants and arena personnel were provided gold scarves to wear during the rodeo Sunday evening, a nod to the Golden Circle children. And while the contestants are all vying for the coveted gold buckles awarded to world champions, the true champions at the NFR on Sunday night were these kids and their families.

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