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Minnesota cowboys turning up the heat on NFR competition

Updated December 10, 2019 - 12:11 am

Here are two truths you wouldn’t have pegged as self-evident when the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas &Mack Center began five days ago:

The state of Minnesota by definition actually has 11,842 lakes — not 10,000 as the familiar motto proclaims. The license plates shortchange the North Star State, which is, believe it or not, fast becoming known as the birthplace of a couple of top-rate cowboys.

The picture postcards and the welcome signs on Interstate 94 east of Fargo trumpet the lakes. They do not mention the cowpokes. But as the NFR reaches its halfway point, upstarts from the land of purple rain and people-eaters have rodeo people from the traditional rodeo states doing Marge Gunderson impressions, don’cha know.

Steer wrestler J.D. Struxness of Milan (pop: 369) placed in the money in each of the first four go-rounds and has climbed to fourth place in the world standings. He’s still leading the NFR with $62,321 won despite missing his steer Monday and dropping from first to 13th in the average.

After being bucked on opening night, bareback rider Tanner Aus of Granite Falls (pop: 2,897) got back on the horse and rode. Well, maybe not that same horse, but a bronc called Full Baggage from the Frontier Rodeo Company aboard which he scored 90 and a third-round win Sunday.

In places such as Texas or Oklahoma or Montana or Wyoming, they take other cowboys to the woodshed, metaphorically speaking, with a great ride or a fast time.

In Minnesota, they show you the wood chipper.

Bucking the odds

There has never been a Super Bowl or world champion cowboy from Minnesota. In fairness to the cowboys, the Vikings have had way more chances.

Dennis Reiners, a bareback rider from Clara City — “The Crossroads of the Prairie” — won the NFR average in 1965, the first year the finals were in Oklahoma City.

Otherwise, headlines generated by Minnesota cowboys not named James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke”and a Minneapolis native) have been more sparse than bathing suits on the Iron Range. So what Struxness and Aus have accomplished at the NFR has resonated from Winona to International Falls.

“We’re Minnesota. We’re frozen, right?” said Gretchen Kirchmann, once a Minnesota rodeo queen, now a Minnesota rodeo correspondent covering her 11th NFR. “We’re not like Texas, where every town you go to has a rodeo arena.”

Kirchmann, from the Minneapolis suburb of Elk River, said there are only two permanent rodeo grounds in Minnesota — one in Buffalo, not far from the Twin Cities, and another in Hawley, near Fargo. When it gets cold around the Fourth of July, there are myriad indoor arenas, she said, but kids usually are playing hockey in them. Those Zambonis don’t run well on dirt.

Thus pro rodeo to a kid growing up in Minnesota is what the end zone was to the Vikings in all those Super Bowls:

Not easily accessible.

Northern exposure

“I don’t know how J.D. feels, but sometimes I feel responsible for representing my state — but representing it in a good way,” Aus said about the burden of growing the sport back home. “To win a world title is a big-time goal. Being from Minnesota, it would be great to bring that back to our home state.”

Aus and Struxness, who were high school wrestlers — Struxness also played fullback and middle linebacker for Lac Qui Parle Valley High in Madison, Minnesota — live about 45 miles apart. They are close friends. Of the two, Struxness talks a bit more like Jerry Lundegaard in the movies, although he has developed something of a Texas twang.

“Not a whole lot of cowboys come from Minnesota … but if you’ve got talent and hard work, it don’t matter where you’re from, you can succeed,” said the 25-year-old bulldogger who has qualified for the NFR three times.

Aus, 29, and riding in his fourth NFR, says the rodeos on the Great Lakes circuit pay double and triple what they paid when he turned pro. Still, he said, rodeo probably will remain a niche sport in Minnesota — at least until a bull or a bronc learns to buck on a frozen pond.

“There’s fewer cowboys and cowgirls up there, but it really is a tight-knit, die-hard crew,” he said. “We work hard to get to where we’re at, just like like everybody else here. It might be a few more hours in the rig to meet up with some travel partners, but it’s all worth it.”

Oh, you betcha yeah it is.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.