ASHLAND – As Jule Hazen sat in the stands at a college rodeo during his third year in school, he saw something that changed his life.
The 32-year-old, who grew up on a farm and ranch in southwest Kansas, paid particular attention to steer wrestling. Though he had never competed in the event, it piqued his interest.
“I played football and basketball in school, and my dad played football and has an aggressive nature,” said Hazen, an elite steer wrestler in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association heading to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the third time in his nine-year career. “When I played sports, he was always wanting me to be more aggressive. I was watching the bulldogging at the college rodeo, and I thought, ‘There’s an event I could relate to.’ That was my awe moment, and that’s what I needed to do.”
He’s done pretty well in an event that features cowboys riding fast horses, then leaping off them onto running steers, which cowboys attempt to grapple to the ground. The faster the better, and Hazen has been pretty fast all season; in 2013, he has earned $69,266 and is No. 5 in the world standings heading into ProRodeo’s grand championship, set for Dec. 5-14 in Las Vegas.
Hazen made previous trips to the Nevada desert in 2007 and 2010, and he would’ve played on the sport’s biggest stage more had he not suffered some mishaps along the way: a broken ankle, a torn pectoral muscle, a damaged shoulder and an injured horse. Reflecting on all he’s been through, he’s very excited to be heading back to the NFR.
“I’ve always wanted to rodeo,” said Hazen, who graduated from Protection (Kan.) High School and owns a degree in applied science from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College. “My dream was to rodeo. I wanted to be a cowboy, and I was looking for my in.
“Bulldogging is one event that fit both sides of my family: Grandpa’s side for my horsemanship, and my dad’s side for being aggressive. On my dad’s side, they’re pretty good size people, too.”
Size is something Hazen inherited. He stands 6-foot-3 and is 245 pounds. Throw that into the mix with solid technique, and people who know the game realize just why the Kansas cowboy has been so successful.
Steer wrestling typically is one of the tightest races in rodeo, a sport where dollars equal championship points; the contestants in each event with the most money earned through the season will be crowned world champions. Casey Martin leads the standings with $108,938, and his lead is just $58,000 ahead of the 15th-ranked cowboy, Dakota Eldridge. With go-round winners earning paychecks worth $18,630 each of the 10 nights of the NFR, the race for the 2013 gold buckle is up in the air and will be decided in Las Vegas.
“There’s so much parody in bulldogging,” Hazen said. “There are a lot of changes. Les Shepperson ended up winning the average at the NFR last year and finished third in the world, and I don’t know if he cracked the top 30 this year. That kind of stuff happens all the time in bulldogging.”
The main factor in Hazen’s success comes in the form of family. His wife, Heidi, teaches school in Ashland, and they have a 19-month-old daughter, Joslyn. His parents, Steve and Kelly, offer their support at every turn to help in his career. He learned his horsemanship skills from his grandfather, Richard Degnan, who died earlier this year while Hazen was rodeoing in his home state the first of August.
“He’s been everything as far as rodeo with me,” Hazen said of his grandfather. “My folks are wonderful, but my grandfather had three girls, and they are great girls; but I was the first grandson, and I was the only one who showed an interest in rodeo.
“He taught me how to ride horses and gave me all my horsemanship, which sometimes doesn’t show up. But he meant everything to me. It’s going to be hard.”
That week, he qualified for the championship go-round at the Dodge City (Kan.) Roundup Rodeo, the closest ProRodeo to his home. The day after, he helped bury his grandfather while comforting his grandma, Carolyn.
“I knew he wasn’t good for a while, and I wanted to get qualified for the finals before he passed away,” he said. “At Dodge, I didn’t think there was any chance I could make the short round, then I ended up somehow sneaking in, so maybe it was meant to be after all that had happened. I went to the short round in 11th, and I ended up placing fourth. It ended up way better than it should’ve been.”
Maybe it was divine intervention; maybe it was just solid steer wrestling. Hazen leaned on a lot of things to help him through the years, not the least of which was good friend and traveling partner Chad Van Campen, who has served as the hazer, helping keep the steer in line for Hazen to perform at his best – in fact, Van Campen and Hazen will be wearing matching shirts during the 10-day championship. Then there is Bam Bam, a 12-year-old black gelding that has been the perfect mount for the big Kansan.
But when he needs them most, family has been his pillar of strength.
“The reality is I wouldn’t be able to go without my family,” Hazen said. “My wife supports me in everything I do, and my folks support me. When I’m gone, they take care of my chores.
“I always had three phone calls when I got done competing that I made, especially when I did good: my wife, my grandpa and my folks. They’re just as much in this as I am.”
They’ll lead a big contingent of Hazen’s fans who will root for him every night for 10 go-rounds while he chases that elusive world championship in the City of Lights.