For bull-riding Wilsons, rodeo is in the genes

Father and son take top spots among Alaska riders

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Watch a bull-riding rodeo this summer in Alaska, and don't be surprised if a boy named John David Wilson takes home the win.

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Or a man named John David Wilson.

That's because John David Wilson, the elder, has long been one of the state's top riders. The 46-year-old father of five once had ambitions of riding bulls for a living.

John David Wilson II - or J.D. - Wilson's 16-year-old son, is also one of the state's top riders. He is picking up the ambitions his father left behind more than 20 years ago.

"What's really cool and exciting about it to me is that I'd pretty much quit as far as going at it as a career," the elder Wilson said. "But J.D.'s started at that younger age. He could go at it as a career. He has a natural talent."

Wilson Jr. placed second in the boys bull-riding event and won honors as rookie cowboy at the Alaska High School Rodeo Association state championship June 17 at the Soldotna Equestrian Arena.

That performance qualified him for the National High School Finals Rodeo to be held July 22-28 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Ill. The event attracts about 1,500 rodeo contestants from 42 states, Canada and Australia, according to its Web site.

J.D. competes in junior bull riding and also in open-class events at venues such as Four Corners Lounge located along Palmer-Wasilla Highway, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer and at the Peninsula Cowboy Round-Up Series during the summer in Soldotna and Ninilchik.

That means he can earn money - sometimes as much as $400 - competing against older riders, including his dad.

Last season, the elder Wilson edged his son for most overall points in the Peninsula Round-Up. The winner wasn't decided until the final rodeo of the season. Wilson Sr. was able to stay on his bull for the necessary eight seconds to earn a score; J.D. was bucked off.

But while father and son compete against each other and like to earn bragging rights, the real competition is against the bull. And staying atop the bucking fury of an ornery animal is an adrenaline rush that both of them are addicted to.

"That's the only time I've felt competition between me and him," Wilson Sr. said. "The rest of the time it's camaraderie. It's you against the bull, not against some other guy. I could care less who shows up. It's you against the bull."

Wilson Sr. first rode a bull at 18 while attending school at Southwest Texas Junior College, in Uvalde, Texas. He won some big events, earned a scholarship, rode in the College National Finals Rodeo in 1981 and was set on becoming a pro rider.

"I never got my professional card," he said. "I ended up working more than riding in the rodeo."

Wilson came to Alaska in 1990 to fish commercially. The Wilsons moved back to Texas briefly but soon returned to Alaska. J.D., wife Diane, son J.D. and daughters Brittany, 10, Shell Lee, 7, Monica, 4, and Jennifer, 2, live in Sutton and Wilson now works for BP Exploration.

Wilson always kept riding in Alaska, and in 1991 he won a state championship under the now-defunct Northern Lights Cowboy Association.

J.D. grew up knowing what his dad really loved. When he was 12, he mounted a bull for the first time.

"I was scared," said J.D., who will be a sophomore at Palmer High in the fall. "It was like three seconds and I was off. But then I thought it wasn't as hard as it looks."

At 13, he entered an open competition at a Soldotna bull-riding event. Rodeo officials were reluctant to let someone so young climb atop a bull, the elder Wilson said.

But "he was a regular right off the bat."

He convinced officials to let his son try it.

"I kind of shamed them into letting him try it," Wilson said. "I said, "'If you're so afraid of this kid taking your money, don't let him in.' "

Wilson Jr. placed second.

Now J.D. is doing everything he can to turn professional someday.

Over Christmas break, he placed second in an open bull-riding event in Texas, competing against 50 other riders.

Earlier in the year, he attended a bull-riding school in Santa Maria, Calif., put on by Gary Leffew, a former world champion rider who served as a consultant on the HBO series Deadwood.

J.D. broke his right wrist when he fell off a bull while at the school, but that didn't stop him for long. When he returned to Alaska, he rode while gripping the rope with his left hand and keeping his right hand, which was in a cast, in the air.

"It was amazing," Wilson Sr. said. "I've never even tried that."

Father and son train together when they can, running near their home in Sutton or lifting weights. Both said their biggest backer is Diane Wilson, who has never taken part in rodeo but is a huge fan.

"She's into it more than we are," Wilson Sr. said. "If we're thrown off, we're in big trouble."

On the back window of the Wilsons' black Ford pickup is a sticker that reads "I'm a ($%% ) Cowboy, that's how I bleed."

"That's her sticker," Wilson Sr. said with a laugh. "You gotta have attitude to do this - and you need somebody to back you up."

Wilson said he never pushed his son to ride bulls. But he's pleased J.D. seems as passionate about riding as he is.

There's not much doubt about that.

"I want to win the world," J.D. said.

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