Article written by Johna Cravens from the NHSRA Times

Rarely do high school and junior high students get the opportunity to com­pete against the sport’s biggest names at one of the year’s richest rodeos, especially in front of thousands of spectators and a national television audience.

That’s the experience that three cow­boys and two cowgirls shared at the 2017 RFD-TV’s The American at AT&T Stadi­um in Arlington, Texas on Feb. 19. They are Texas teens Paden Bray, Ty Harris and Sophie Palmore, Oklahoman Brenton Hall and Nevadan Wylee Mitchell.

The five were among 46 contes­tants who advanced from the American Semi-Finals Feb. 14-17. Eighty other “American” contestants had received in­vitations based on their accomplishments the previous season and two received fan-voted exemptions.

Between them, the “kids” won $46,000 at the Semi-Finals, and as “qualifiers” —as opposed to those invited — had a chance at the most famous feature: a $1 million bonus, in addition to prize money.

The quest to earn one of those 46 spots began with some 3,400 individuals en­tering one of about 80 qualifying events across the country. More than 700 contes­tants moved on to The American Semi-Fi­nals held just before The American in Fort Worth.

Brenton Hall, a junior from Oklaho­ma, summed up the experience this way. “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” They use words like “amazing”, “pretty cool” and “fun” to describe getting the chance to compete alongside legends of the sport at the home of the Dallas Cowboys and to have a chance to win a $1 million bonus.

Hall of Jay, Okla., and Paden Bray of Granbury, Texas, placed fourth in the first of two semi-finals preliminary rounds with a 5.4-second run. Hall and a second partner, Tyler Worley of Stephenville, Texas, placed sixth in the second round of the preliminaries for $3,021.

Hall and Bray earned $4,758 in the preliminary rounds, finishing eighth which put them among the Top 20 who competed on Feb. 15 and 16 at Cowtown Coliseum. They roped Thursday, Feb. 16, and bested the rest of the top 20 teams, including several former National Finals Rodeo contestants, with a time of 4.0 sec­onds. That put them at the head of the semi-finals’ Top 10 shoot-out round on Feb. 17 where they finished fourth (de­spite only catching one leg), won another $7,112 and qualified for The American. The duo earned $11,970 at the semi-finals.

Hall said he knew that a fast run with a broken barrier was sitting fifth when he rode into the box. “I knew that if I could just get out of the barrier and get it on him we would qualify for The American,” he said. Bray added, “I knew we needed a clean run or a fast leg.” He added that because the Cowtown Coliseum, built in 1908, is a narrow pen, “even if I wanted to wait a step, I had to throw it, no matter what.”

Hall, 17, has competed at the National Junior High Finals Rodeo twice. He went to Gallup, N.M., in 2013 and in 2014 he qualified for Des Moines in three events and won fourth in tie-down roping. Last year he qualified for the NHSFR in team roping with partner Blayne Horne from McAlester, Okla., and just missed qualify­ing in calf roping.

Tie-down roper Ty Harris of San An­gelo, Texas, clocked a time of 6.86 seconds to win the first round of the semi-finals preliminaries and earn more than $8,000. Although he didn’t place in the second round, he earned another $1,800 for his preliminary round total and made the Top 20.His time of 7.36 on Wednesday night put him fifth in Friday’s shoot-out round.He finished sixth Friday with an 8.83 and qualified for The American with winnings of $13,992 at the semi-finals.

Bray and Harris are both products of Texas High School Rodeo. Harris, 18, was the 2015 Texas high school finals reserve champion in tie-down roping. He’s also a junior high rodeo alumnus, winning the Texas state titles in calf roping, ribbon roping, goat tying and all-around as an eighth grader.

Bray, 18, qualified for the Junior High nationals twice, finishing tenth in break­away his first year. The second year he finished eighth in ribbon roping plus he and partner Brett Stewart were the reserve champions in team roping.

Both Bray and Harris worked on the cattle crew at the 2016 edition of The American, so being on the floor of AT&T Stadium was not new. But they agreed that returning as a contestant was much different. Hall had been there once to at­tend a Dallas Cowboys football game with his father.

Barrel racing drew 178 contestants in a preliminary round on Feb. 14. Sophie Pal­more, 17, of Kirbyville, Texas, grabbed the last spot in the top 30 with a 14.123 and earned $750. That was a huge step for her since only the 30 fastest times competed at the three semi-final performances. The 10 fastest from the performances quali­fied for The American. Palmore clocked a 13.995 on Friday night, which was third in the performance and worth another $2,402. Her time was eighth overall which earned her another $7,507, pushed her semi-finals winnings to $10,660 and qual­ified for AT&T Stadium.

“My mare had been hurt and was off for six or seven months. We made the semi-finals at the final barrel racing qual­ifier (in late January) and thought it was a long shot to even make the top 30,” Pal­more said. A high school junior, Palmore has qualified for the Texas state finals all three years and just won her region in barrel racing.

Wylee Mitchell, 12, of Pioche, Nev., finished 19th in the preliminary round with a 14.048, which earned her almost $1,200 and put her into the performance round. Her time of 14.012 was third on Thursday night, winning her another $2,402. She finished ninth overall and won another $6,000,  boosting her semi-finals winnings to $9,600.

Mitchell, a seventh grader, is an all-around competitor in the junior high ranks. She qualified for nationals in bar­rel racing last year, but she and her family decided her horse was not yet seasoned enough to travel that far. She competes in every event – barrels, poles, goat tying, breakaway roping, team roping (header) and ribbon roping (runner).

Mitchell was not the youngest one competing, however. Barrel racer Chayni Chamberlain, 11, was one of the “invi­tees,” after qualifying in 2015.

Tie-down roper Harris came clos­est to the top four shoot-out round of The American — he finished fifth with a 7.01— but they all appreciated the oppor­tunity to compete at the world’s richest one-day rodeo. 

“I learned that I could be seven (sec­onds) and not win any money,” Harris said, adding that he also learned he could rope with the best.  Perhaps Mitchell summed it up best. What was her favorite part of The American? “It was all amaz­ing,” she said.