Chasing cowboy dreams

Bright finds new home in rodeo

Clayton A. Culp Knoxville News Sentinel
East Tennessee is no place for a cowboy.

So, Matt Bright packed his bags and headed for Texas to pursue a professional rodeo career more than two years ago.

The Professional Rodeo Association's 2010 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, held Dec. 2-11 in Las Vegas, was supposed to be his coming-out party. Instead, his week was cut short due to injury.

The Lenoir City native suffered a back fracture Dec. 9 when the horse he was riding reared back and smashed his back against the metal retaining chute wall.

"The first thing I thought when I got hurt was that I didn't know the extent of how bad it was," Bright said. "Half the time it's a career-ending deal, so that's the first thing I worried about, not being able to rodeo anymore."

As it turns out, the injury isn't that serious. Bright is walking with a back brace, and he'll be riding again in six to eight weeks.

That doesn't mean it didn't look scary to friends and family back home watching on TV. His parents, R.A. Bright and Yvonne Hodge Bright, were watching the big screen at the arena and didn't realize the seriousness of the injury until officials told them he was being taken to the emergency room in an ambulance.

The hardest part about coming back will be regaining his strength and conditioning, the 27-year-old said.

"When you ride a bareback horse . . . you exert as much energy in an eight-second bareback ride as most people do in an eight-hour work day," Bright said.

Despite the setback, Bright's career seems poised to take off. The $74,000 he earned in his specialty event of bareback bronco riding was enough to put him in the top 15 nationally and qualify him for the national finals, something he's dreamt of since watching the event on TV as a youngster.

"To actually be there, it was really surreal," he said. "It took a few days to set in that I was actually there and getting to compete there. It's like a little kid that watches football every day as a little kid then gets to play in the Super Bowl.

Rodeo always has been a family affair for the Brights. Both his mother and father competed in rodeos when he was growing up, and he traveled to rodeos throughout the southeast to watch his dad.

After graduating from Lenoir City High School in 2001, he took two years off before going to UTMartin on a rodeo scholarship. When his professional career stalled in the southeast, he decided to make a move, and his parents and younger brother Jacob followed him to Azle, Texas - about 40 miles west of Fort Worth.

Bright has access to more than just a supportive family; he's also part of a supportive community. Bright will draw from the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, which has donated more than $4 million to needy cowboys who are hurt and out of work. Bright has helped teach the Thanksgiving Rodeo School in Mesquite, Texas, the proceeds of which go toward the fund.

"The western, cowboy community is not a really big chunk of society," Bright said. "We try to look out for each other."

Now that Bright is living his cowboy dream in Texas, he's finally joined that society in earnest, competing in 80 rodeos a year.

"Growing up, I didn't really fit in anywhere in Tennessee. There wasn't any cowboys where I lived," he says.

"There wasn't another person in Lenoir City that hardly even knew what a rodeo was."