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CNFR: Friday

Tennessee-Martin cowboy Weston Hamilton poses for a portrait Friday at the Casper Events Center before the evening performance of the College National Finals Rodeo.

Weston Hamilton figured he had missed out.

Hamilton applied earlier this year for the Nothin’ But Try scholarship, a $2,500 grant doled out annually to a student-athlete through the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. The scholarship is always presented to the recipient during the College National Finals Rodeo, which is held every year at the Casper Events Center during the second week of June.

As of June 7 — two days before this year’s rodeo started — Hamilton still hadn’t heard anything.

“I was like, ‘Well I guess I didn’t get it,” said Hamilton, a freshman barebacker rider at Tennessee-Martin. “I figured surely I would’ve heard about it by now.”

A day later, while Hamilton was en route to another rodeo in Decatur, Illinois, his phone rang. On the other end was CNFR media liaison Susan Kanode, who ended the suspense by informing Hamilton he was this year’s recipient.

“I was at a loss for words,” Hamilton said. “Didn’t really know what to say or how to react to it.”

After staying in Illinois the first part of the week, Hamilton returned home to Tennessee to pack again so he could get to Casper in time to be in attendance for the scholarship presentation Friday. Given the significance of the scholarship, it was virtually impossible for Hamilton to make the trip to Wyoming without thinking about where he’s been.

To say Hamilton lived a simple life growing up in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, may be generous. While Hamilton’s parents, Jeremy and Deanne, did what they could to provide for he and his older stepbrother, Anthony, money was tight. Hamilton remembers only being able to pick up three channels on the family’s television.

But Hamilton was content with the minimalist lifestyle largely because he didn’t know any different. And he never had to question his father’s affection for his children.

“He had some issues he couldn’t get over that ultimately led to his death, but I never had a doubt that he loved me and my brother,” Hamilton said.

Fatal attraction

The financial struggles were due in large part to a drug habit that Jeremy couldn’t shake. Most of the money he earned working in the family’s heavy-equipment operating business was used to fund it. Any income left over usually wasn’t even enough for Deanne to afford diapers for Hamilton, so she had to borrow money to buy them.

Still, Jeremy and his children were nearly inseparable when he was clean. He’d occasionally take Hamilton and his stepbrother to work with him while Hamilton still remembers both of them routinely sleeping with their dad on the couch as youngsters.

“I’d sleep on top of him and my brother would sleep next to him,” Hamilton said. “That was an every-night thing.”

But his father wasn’t someone Hamilton necessarily wanted to be around when he was under the influence. The drugs turned Jeremy into a different person who acted in bizarre ways. In one instance Hamilton vividly recalled, Jeremy duct taped Hamilton and his stepbrother to the floor for several hours while he was high.

The lifestyle also lent itself to violence and shady associates, which eventually caught up to Hamilton’s father. Jeremy was eventually fired from the family business but received a $25,000 cash payment on his way out for his stake in the ownership.

Jeremy spent most of that money on drugs and used enough that he eventually passed out. The drugs and whatever cash he had left over made him a prime target for a robbery, which turned fatal when he was bludgeoned to death with a tire tool.

Hamilton was 5 years old when Jeremy was murdered, but he went eight years without knowing the truth about how his father died. Deanne didn’t want her son knowing the kind of lifestyle his father was caught up in, so she told Hamilton that Jeremy fell and hit a coffee table — a lie Hamilton remembers being skeptical of even at his young age at the time.

“My dad was a really big man and a really, really stout man, and in the back of my mind, I knew that wouldn’t have killed my daddy,” Hamilton said. “But I didn’t know any better.”

The family eventually revealed the truth to Hamilton regarding the details of his father’s death once he was a teenager. Hamilton said the perpetrator was never caught.

“I think about it often,” Hamilton said. “It’s hard to think about your dad laying there and getting beat to death. I don’t know how anybody could process that.”

Stability has been hard to come by since. Once his parents divorced shortly before Jeremy’s death, Hamilton went to live with his grandparents while Anthony went to live with his mom. Deanne eventually remarried, but Hamilton fought with his stepdad to the point that it became physical at times, so he continued to bounce around living with different family members.

Hamilton didn’t have any choice but to grow up quick. As he got older, his summer vacations consisted of working weeks exceeding 40 hours with his grandfather’s excavation business. By the time he was in the seventh grade, he was operating heavy equipment unsupervised.

“All the opportunities so many kids have and don’t take advantage of it, and then you’ve got a kid who basically he and his brother raised themselves,” UT Martin rodeo coach John Luthi said.

Sparking an interest

Despite the addiction that left Jeremy’s family scrambling, Hamilton said he still has fond memories of his father. Perhaps more than anything, Hamilton remembers what his father was able to provide for him rather than what he wasn’t, and that was a love for rodeo.

Hamilton got to watch his father compete as a bulldogger before he died, and “when you’re a little boy, you want to be just like your dad,” Hamilton said. Deanne, now a teacher, was vehemently against her son doing anything more than looking when it came to rodeos, but watching them from a distance over the years only strengthened his desire to become a rider himself.

He finally scratched that itch in grade school when he rode for the first time in a junior rodeo that was short on bareback riders. He soon became hooked and decided to ride bareback at Tellico Plains High School, but Hamilton needed his mother to sign the release papers before he competed in his first high school rodeo as a sophomore.

Deanne wouldn’t do it, so Hamilton forged his mom’s signature. He ended up driving himself to nearly all of his high school rodeo competitions and eventually qualified for the National High School Finals Rodeo.

But riding took its toll. Hamilton sustained multiple broken bones in his back and neck. The transverse process fractures weren’t the most serious of injuries, but they made Hamilton reassess his long-term plans.

He concentrated less on riding and more on academics, where he excelled. He finished high school with a 4.2 grade point average and was the salutatorian of his graduating class. With an ACT score of 31, the list of college possibilities seemed endless.

With interest in pursuing a career in the Army as an engineer, he had decided on the United States Military Academy in West Point. Hamilton had two congressional nominations that are required as part of the application process for admission, but he was dealt yet another blow when the service academy didn’t admit him.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton eventually turned back to the sport his father got him interested in as he continued to try to make his own way, which is ultimately why Hamilton was chosen as the recipient of his scholarship earlier this week. Established in memory of former national college bull riding champion Shane Drury, who fought through three bouts of cancer to continue riding and judging at rodeos before he died from the disease in 2006, the Nothin’ But Try scholarship has been awarded every year since Drury’s death to a student-athlete that’s been dealt numerous setbacks but has never given up in the pursuit of rodeoing.

It fits Hamilton to a tee.

“Most kids that have been through what he’s been through would be pretty angry about stuff, especially nowadays,” said Drury’s brother, Jesse, who’s involved in determining the scholarship’s recipient. “But he stays positive and has nothing but try in him, and that’s kind of what it’s all about.”

Back on the horse

Hamilton ended up at UT Martin after picking bareback riding up again last summer after a semester in community college. He moved to a ranch in Montana and began competing in night rodeos, winning 27 of the 30 rodeos in which he competed.

“Just something different,” Hamilton said. “One of my friends had went out there to the same ranch that summer, and it looked like it was pretty cool deal. I’d always wanted to go out there and cowboy a little.”

But if Hamilton was going to continue riding in college, he wanted to do it closer to home. Two of his cousins had done rodeo at UT Martin, and Hamilton’s best friend from high school rodeo, fellow bareback rider Blake Leamon, was also going to the school that’s just a five-hour drive from his hometown.

So Hamilton reached out to Luthi, who asked Hamilton to send him video of some of his rides. It was far from perfect, but Luthi saw enough potential and determination to offer Hamilton a spot on the Skyhawks’ team.

“Bareback riders are hard to find,” Luthi said. “He was moving his feet and looked like he had a lot of try, and I figured if somebody has a lot of try and is willing to move their feet, we can work with them and help them get better.”

A bum ankle slowed Hamilton at the beginning of this season while a broken hand forced him to miss his last two rodeos. Qualifying for the CNFR may have been a longshot even if he had been healthy given his inexperience relative to other riders.

Tweaks to his technique have Hamilton more polished as a rider than he was this time last year, but he admitted there’s still a ways for him to go if he wants to hang with the nation’s best. And Hamilton is committed to seeing it through to the point that he’d like to have a decision to make when it comes to his future.

He has plans to buy his PRCA permit and work toward the circuit finals next season. Joining the Army is still a possibility, but depending on how the next few years pan out, he’s not ruling out pursuing a professional rodeo career while working as an engineer for a nuclear plant.

Returning to Casper as more than a spectator is also on his list of objectives.

“I feel like if I’m at 100 percent and ride a little bit better, I think I’ll have a better chance of being here,” said Hamilton, who’s majoring in mechanical engineering with plans to pursue a second degree in nuclear engineering. “But I obviously want to compete here.”

Considering all the odds Hamilton has already overcome, Luthi knows better than to count his young rider out.

“It’s amazed me that he’s here,” Luthi said. “He could’ve went to West Point, but it’s amazing to me that he’s done all he’s done. He’s going to get there. He’s making progress. With that kind of good attitude and work ethic, he’s going to go a long way.”

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Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter

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College Sports Reporter

Davis Potter is the University of Wyoming athletics reporter. An Alabama native and 2011 Auburn University graduate, Potter joined the Star-Tribune in 2018 after five years covering Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He lives in Laramie.

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