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Nearly every day, it seems, Brody Cress has a decision to make. Admittedly, he doesn’t always make the right choice. But he’ll admit when he’s wrong and take it as a learning experience.

Eleven months ago, Cress decided to jump off the back of Burch Rodeo’s Lunatic following an 86-point ride at the Home On The Range Champions Ride in Sentinel Butte, North Dakota. He’d jumped off horses without pick-up men before and, without thinking Sentinel Butte only discs its dirt once a year, he did it again. Cress landed flat and immediately felt an explosion in his ankle.

This summer, the Hillsdale native has returned to the arena with more decisions to make. His ankle feels good and he’s ready to make a run at a third straight National Finals Rodeo appearance after a season was nearly taken away from him.

Nobody knew the severity of his injury immediately. Through the heavily-taped ankle he could see some joints sitting to the side of where they should be. He can’t quite remember which hospital it was that he visited to get his ankle reset (he thinks it was Dickinson, a 53-mile trip from the 86-person town of Sentinel Butte), before hopping back in a truck and driving south for more rodeos.

“We didn’t know how bad it was until I got to Colorado,” Cress remembered. “It dang sure wasn’t a good thing. But I wasn’t trying to have any pity parties or feel bad for myself, I was mostly just mad that I made the dumb decision to jump off. That’s a decision I could control, to stay in the middle of the horse and wait for a pick-up man and protect myself and not get hurt.

“I learned from that and I dang sure ain’t going to do it again.”

At the time Cress had already mathematically clinched a spot in his second straight NFR Final. That gave him some leeway for a strenuous rehab schedule that started with weight-bearing exercises for 10 weeks. After that he rehabbed in Decatur, Texas, at Fit-N-Wise every morning. Upon medical clearance he returned to practice horses just before the finals. He knew his ankle was only at 70 percent but he didn’t give a thought to not competing.

Looking back, that’s a decision he’s glad he made. Even though he got thrown in seven of the 10 rides, he was still lucky enough to be there.

“There’s so many people that just wish they could be in that arena experiencing it no matter how good or bad it goes,” Cress said. “I just took it as: No matter how it goes, it’s a learning experience. Just try and fight through something and keep going. There’s always ways to build off of something like that.”

He’s also considered himself lucky that his worst brush with injury has been a broken ankle. He mentioned Cowley native and former Casper College rider J.R. Vezain, who remains paralyzed after a broken back suffered in the Pasadena, Texas, Rodeo last September. Vezain’s determination to walk again has lifted spirits among the rodeo family. Now that the former two-time state wrestling champion at Rocky Mountain has returned to horseback, his fighting spirit has helped cowboys like Cress find motivation.

“That guy is completely outstanding to me,” Cress admired of his fellow Wyomingite. “I look up to him so much for how positive he is getting through that. I knew mine was just a minor speed bump compared to something like that.”

So Cress decided to take the winter to heal with eyes set upon this season. There’s still a fragment of bone not fully healed but he doesn’t notice it outside of some restricted movements. It’s been the draws, more than injury, that has been the frustrating part of this season. He’s noticed small scattered mistakes made along with the inconsistent draw, which has caused frustration this season.

After his successful 87.5-point ride at the Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo on Thursday night he sat 31st in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association saddle bronc world standings. That ride on Cervi Brothers’ Living The Cinch High Life brought a round of applause from the crowd and an extra bit of cash for winning that night’s performance. And cash is what he’s focused on now if he wants to make the NFR.

Within the past month he’s competed at 22 rodeos. Just before returning to Wyoming, Cress competed at the Calgary Stampede and then in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He notched good enough rides in all three rodeos to advance (albeit in the wild card at Calgary), which meant he needed to make a decision on where to go for Saturday. He loves the Stampede and its approximate $50,000 payday after the exchange rate and taxes, but money won there doesn’t count toward the world standings. Turning out of Calgary, however, he was told came with a 3-year ban of the event.

“The smart thing to do would be to stay down here, go to Carter Springs because it’s going to pay the most,” Cress openly thought. “That’s $12,000 to win that one. And 40 percent on that one means you could win up to 15 or more. So that’s a good jump in the standings. ... Like I said, the main goal is making the NFR and I dang sure need to win some money and get moving on that.”

So he called his traveling buddy and fellow rider Isaac Diaz, who he trusts to help him make decisions like that. Cress wanted to get a private plane in order to get to both but time, he conceded, wouldn’t allow it. So a day after he rode in Casper he competed in Estes Park and contemplated. He knew he needed to turn out of the Sheridan WYO Rodeo short go, so that was already off the table.

With all the rides, distractions and decisions, he’s still trying to keep up with band workouts. The long drives between rodeos stiffen his already ailing ankle.

“I’m trying to do as much as I can in a quick amount of time every day to not get sore and to just keep things going good,” he said.

There’s a small reprieve in his schedule following his Saturday decision between Calgary and Colorado. Then he returns to the Front Range with rodeos in Idaho and Utah. He’s excited for yet another homecoming when he defends his two-time Cheyenne Frontier Days championship at the Daddy Of ‘Em All. A week later he’ll return to Sentinel Butte and the site of his mindset-altering injury.

Cress chuckled and said that things only seem to pick up after Cowboy Christmas. Through that increased schedule he reminds himself that it’s one horse at a time and to have fun riding. He knows the workload has to pick up if he wants to be one of the top 15 riders in the world once again. And, naturally, he’ll have to make plenty of decisions along the way.

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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