GARDEN CITY, Kan. -- Josh Cornett, wearing jeans and a gray-hooded sweatshirt, looks like any other college kid. Except for the black cowboy hat.
Wide-brimmed and dusty, it shadows his young face even as he sits talking inside the little rented house he shares with two roommates. That hat and the worn-down black and red cowboy boots he wears mark him as an athlete on a college team that might sound fanciful to an Easterner. Cornett, 20, who first road the back of a steer when he was ''about 10 or 11" as a prank, is a bull rider for the Garden City Community College rodeo team.
Although these days, rodeo competitions, many of them broadcast on national television, go on all year all across the country, the outdoor rodeo circuit is just gearing up in the Plains states. Rodeos, state fairs, bull-riding contests, and roping events are planned in little towns and midsize cities across the region every weekend until late autumn. Cornettgoes to classes in the morning during the school year and works for a rancher in the afternoons and summers, driving from pasture to pasture to feed, water, and give shots to cattle. Weekends, he drives to towns in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas to take his chances on the bulls.
''I grew up with horses," Cornett says, talking slowly, putting space between his words. That first ride, when someone threw him up on a steer ''for fun," wasn't inspiring. ''I was pretty scared," he says, smiling shyly, and then adding of the steer: ''We were probably both pretty scared." He grew to love it as his father enrolled him in Junior Britches contests. Instead of playing baseball or soccer, ''I rodeoed," Cornett says. He rode bulls in high school and won a scholarship to the community college team. ''I probably wouldn't have gone to college except for rodeo."
Besides the 10 college rodeos he participates in during the school term, with fees, travel money, and meals paid for by the college, Cornett finds as many other competitions as he can. He's looking a little down as he talks; the previous weekend he had driven to Gutherie, Okla., for a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association event. ''I got bucked off there in Guthrie," he says. In bull riding, saddle bronc riding, and bareback riding, the rider has to stay on at least eight seconds to be scored.
To enter, he must pay an entry and day fees. The prize money, which can be $500 to $600 for college winners, can be more at professional rodeos and events (college rodeo athletes are not excluded from competing in professional events), but the costs to enter can be steep. Cornett says he is just starting out and hasn't reached $1,000 in earnings that will allow him entry into the biggest rodeos. Depending on his points in June and July, he hopes to compete in the Dodge City Roundup Rodeo in early August.
He admits he doesn't know what he could make ''if it all worked out."
''You'd be pretty wealthy," he says, but can easily tick off all the problems getting there. ''You only go so long before your body gives out." He recounts all the injuries possible: scrapes, bruises, broken arms, broken legs, head injuries. His mother doesn't say much, he says, ''but I know she don't like it."
Cornett doesn't have any doubts as to why he rides the bulls, though. ''It's fun, it's a challenge," he says. ''In bull riding, you're on your own." He says bareback riding and saddle bronc riding are challenging, too, but the horse is a big part of it. His gear includes bull rope, vest, chaps, rosin, boots, spurs, and tape. Why tape? ''To hold yourself together" when you get hurt, he says, matter-of-factly. He has a good idea of what it all costs after his bag was stolen last summer and he had to replace everything -- about $2,000.
Part of the rigor of rodeo competition is getting there, since only the top-rated contestants can afford to fly, and besides, many of the competitions are in rural areas where there aren't airports close by. Cornett recalls an all-night drive from central Oklahoma to northern Kansas.
''I don't know what's more dangerous," he says, the bull riding or the driving.