Dec 9, 2019
The first four rounds of the National Finals Rodeo didn’t go as planned for steer wrestler Kyle Irwin. He placed sixth in the second round but failed to finish in the money in any of the other three rounds.
None of that mattered to the Robertsdale, Alabama, cowboy on Monday, however.
Irwin was one of a handful of NFR contestants at the Las Vegas Convention Center’s Wrangler Rodeo Arena helping with the Exceptional Rodeo. The rodeo, which is in its 37th year in conjunction with the NFR, brings together NFR cowboys, cowgirls and bullfighters and dozens of special-needs kids from around the area for an hour of rodeo-style events.
“The NFR hasn’t really went the way I wanted it to the first four nights,” Irwin said. “If nothing else, this grounds a guy as to what really matters. We love rodeo and it’s great, but it’s not what matters. Giving back to others and loving other people is what matters.”
According to event director Adam Daurio, that is what the Exceptional Rodeo is all about.
“The really special thing about this is our heroes are the cowboys and cowgirls,” said Daurio, who was an Exceptional Rodeo volunteer for two years before buying the organization two years ago. “But when these contestants walk out of here today most of them will say that these kids are their heroes.
“The first time I volunteered I said, ‘I have to do this again.’ It’s addicting when you see how amazing this experience is for the youth.”
That was apparent throughout the hour-long rodeo.
Each NFR contestant worked with a special-needs kid and took them around to the various events, which included make-shift representations of bull riding, bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing and calf roping. When the rodeo ended, each special-needs kid received a trophy, a T-shirt and a cowboy hat.
Irwin was paired with 8-year-old Adam Pipkin, who is confined to a wheelchair. Pipkin still participated in every event, although his favorite by far was the bull riding. As Adam’s mom, Candy, and Irwin lifted Adam onto the back of the make-shift bull, his face lit up and a smile stretched across his face.
“When Kyle came up and introduced himself and started carrying Adam around I thought, ‘This is awesome!’” said Colten Pipkin, Adam’s father. “Adam was getting like a real cowboy experience.
“This is great because there’s nothing like this around. We never really get to have these kinds of experiences, so when they told us that we got to go to the rodeo and that they had a division just for special needs kids … Oh, man. We were all pumped.
“When you’ve got a kid with special needs there are a lot of different emotions that they have to go through. And it’s rare when you get to see legitimate happiness and excitement. But Adam’s face has been lit up the whole time we’ve been here.”
Adam’s excitement began even before the rodeo started.
“We prepared him that we were coming and he was so excited,” Candy said. “He was smiling the whole way here. Now he’s going to have a great day.”
Adam wasn’t the only one.
“It’s a huge blessing for me if I can bring a smile to these kids’ faces for even five minutes,” Irwin said. “Whenever Adam was on that little bucking bull over there it was so great just to see him smile like that.
“Those things that I take for granted he can’t do. He would give anything to be able to ride a horse, much less carry on a conversation. So to see him get that much out of a little bucking bull, that means a lot and it really hits home. This is the best part of the National Finals Rodeo if you ask me.”
It’s a common sentiment among the volunteers.
Dusty Tuckness, the seven-time PRCA Bullfighter of the Year, was volunteering at the Exceptional Rodeo for the 11th year.
“This means everything,” he said. “We get to show the kids a little bit of our world. We get to come here and get away from the Vegas life and put a smile on these kids’ faces.
“It’s just great for us to give back because rodeo has given us so much.”