As I looked at the scores of text messages on my cell phone Sunday evening, one at the very top hit me like a ton of lead. I simply sat there staring at the words. What flashed across the screen read like a terrible joke.
I wish it had been a joke.
Last Saturday, on the final night of the 37th annual Indian National Finals Rodeo, saddle bronc rider J.D. Jones stood atop the chutes at the South Point Hotel & Casino resort in Las Vegas, Nev. living the dream of every cowboy. There he stood, a professional on the national stage in fourth place in the overall standings and a championship buckle within his sights.
Below him stood another supreme athlete: A bronc named "Meat Head." A successful ride aboard the Wilson Rodeo Company product could vault Jones even higher amongst the best riders in the nation.
As he climbed the gate and lowered himself into the saddle, Jones approached the ride the same way he approached life — with determination and without fear.
No one could have ever imagined what would happen next. With the nod of his cowboy hat, Jones and Meat Head left the chutes for the final time in their lives.
According to a rodeo spokeswoman, during the ride Jones fell from the horse. His boot slipped through a stirrup on the dismount, which entangled his foot in the rigging and left him dangling from the horse. In a moment of frenzy, Meat Head lost his balance during his escape attempt and toppled onto Jones, leaving both competitors severely injured.
Jones, 25, a Goodman native and 2005 Neosho High School graduate, passed away from his injuries that night at a nearby hospital. Meat Head, suffering from a broken pelvis and internal bleeding, was humanely euthanized.
In the blink of an eye, they were both gone.
Jones' death, which came in his first time competing at the national finals, marked the first time in the 37 years of the event that a rider has died.
For folks like myself that had the fortune of knowing J.D. personally, our lives are forever better for it. For those that never met the young man, I wish you could have. You truly missed out.
The first time I met J.D. Jones was in Ag class at Neosho High School. He probably snagged my attention whilst in the middle of telling one of his gut-busting jokes or something. Whatever the conversation was, he caught my attention and drew me in quickly. He was loud. There was absolutely no way to miss him.
J.D. was the life of any room. He was one of the funniest, most likeable people I've ever met. To be clear, I probably would never want to meet the person that needed more than five minutes to decide they liked J.D. It's an often-used cliché, but he really would do anything he could for you.
Page 2 of 2 - He had it all. He was smart, a natural comedian, caring, and (he would love me for saying this) a handsome fellow. But he also had another side. The side he showed when he climbed aboard Meat Head. He was smart enough to understand the risks, but brave enough to show no fear. When he put his game face on it was go-time and nothing would stop him.
It came as no surprise to me to learn how popular he'd become in the rodeo world. J.D. took the profession, and lots of hearts, by the reigns and formed a family amongst his peers. He made a name for himself in the process, too — just like he'd done years ago in Lance Massey's Ag room.
When the accident happened Saturday night the family he'd made in rodeo quickly sprang to his side. Donations were reportedly taken on the spot to support his family. The Indian Nation Finals Rodeo has also set up a fund for his family. Donations can be made to: J.D. Jones Fund P.O. Box 508, Browning, MT 59417.
Rodeo officials quickly released a statement that read, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of J.D. at this difficult time. J.D. was a favorite of the rodeo because of his passion and respect of the sport and he died doing something he loved."
Indeed, J.D. loved the rodeo. He loved riding broncs. He loved the camaraderie throughout the sport.
He loved. He was loved.
He's going to be greatly missed.
This statement was released through one of the many Facebook posts dedicated to his memory by a woman identifying herself as a family member, "Thank you all very much. J.D. was my nephew and on behalf of my family we appreciate the outpouring of love, respect and prayers."
J.D. Jones lived his life the same way it ended. Nothing could get in his way. As he climbed aboard that fateful ride in fourth place he did what he'd always do. He put his game face on and went out a winner.