On the first night of the Cody Nite Rodeo season, Zain Fitzgerald did something none of his competitors did.
He stayed on the back of his bucking bull for eight seconds and acquired a score of 74 points.
That ride made Fitzgerald champion of the day, the winner of the gnarliest event during the June 1 opener.
Fitzgerald, entering his senior year at Cody High School, may be just 17 but he is not new to this game.
When he peels off his black protective helmet and shakes his thick blond hair, Fitzgerald’s youth is more evident. He is at an age where a possible breakthrough could come, possibly a bridge season to the pros.
Fitzgerald has shown sparks of stardom with regular wins, but also has gone through the bane of a bull rider’s existence, a slump.
Still a work in progress, Fitzgerald put in a lot of riding over the winter seeking improvement. He competed in high school rodeo and spent school vacation time visiting his father Thad in Arizona and riding there.
Fitzgerald was steered to rodeo by grandfather Phil “Pop” Bates, the long-time calf handler at Stampede Park during the Nite Rodeo. He began helping out grandpa with the stock when he was 8.
“I loved it,” Fitzgerald said.
He began riding junior steers against other kids and graduated to the real-deal bulls more recently, though he did plop his butt down on a big-boy bull for the first time when he was 13. There were no strong parental protests. Family supports him all the way, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald has grown to 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, which is just about right for a bull rider. The bulls are always going to have a size advantage, unlike when Fitzgerald competes in high school wrestling, but he is not intimidated.
“There is nothing like it,” Fitzgerald said of bull riding, which some people call the most dangerous event in sports. “It really gets your adrenalin up. It’s unlike any other sport in the world.”
Bates said Fitzgerald showed a natural affinity for bull riding, so he kept encouraging him.
“You could watch him and see he was going to be good at it,” Bates said.
While Bates has worked for Cody Nite Rodeo 15 years during his retirement years, he never competed in the sport when he was young because he was always working.
Like his older brother, Kade Fitzgerald, 15, is growing up around rodeo, helping out his grandfather with the calves, working around the grounds. And no surprise, he has been riding bulls.
Yes, Zain has been an influence, and yes, Kade models himself on big brother.
“Definitely,” Kade said. “He’s helped me correct a lot of things. I’ve been out here as long as I remember. I always wanted to try it. Bulls looked fun for me.”
Saddle bronc riding or bareback riding could have attracted him, but bulls wooed him.
“There’s more of a thrill to it, I think,” Kade said.
Zain hit a bit of a plateau during a few stages of the 2018 Cody Nite bull riding season.
“I was in a little bit of a slump,” Zain said. “I fell off a few times I definitely should have rode.”
There are many months between the end of one Cody Nite season and the start of another. Zain hit the gym hard lifting weights. He entered high school rodeos and competed in some winter events in Laurel and over Christmas break in Phoenix.
“I cleared my mind and started over,” Zain said. “I definitely gained confidence.”
While still a regular at Cody Nite Rodeo, Zain is competing at other rodeos around the region this summer too. He hopes to earn his PRCA card and eventually hit the road more often But first he is gunning to capture the Cody Nite season title first.