Before last week, no one in pro rodeo had heard of bull rider Zain Fitzgerald.
That changed when the recent Cody High School graduate became just the fifth cowboy to make a qualified ride in three years on Sharp Shooter at Prescott Frontier Days in Arizona on June 30.
“Words still can’t describe how I felt when I made the whistle,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. Making a ride on a bull that hardly ever gets ridden is one of the best feelings in the world.”
Fitzgerald was the only bull rider to make it to 8 seconds during the second performance. He had never seen Sharp Shooter before that night.
“I looked him up on pro bull stats and saw he’s only been ridden a couple times in his entire career with a 90% buck-off rate,” he said. “He’s bucked off some of the best guys going down the road.
“I was just prepared to have fun and never quit trying until my head hit the ground. And try and determination got me to the buzzer.”
Fitzgerald, 18, grew up competing at the Cody Nite Rodeo. He started coming with his grandfather Phil “Pop” Bates, the longtime calf handler at the rodeo, beginning when he was 8. He got involved in riding junior steers and eventually graduated to the big boys.
“There is nothing like it,” Fitzgerald said of bull riding. “It really gets your adrenaline up. It’s unlike any other sport in the world.”
He began his summer run in May and rode in his first pro rodeo June 13 in Eagle Mountain, Utah.
“Before Prescott I was doing okay,” he said. “It was a little back and forth trying to get my consistency up.”
Fitzgerald said he rode loose and stayed up on his rope to take the power away during his ride on Sharp Shooter.
“I knew he was gonna buck hard, but I didn’t know what he would do, so I just let my body react to his moves,” he said.
After the final day of the rodeo, which runs June 29-July 5, Fitzgerald finished tied for fifth overall.
“This is the ride that boosted my career as a professional bull rider,” he said. “It has helped a lot. Sponsors are now looking at me and people know who I am and what I am capable of.
“Before this ride I wasn’t on anyone’s radar, but after that ride it got people interested in who I was.”
After the ride Fitzgerald was even interviewed by the Cowboy Channel.
“It was fun even though my interview skills need some work,” he said. “It was super cool to see myself on the Cowboy Channel and being interviewed because that’s what I’ve always wanted. I’ve been dreaming of riding in pro rodeos and trying to earn my name. Being around some of the best guys in the world competing against them.”
During the week he also had a qualified ride at the Lander rodeo, but got bucked off at Ten Sleep and Big Fork, Mont.
“I went 2-for-4 over the week and am happy with my performances, but know what I need to work on,” he said.
Fitzgerald has more pro rodeos lined up throughout the summer and will be competing at the National High School Rodeo Finals later this month in Guthrie, Okla.
“I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me,” he said. “This is only the beginning.”