Rodeo

Jake Nelson won the Bozeman Stampede steer wrestling title last year.

Jake Nelson thought he could make it.

The steer he was chasing down at Montana State’s spring rodeo stepped in front of the hazer. Nelson went for it anyway.

He missed. Trying to climb back on his horse, he was run over.

“It was just kind of a freak deal. It was actually the first time I was in the ambulance or on the backboard,” Nelson said, “all in the same day. I honestly thought I broke my neck, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that.”

Ligaments in his neck partially tore. But it still wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

He was forced to sit out during the college season, which to him was maybe the most painful part. Then he was cleared in early June and entered a rodeo the same day.

And Nelson, who has one year left at MSU, is second in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Montana circuit steer wrestling standings with $6,517.47. He hopes to continue his success going into the Bozeman Stampede which is 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds.

He won at the rodeo last year, so the Jerome, Idaho, native sees this as his hometown rodeo now. He remembers telling his travel partner on the way back from Idaho, “You know, I’ve been looking forward to this all year.”

Last season was his first as a professional. And his victory at the Bozeman Stampede helped him make the Montana circuit finals last year.

He has focused on rodeos near Bozeman since his freshman year of college. With standout cattle and competition, Nelson believes competing in Montana forces him to improve.

He just wants to keep up.

He practices for about two hours twice a week, constantly trying to improve his horsemanship. He also tried to keep his horses in excellent condition, which he also pointed out as a reason for his success, including in the Bozeman Stampede last season.

“It’s just kind of a big deal. I was excited for it, and it paid off,” Nelson said. “It just all worked out in my favor last year.”

Then he was injured during the MSU Spring Rodeo in early April. But even then, he never questioned if his career could continue. It just had to be put on hold.

He wore a neck brace for more than two weeks. He passed time by concentrating on school and then going to practice.

Even then, he could only watch.

“I just tried to stay as busy as I could,” Nelson said. “It was pretty painful just to be there. It got real boring after a while.”

He was restless. He practiced lightly so he would be mentally and physically ready, preparing for the very second he would be medically cleared.

An emphasis on rehabilitation and refusing to push himself led to a quick recovery. Now he’s second in his circuit and took runner-up at Helena’s Last Chance Stampede in 3.8 seconds and won $2,124 in late July.

“It feels really good after I didn’t get to do college rodeo most of the year,” Nelson said. “I’m just glad to be back doing it.”

After starting his summer off right, he hopes to continue his momentum.

“It would be nice to win it again, yeah, but you never know. There’s a lot of good guys in it,” Nelson said. “So I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and see how it turns out.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.