On an April evening in Stephenville, Richmond Champion was scheduled to compete in bareback bronc riding at the Tarleton State Rodeo.
It was about six weeks after the Tarleton junior agriculture major had earned the $1.1 million bareback riding title at the RFD-TV’s The American at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Though he had become an instant millionaire, Champion had the look of a typical college student who was yet to enter the workforce.
On that Thursday night, Champion sat in his truck for an hour before the rodeo and took an online business test. After completing his schoolwork, he strapped on his spurs and made a prize-winning bronc ride. Afterward, he hung out with friends.
Champion, 21, is the first cowboy to earn $1 million in a pro rodeo in one day. He accomplished the feat on March 2 at The American, which offered the field competitors $2 million, the largest payout ever at a single performance rodeo.
“I never expected that I’d be in this position ever,” Champion said. “The biggest thing that’s happened is trying to get things to remain normal.”
Champion’s family and friends say he’s worked hard to make sure his success does not change his personality. After winning The American, Champion completed his junior year in college and helped Tarleton finish second in the men’s team title race at last month’s College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo.
He’s also stayed keenly focused on pursuing his goal to earn his first berth to the December Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. In order to qualify, he must finish in the top 15 in bareback riding when the regular season for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association concludes on Sept. 30.
Champion is ranked fourth in the PRCA’s world title race going into the bustling July 4 weekend, which is called Cowboy Christmas because of the abundance of lucrative rodeos in cities ranging from Greeley, Colo., to Prescott, Ariz., to St. Paul, Ore., to Calgary, Alberta.
Champion plans to travel during the Independence Day week in a state-of-the-art, 24-foot Mercedes RV rig that’s equipped with three beds and television. The vehicle is among a small number of purchases he’s made since winning the seven-figure paycheck four months ago.
“There’s nothing else that I want to do more than rodeo and ride bucking horses, and now I get to do it more comfortably,” said Champion, who put aside an older van.
Focused on rodeo
Champion said he’s barely touched the money from his $1.1 million payoff. In addition to purchasing the RV, the only other notable item he’s bought is a rifle, he said.
Champion mainly has entrusted his father, Greg, who is a hotel management executive from The Woodlands, to find ways to invest the money.
“The balance of the money, there’s a pretty hefty tax bill that goes with that,” Greg Champion said. “So, I have worked with lawyers and tax accountants, on what you would normally do in an estate planning. It just happens that the kid is 21, instead of 41, when people normally start working on this type of stuff.”
Greg Champion said he meets with his son about once a month and they determine how money will be spent.
“It’s like he has the money, but he doesn’t really have it,” said Champion’s mother, Lori. “We told him to go have fun and spend a little money, and so he bought a fancy rifle and all the gadgets that go with it. He’s very smart, but he’s still a kid that’s in school and he has his friends.”
Lori Champion said her son has handled success well.
“He’s hard-working, laid-back, and he loves to have fun,” she said. “He’s also a really good friend.”
Champion’s main goal is qualifying for his first National Finals. He said he is unsure whether he will return to school this fall because he still might be in the process of attempting to qualify for the National Finals.
“I’d hate to be the guy who won The American and didn’t make the NFR,” Champion said.
Champion has earned $43,000 and he will probably need to collect an additional $25,000 over the next three months to receive a coveted NFR back number.
Though he’s wealthy, rodeo is Champion’s main passion, said Bill Tutor, a standout bareback rider who travels with Champion.
“Even though he’s a millionaire, all he’s worried about is rodeoing,” Tutor said. “It’s all about competing at the highest level and being the best. So, the whole money deal hasn’t changed him one bit. He’s still Richie.”
When Champion showed up to ride in The American, he was a college rodeo standout who was beginning to make notable strides on the PRCA Professional national circuit. Champion was the leading bareback rider in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Southwest Region, a power conference.
He also was ranked in the top five on the PRCA circuit after finishing in the money at the major winter rodeos, including the Fort Worth Stock Show.
But unlike the majority of the competitors at The American, who earned a berth by finishing in the top 10 in a single event on the PRCA circuit in 2013, Champion had to earn a berth through a qualifier system after finishing 25th in last year’s PRCA bareback riding title race. The American featured five riders in each event who came in through the farm system.
The American organizers designated a $1 million “side pot” for athletes who came in through the qualifier system. But in order to win the big money, the lower profile competitor had to win a single event against the name riders.
After the last chute gate was closed at The American, Champion was the only qualifier-system competitor who won a single event title, which meant he collected the entire $1 million, plus a $100,000 check that went to every single event winner.
“When I went in there, I went in there to win, but I never thought about the $1 million until the last barrel racer [who also was eligible to win part of the $1 million] had competed,” Champion said. “When they told me it was all over and I had won the $1 million, I didn’t know what to think. It took me a couple of months to realize what had really happened.”
When the bareback riding title was at stake in the final round, Champion faced a high-profile bronc named Assault, who is owned by Neal and Jim Gay of Terrell. Champion had been humiliated by the bronc at the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo in January when Assault bucked him off a second before the 8-second buzzer and then kicked him in the rear, which caused his chaps to come unbuckled.
“I was standing there in the middle of the arena with my chaps around my ankles and it just embarrassed me,” Champion said.
But a month later at The American, Champion got the upper hand against Assault. He turned in a score of 90 after rhythmically spurring the National Finals bronc in dramatic fashion.
Natural bronc buster
Champion began his rodeo career as a bull rider when he was 13. He found his niche when he began competing in bareback riding at 17, during the summer between his junior and senior years in high school.
“It seems like ever since I’ve put my hand in a bareback rigging, I’ve been blessed beyond belief,” Champion said.
In 2011, Champion clinched the Texas High School Rodeo Association bareback title during his senior year at The Woodlands High School. That helped him earn a scholarship at Tarleton, where he has been on the rodeo team for the past three years.
“If I won $1 million, I don’t know if I would call my college coach,” Tarleton rodeo coach Mark Eakin said with a laugh. “We have helped him get an education and then he comes back after winning a lot of money, and honors us and stays hooked with us by finishing out the year. His commitment to us is like his commitment to riding bareback horses. He’s going to be the best, and he’s not going to let his guard down.”
Champion joined the PRCA in 2011 and won mainly smaller rodeos during his first three years on the circuit. He said his career moved to a higher level after he traveled with Kaycee Feild and observed the three-time bareback riding world champion’s winning mentality at the end of the 2013 season. Champion ended 2013 by winning the Labor Day weekend Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo.
In 2014, he tied for first at the National Western Stock Show Rodeo in Denver, the first major winter rodeo of the year. He also placed in major rodeos in Fort Worth and San Antonio.
After winning The American, Champion, a professing Christian who said his faith contributes to his success, continued to place in the spring rodeos and stayed on pace to qualify for the National Finals.
“I will stick with my job and hopefully the blessings will keep coming,” Champion said. “As long as I’ve been riding bucking horses, I’ve never had too many worries.”