By Shelley Grieshop
T.J. Hibner used to tackle classmates on the football field before choosing a new sport and a much bigger opponent -- one weighing about 2,000 pounds.
But, believe it or not, the big, black bulls he faces in the rodeo arena don't intimidate this 15-year-old who's been riding the mammoth creatures for five years now.
"I know most of the bulls by name and number," says the soft-spoken Hibner, a sophomore at Wapakoneta High School.
Hibner says he used to play football, basketball and baseball like most of his classmates.
"And then he got smart," adds friend and fellow bullrider Jared Tucker of Mount Gilead. The boys joined more than 60 area high school teens from all over Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan this weekend for the Ohio High School Rodeo competition at the Mercer County Fairgrounds. The group also includes members from Mercer County, although none participated in the weekend events.
This is the ninth time the contest has been held in Mercer County.
The youths, without hesitation, rode bulls, roped calves, wrestled steers, tied goats as well as several other down and dirty activities to earn points during the two-day qualifying competition. The top scorers will head to Millersburg for the state finals in two weeks. The top four there will advance to the national competition in Wyoming in July.
"These are special kids," says Amy McQuillan of M&M Rodeo Co., who operates the Mack Arena along state Route 29 near the Indiana border. Many of the area rodeo participants began training at the Mack.
Like any school sport, the boys and girls must make the academic grade to get their chance in the saddle or atop a bull.
"The kids have to turn in their grade cards each quarter," explains McQuillan, adding that many of the teenagers receive hefty college scholarships through the rodeo association when they become seniors.
The rodeo season actually runs from fall to spring with state and national competition keeping the students busy throughout the summer, she adds.
The cowboys and cowgirls are a special breed, donning shiny belt buckles on their blue jeans and long-sleeve button-down western shirts in the sweltering heat Saturday afternoon.
Unlike most high school sports, the equipment for rodeo competition, such as their horses, saddles and ropes, is supplied by each teenager. They also must purchase annual memberships in the Ohio High School Rodeo Association at a cost of more than $100.
Most of the boys and girls who spoke to The Daily Standard have part-time jobs to help defray the costs of their extreme sport.
Hibner's father says each child easily has about $1,500 wrapped up in equipment alone.
"This isn't like any other sport out there," says Tom Hibner, an employee with the city of Wapakoneta.
T.J. Hibner, who also competed in the bareback riding competition, says the first time he rode a bull he felt an adrenalin rush that became habit-forming.
"It's something you can't explain and at the same time can't get enough of," he says with a grin, adding he's gotten his share of bruises and bumps over the years.
Curt Rhoades, the stepfather of bullrider Ryan Gaskill, a senior at Lima Senior High School, enjoys watching the rodeos despite the overwhelming fear that someone could get hurt seriously. He sees the close-knit ties that develop between the ropers and riders and supports his son all the way.
"There's a lot worse things he could be doing than rodeo," he adds.