Many little boys dream big – to play professional baseball, run for president or hunt grizzly bears in Alaska. For Derek Kolbaba riding bulls for a living was all he ever wanted to do.
The son of a bull rider and great grandson of Harley Tucker, stock contractor and founder of the Chief Joseph Day Rodeo, Kolbaba had the rodeo influence in his life from a young age and the support he needed to make his dream a reality.
“As a kid, being at rodeos riding horses, I always wanted to be a professional bull rider. Dad was a bull rider in the 90s. He helped me learn the basics of bull riding fundamentals,” Kolbaba said.
Whether learning fundamentals on a barrel or riding calves provided by his grandparents, Kolbaba said he had a lot of opportunity to hone his sport and compete in junior rodeos. He and his cousins even convinced their grandfather Dave Turner to build them some bucking chutes.
Kolbaba said, “Back when I first started and was kinda getting really into it I kept bugging him to build a bucking chute and get some stock. Before long he had one built. Even though he had worked all day in construction, we’d buck steers. It was dang sure nice having all that. He always did what he could to help us.”
Driving across the Oregon desert Kolbaba reflected on his road to professional bull riding from those early days riding steers in his grandparents’ arena.
“There were a lot of steps to getting to be a professional – a lot of bumps and bruises and figuring it all out,” Kolbaba said. “Now here I am now getting to live the dream and make a living at it.”
Part of that dream is driving himself to rodeos all over the West in a Dodge pickup, part of his sponsorship package. In a week’s time he rode in Prineville, drove east 900 miles to Red Lodge, Mont. then on to North Dakota, back to West Jordan, Utah then on to Eugene and St. Paul.
Before hitting the PRCA circuit Kolbaba qualified to represent the U.S. at the Global Cup held in Sydney, Australia.
Kolbaba said, “It was pretty cool – a heck of an experience. I never thought I’d go to Australia and ride bulls.”
Six cowboys from five countries, U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, competed as teams.
Kolbaba said, “The cool thing about the event is usually bull riding is about you, so it was kind of special to have that team camaraderie. Every time a USA rider was going, we were right there.”
Even though bull riding is an individual sport, Kolbaba said it’s really man versus beast and the cowboys are used to supporting each other.
“That’s a cool thing about the sport that a lot of people don’t realize – at the end of the day our match up is against the bull. If you are worried about how everyone else is going to do you aren’t going to do very well. It’s a judged sport so the only thing you have control is riding your bull,” Kolbaba said.
Bull riding is a young man’s sport, but at 22 Kolbaba is a bit of a veteran having ridden competitively since he was 15. Last November he was ranked first going into the PBR national finals, but didn’t show as well as he expected and came out second at the end. Two months later he was dealt another tough blow – torn ligaments in one knee.
Kolbaba said, “A bull stepped on me in Little Rock Arkansas and I guess I put my foot where he wanted to put his so it tore my ACL.”
For the time being Kolbaba said he put off having surgery and going through a six-month recovery. Instead, he said he did physical therapy for a couple months to rehabilitate his knee and had to learn how to ride with a brace.
“It took a little bit to get some confidence back in my knee and ride with a brace – but now I am riding like I know how and like I should,” Kolbaba said.
At just 5’9, 140 pounds Kolbaba doesn’t have a classic bull rider body type, but in bull riding he said it’s all about the headspace.
Kolbaba said, “One thing about bull riding, its 90 percent is in your head. You can talk yourself into it or out of it. Some guys stay really focused to get their motor running while other guys are always joking around. I do a little better when I joke around and stay calm, cool and collected because once you sit down on the back of a bull and start bumping everything just clicks.”
If the sport is 90 percent mental, it’s close to 100 percent unpredictable.
Kolbaba said, “ Nobody’s mastered it or there would be a guy who rides every one they get on. Sometimes you are on, and sometimes, like the next day, you could get thrown off a milk cow. You don’t want it to happen at world finals where you want everything to go right, but you always got to keep striving and not let a streak of bad ones get you, because in bull riding, and rodeo in general, the next ride can start your winning streak. “You have to have the mental ability to get back on when you’ve been bucked off five times in a row or gone for a month and damn near broke. You got to put all that behind you to keep going forward and get the next one rode. If there is any doubt in your mind the bull will get the best of you, but you have to ride whatever they run underneath of you.”
Kolbaba played football growing up, but said getting on the back of an 1,800 pound bull for a living is different than other sports because – of the 1,800 pound bull.
“It’s not exactly the same thing every time,” Kolbaba said. “You can draw a bull that spins to the left every time, get on him, and he jumps out there and goes to the right. They tell you to ride jump for jump – make the bull make the move then you make your move to counter it. It’s a dance and he is damn sure leading.”
Written by Katy Nesbitt
For Chief Joseph Days Rodeo Program (2018)
Top featured picture: Derek Kolbaba, a great-grandson of late Harley Tucker, at the 2017 Chief Joseph Days Rodeo