Tyler Leamer, a 2013 Cherokee graduate, and Clay Pannell, a rising junior, qualified for the national rodeo after placing in the top four of their respective events at the Georgia finals.
Leamer competes in steer wrestling, while Pannell is a bull rider.
Having grown up around farms, Leamer has been competing in rodeos most of his life.
“I started out with calf roping, but then one of the teachers at Cherokee suggested I try steer wrestling, or bulldogging as they call it,” Leamer said.
That was less than a year ago. Despite some concerns from his parents, Leamer decided to give it a try.
“I just fell in love with it,” he said. “I actually hung up calf roping and started steer wrestling full-time. My parents just said to be careful and watch out for the steers’ horns. They would rather I do calf-roping than this, but they said to do whatever I would be best at.”
At the Georgia finals, Leamer received a $500 scholarship and finished seventh in the Georgia High School Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year standings.
Leamer hasn’t emerged unscathed from his sport.
He received a gash from his upper thigh to his knee after getting struck by a steer’s horn during a competition in Cleveland, Tenn. At another rodeo, he slid under the steer, and it stomped on his lower back, but he was able to leave the arena unassisted.
Pannell has been riding bulls for about a year-and-a-half. He said he wanted to do it since he was young, but it took some convincing to get his parents on board with the idea.
“I like the feeling of it,” he said. “There is nothing like getting on a 2,000-pound animal.”
Pannell learned how to ride bulls by going to school for it. His initial trainer was a former world champion, and in the past year, he went to another ranch to train.
“The second ranch was about having more bulls to ride,” he said. “I practice on a barrel at times, but I get on bulls for a lot of it.”
Like Leamer, he has suffered for his craft, but isn’t backing away from bulls. He has fractured his back, broken his hip and injured his ankle.
“I plan on going pro with it,” he said. “I’ve been training horses since I was 8 years old. Those were bucking and I would stay on pretty good. My mom finally just let me. I was there one day and there was a little steer and I got on it and did pretty good. I said I wanted to ride a big bull and my mom finally said it was alright.”
Leamer has participated in more traditional sports. He played baseball for eight years, played football, wrestled, did gymnastics and still serves as a cheerleader at Cherokee.
With more than 1,500 contestants from 41 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia, the national high school rodeo is the largest event of its kind in the world.
To earn a national title, a contestant must finish in the top 20 of their event, based on combined times or scores in the first two rounds to advance to the finals. The national champion is then determined based on the combined score of three rounds. Title winners are eligible to receive cash prizes, as well as scholarships.
Leamer and Pannell are both excited to going to nationals.
Leamer, who moved from Waleska to Cartersville after graduation, said he is particularly happy since he has been participating in steer wrestling for such a short time.
“You just give it all you’ve got,” he said. “Wrestling a 450-pound to 650-pound animal is pretty intimidating.”
Leamer, who is 6-foot-4, but a lean 175 pounds, said the key to being successful is having a good technique.
To bring a steer to the ground, he starts out on a horse. He then rides alongside left side of the steer and essentially drops onto animal, wrapping his arms around its horns. By twisting the steer’s horns, Leamer is able to bring it down.
Leamer didn’t learn the technique through trial and error. He was taught by a friend, Stanley Knowles, who has a practice dummy.
“He pulls that around by a four-wheeler and I slide around on it and get my strategy down,” Leamer said. “He goes to rodeos with me and gets me ready and everything. If I do something wrong, he tells me about it and then we work on it.”
Leamer plans to go to college in the fall, but he will keep up with rodeo competitions.
“I’m going to keep rodeoing,” he said. “I’m going to do it as long as I can.”
Pannell has similar plans. He has already participated in his first Professional Bull Riders event.
“It was really hard,” he said. “I got bucked off, but I know that I will be back there next year.”
Pannell and Leamer usually travel to rodeos together, like they will be the national finals.
“It’s nice to know I have his back and he has mine,” Leamer said.