ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Eli Miller's career has not
been like those of his heroes. Not yet.
At 15, the youngster from Statesville, N.C., is faced with making decisions about his bull riding future.
The high school freshman recently qualified for the youth bull riding world finals in Abilene, Texas - a trip that will cost in excess of $2,000 - so he was going to have to pass on attending the bull riding school taught by J.B. Mauney and two-time World Champion Chris Shivers this weekend in Asheville.
Then the Miller family received a call from Mauney's mother, Lynne.
It seemed Linda Jackson Wells, an ardent PBR fan from Virginia and one of Mauney's biggest supporters, had wanted to attend the school and planned to pay the entry fee just to observe. After being told there was no need to pay the fee, she asked the Mauneys if they knew of any local youngsters whom she could sponsor. Eli came to mind.
"It was very nice, unexpected and not many things happen like that nowadays, it seems," said Kim Miller, Eli's mother. "We're just grateful that she gave Eli the opportunity."
J.B. Mauney (left) lends a hand as a youngster gets ready to ride last weekend. (Photo courtesy of Blue-Emu)
Eli was appreciative and thankful as his parents.
"Oh, I was happy," he said. "I asked her how she was doing, and said, 'Thank you very much' three or four times. That was a lot of money, and nothing I would have ever dreamed would happen."
Eli has been riding steers since he was 7 years old. His goal is to compete one day in the PBR.
The Millers live 30 miles from the Mauneys, and the two families see each other often.
Eli has gotten to know J.B. "pretty well" from seeing him at various amateur bull riding events, where he competes and the Mauneys haul bulls. However, last weekend was the first time he met Shivers.
"Chris is from Louisiana, he didn't have to come up here to North Carolina to do this, but he's nice enough to do it," said Eli, who gained some more confidence in advance of his finals trip Aug. 1.
"I'm going to think of them while I'm out there, and think of what they said."
A big part of this weekend's school was just getting on bulls.
With a dozen students in attendance, the intention was to give each of them the opportunity to get on several bulls, but a few of the boys hadn't been on full-sized bulls, and were apprehensive.
"I tried to give everybody a fair shot," said Eli, who got on five bulls Saturday afternoon and a couple more on Sunday morning. "I wanted to give the new kids a chance to get one, but I noticed some of them weren't going to get on, so I tried to get on as many as I could."
"This is the best that it could be for the kids, and hopefully they realize the opportunity that they have and would ask questions," added Kim, who was there with husband Randy. "This is the best time to get to ask the questions they could ever want answered on a one-on-one basis and in such a small group.
"You can only learn if you ride, so they can critique you."
It wasn't only a learning experience for Eli.
Randy was behind the chutes the entire weekend listening to what Shivers and Mauney had to say each time one of the boys nodded his head, and he even assisted Eli with pulling his rope, while Kim and Wells watched from the platform one chute away from where the boys were bucking.
Linda Jackson Wells got an inside look at chute procedure last weekend.
Wells was happy for Eli. She said it was one of the greatest
weekends she's had since discovering the PBR.
She saw firsthand how the riders get their ropes ready while the bull is in the alleyway. She also got an up-close view of how two-time Stock Contractor of the Year Jeff Robinson ties the flank rope on his bulls.
"This was just great," said Wells, who drove more than eight hours to be there, and was chosen as the Fan of the Night on Saturday during the associated Touring Pro Division event.
Wells, a cancer survivor, was the inspiration for last October's "One Jump at a Time" campaign, and she continues to inspire others.
"She knows a lot," said Kim of Well's knowledge and passion for the sport.
"To be with Chris Shivers and J.B. Mauney and the instruction that they could get, all their expertise and the information they can give Eli, I mean, it's only going to help," said Kim, "and he sees it as a great opportunity, because very few people get that opportunity."
If for any reason his bull riding career doesn't pan out as planned, Eli will consider bullfighting, or perhaps hauling bulls and patterning himself after Robinson.
For the time being, although he was one of the more experienced boys this weekend, he was very receptive to the guidance and advice he received from Shivers and Mauney.
"I know I'm going to end up being taller than both of them, so I'm just going to try and do what they told me - their style, how they ride - and try to combine them with a taller man's style and try to do that," Eli added.
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