BILLINGS, Mont. – It was 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon when the sound of metal rattling against a concrete floor cut through the silence inside Rimrock Auto Arena.
There was still three hours before the start of Round 2 of the Stanley Performance In Action Invitational, but 2004 World Champion Mike Lee was beginning to rosin his bull rope on the metal fence inside the locker room.
Lee raced his left hand up and down his rope meticulously with his wife, Dana, looking on from a seat in the corner.
It was the second night in a row that Lee was the first rider to arrive at the arena.
The 32-year-old has made it a habit of being one of the first riders to arrive at the arena over the course of his 368 career Built Ford Tough Series events; this weekend was no different even with Lee on the cusp of making history.
Once he finished rosining his rope, Lee took a seat on the maroon folding chair and leaned back.
“I just like it when there is no one here,” Lee said before the event. “I can just chill out. I really have nothing else better to do other than sit in the hotel room. I get my food in at 12 o’clock and I come to the arena and just hang out. It is fun and relaxing when there is no one here.”
It doesn’t matter that he already has a gold buckle around his waist, or that he is one of two riders in the PBR’s 23-year history to have recorded 500 career BFTS rides.
For Lee, it has always been his passion and love for the sport of professional bull riding that has pushed him to succeed ever since he debuted on the BFTS in 2002 in Tampa, Florida.
It is that same love and desire that helped Lee join Guilherme Marchi as the only two riders with 500 qualified rides when he rode Tahonta’s Magic for 86.75 points and career ride 500 Saturday night during Round 2.
“It means a lot to get that many at this level,” Lee said. “The bulls are so good. He was a really good bull. I got in time with him and he has a lot of kick. He is up and down and stays in it. He is a great bull.
Lee, who is not a fan of being in the spotlight, then added with a smirk, “Everybody can quit talking about it now.”
Marchi – the all-time BFTS qualified rides leader (557) – pulled his fellow 500 club member’s rope before Lee nodded for the gate and then cheered him on from the top of the bucking chutes.
“He still has the fire to fight with the young guys,” Marchi said. “He has a lot heart and a lot of passion. 500 rides in your career is not easy. He deserves it. He works so hard every week and he still rides pretty good and strong. When he sits on the bull, he knows what he needs to do. There are only two buckles in the world for 500 rides. I have the first one and Mike Lee has the second. I am so proud of him.”
Lee is 500-for-1,068 (46.82 percent) in his BFTS career with 14 victories, 23 90-point rides and one gold buckle. He has posted 50 or more qualified rides three times in his career, including a career-best 54 qualified rides in 2008.
“Well, it is unbelievable really,” said PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert. “It means you have had a great career and Mike is not done by any means. There has been a lot of great bull riders in the PBR and only two of them have accomplished that. That is something special.”
Lee was born in Billings on June 11, 1983, before his family moved to Paradise, Texas, when he was 4 years old. His family later settled in Decatur, Texas, where Lee still lives to this day.
The tough-as-nails cowboy attempted his first steer at 10 years old and recorded his first professional BFTS qualified ride eight years later in that Tampa event with 83.5 points on Bubba.
Eight qualified rides later in Jacksonville, Florida, the 18-year-old bull rider conquered Johnny West for 89.5 points and his first career win.
Next, he broke the 90-point threshold for the first time with 90.5 points on Freak On a Leash during the March 2003 Fort Worth, Texas, BFTS event. Just eleven months after his first win.
A year later and Lee capped off a magical 2004 season by going 7-for-8 at the 2004 World Finals to become the first rider to win both the World Finals event title and World Championship.
Lee finished his championship season 44-for-76 with 14 Top-10 finishes, 10 Top-5 finishes and seven 90-point rides. All while overcoming a 4,500-point deficit to win the World Championship, one of the biggest comebacks in PBR history.
It took him just three years to etch his name in PBR history, and less than 12 years later he has done it once again.
“I haven’t really thought about what it means, so I don’t know,” Lee said. “I am here and this is what I do.”
What was even more remarkable about his 2004 championship season is that it came after Lee had underwent brain surgery in the spring of 2003 after splitting his head open at a rodeo attempting to ride Chili.
Lee only missed four months and made the 8-second mark on his first bull back on the BFTS with an 85-point ride on Dingo Snare in Reno, Nevada.
Lee’s perseverance and ability to stay relatively healthy in the most dangerous sport in the world is also a feat in itself. He is currently ranked eighth in the world standings and is on pace to qualify for his 15th consecutive PBR World Finals since first competing in Las Vegas his rookie year.
When factoring in minor league statistics, BlueDEF Tour numbers, and countless practice bulls he has attempted for his neighbors in Texas, Lee easily already has over 1,000 rides and 2,000 outs as a bull rider.
According to ProBullStats.com, Lee is 807-for-1,627 (49.6 percent) at all levels of competition.
Lee has been able to succeed inside the arena year after year with the talent of a World Champion and the determination of a lion, but he will forever be remembered for his passion for the sport of professional bull riding.
“It is all thanks to God that I am still here,” Lee concluded. “Just to stay and healthy and be blessed this much is something to be happy for and have joy for.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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