Johnson: Rebuilt and recovered from multiple injuries, Lee Graves eager to impress at the CFR
Veteran Calgary steer wrestler competing with a chip on his shoulder after 2013 Calgary Stampede snub
Why, Lee Graves feels absolutely peachy, thanks very much for asking.
That’s a welcome feeling. An exhilarating feeling. And a rare feeling. What with breaks, tears, lacerations, bruises, bumps, cracks, ruptures, nicks, snaps, dents, pulls, traumas, cuts, hyper-extensions, rips, gouges and scrapes all being part and parcel of the cowboy way of life.
“Health-wise,” reports the two-time world steer-wrestling champion who lists Calgary as home, “I’ve been working my tail off trying to get ready for Edmonton as far as physical fitness goes, but I kinda got slowed by a torn MCL in my left knee. That set me back.
“I was bouncing around from 14th to 18th, right in the heat of the game, going good, and just landed funny on the knee.
“I didn’t know how bad I’d hurt it, so I kept rodeoing.
“I’ve been rehabbing that and just now been able to start runnin’ some steers. The last week here, practicin’, I’ve started to feel like I could be competitive again. It feels good.
“I’m not all beat up. That’s a good feeling to have when you’re used to feeling crippled and limping. Pretty good when you can get out of the bed in the morning and not be sore.”
The Canadian Finals Rodeo explodes out of the chutes Friday up north a piece at Rexall Place and the five-time national champion is itching to get back in the saddle and bulldog.
Because even by the achy-breaky standards of his profession, these last couple years Lee Graves has run smack-dab, headlong into a streak of rotten luck.
Fourteen months ago, he underwent stem-cell surgery in the Cayman Islands on a damaged ankle and suffered multiple fractures in his left shoulder in, of all things, a dirt-bike accident. The rehabbing was slow. In February, at the Dixie Rodeo in Jackson, Miss., things picked up. He cashed a $3,177 cheque, his first in a year and a half. Followed that up with a couple of wins in Stavely and Leduc, ending a two-year drought and shifting him up as high as second in the Canadian Pro Rodeo Association rankings.
Then he rips up the knee in August in Colorado.
Not that. At 42, with 18 years on the often-bumpy rodeo road, naturally those aches and pains, the frustration of each succeeding injury and rehab, weighs a little more heavily, gnaws a little deeper.
“I must,” he sighs resignedly, “be hard-headed or something. I’m not an old person, by any means, but I have been doin’ this a while. It’d be so easy to throw the towel in, say ‘I’m done.’ But I’ve always felt if there’s a problem, you fix the problem. You don’t feel sorry for yourself. When I do leave, I want it to be on my terms, not because some injury dictates that I do.
“I’ll know the time to quit. It might be . . . whenever.
“Yeah, it’s tough when you’re hurt or things aren’t going good. In rodeo, nothing ever gets handed to you. The miles down the road, the time you put into practising . . . No one gets a layup, no one gets the extra birdie.
“That’s the double-edged sword in this game: Whatever you win is yours but at the end of the day you’re obliged to earn it because there’s no one around to say ‘Oh, s---, sorry, you had a bad year. Here’s $25,000 because you could use it.’ Doesn’t matter who you are, how many rodeos or World titles you’ve won, they always cut the cheques the same way.”
With the CFR here upon us, already Graves has an eye half-cocked towards next summer, and the World’s Greatest Outdoor Show, 2014 edition. It’ll be a homecoming, of sorts. He was forced to miss the 2012 Stampede due to an appendectomy and this injury-savaged year didn’t even receive an invite, a slight that couldn’t help but rankle the 2010 winner of $100,000 down at the Grounds.
“Ah, we could write a whole book on Calgary, this and that, how great rodeo it is, how it seems like you’ve got to be more of an American to get into Calgary than a Canadian . . . an all-the-above type deal. Put that all aside, this week is my chance to go to the Canadian finals and have some success up there, put myself in a position where I won’t have to worry about anything (in regards to the Stampede). I’ll just qualify for the SOB, I’ll go back and I’ll do good there.
“It is kinda my hometown rodeo and I’ve always enjoyed Calgary. At the end of the day, (the lack of an invite) bothered me, but I can’t change it. You gotta go past that and map your own route.”
That route has been kept fresh, the possibilities of success wide open, by Graves’ marvellous 18-year-old, four-legged collaborator, Jesse.
“If I didn’t have the horse I do,” he concedes, “I would probably have packed it in a long time ago. That horse keeps me in the game. I’ve worked all my life to have a horse like this. Maybe I got him now at the end of the my career, not in the middle of my career, but at least I got him. I’ve won a world title on him. Enjoyed a lot of success. So I’m just kinda riding it out, saying ‘I’m just going to have some fun with this.’
“That’s the key to the whole situation.”
The immediate situation this weekend is one Lee Graves is intimately familiar with. Big rodeo. Big prestige. Big ramifications. Lots on the line.
The knee, he says, feels good; he’s healthy, in the pink, and ready to break that barrier in style. As with all the great ones, the years may fall away, but the appetite to excel, to achieve, remains, undiminished.
“Edmonton’s coming up,” he says. “I want to go up there and perform. People say ‘Yeah, but you’ve done everything.’ And I say, sure I’ve been successful and I’ve been lucky to be successful, but at the same time I want to stay competitive, I want put all I’ve got into it and see what happens.
“Because at the end of the day, that’s what pays the bills.
“Because at the end of the day rodeoing is what I do. It’s what I love. If I had to stop tomorrow, straight up and down, I’ve had a great career, I’d be proud of what I’ve accomplished.
“But there are still certain things out there that I want to get done. And like I said, I must be hard-headed or something.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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