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Comeback was unlikely, but Utah bullrider going to national finals

Published December 5, 2012 11:01 pm

Rodeo • Tag Elliott heads to NFR ranked 15th on the money list.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Las Vegas • Even if Tag Elliott doesn't earn one penny at the $6.1 million Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, he's already completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in bull-riding history.

The NFR starts Thursday night and runs through Dec. 15 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Elliott, who is from Thatcher, Utah, nearly died after a horrific head-to-horn collision during the 2007 Days of '47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City.

Every bone in the right side of his face was broken, including his jaw and eye socket. Most of his teeth were knocked out. An artery was severed. He immediately underwent 10 hours of surgery. Procedures related to his injuries are ongoing.

Elliott was sidelined for 20 months, but he resumed competing on a limited basis in 2009.

This season, Elliott finished 15th on the money list with $63,912 — just enough to earn him the final berth among bull riders for the Super Bowl of his sport.

"It's exciting," Elliott said. "The National Finals are one of the lifelong goals you have, and it feels especially good to accomplish it. … My parents and everybody seem pretty tickled I get to go."

Tickled?

"I just can't — I don't even know if I can put it into words," said Mitzi Elliott, his mother. "We are just so excited for him. Dreams don't come true very often, and he's had this dream since he was little."

She paused, clearly trying to hold back a flood of emotion that has been building since her son's near-fatal accident.

"I felt like he got cheated from making it five years ago," Mitzi Elliott said. "But now he has, and we're just on Cloud 9 around here — just floating around."

The top 15 money-winners in each event qualify for the National Finals, and Elliott didn't clinch his spot until the final days of the season.

He took a giant step in early September after earning $3,637 at the Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo and another $3,090 at the Ellensburg Xtreme Bulls event.

"That's when you could kind of see I had a good chance," Elliott said. "But I was still trying to take them one at a time, you know, and not get ahead of myself."

An end-of-the-season audit by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association confirmed Elliott placed 15th in the world standings. He finished $2,143 ahead of Corey Maier of Timber Lake, S.D.

"We kind of thought he had done it, but it wasn't official until the PRCA posted it," Mitzi Elliott said. "That night, I just sat here — all by myself — and cried. That's all I did. Just cried."

Perhaps because she remembered the night her son was injured so severely and barely survived. Or all his days in intensive care. Or all the trips back to the hospital.

"He's overcome a lot, I think," Mitzi Elliott said. "As far as he's concerned, it's just life. But he's an inspiration to me. I don't know if I would have persevered like he did. I probably would have said, 'Ah, I don't want to do this any more.' But he never quits. Not in anything."

Tag Elliott has received hundreds of calls from other PRCA members, who wanted to congratulate him on reaching the National Finals.

"Those guys are all your buddies," he said. "They're pretty happy for me, and that makes you feel good. It's pretty humbling, really, to know other people want you to do well."

Thinking ahead to the first National Finals bull ride of his life, Elliott said, "It's going to be, I don't know, just very exciting. I know I'll have a hard time staying calm and relaxed. … It will be pretty cool."

No matter what happens, however, Tag Elliott's biggest fan knows he has already won his most difficult battle.

"Whatever he does down in Las Vegas," his mother said, "is icing on the cake for me." Caleb Bennett

Event • Bareback

Residence • Morgan

2012 ranking • 9th ($73,218)

Previous NFR appearances • 0

Career highlights • Finished 17th in the world as a rookie in 2008. … No better than 30th during the next three seasons. … Won this year at Santa Maria (Calif.), Cedar City, Vernal, Logan and Salt Lake City (Days of '47 Rodeo). … National high school champion in 2007.

Tag Elliott

Event • Bull riding

Residence • Thatcher

2012 ranking • 15th ($63,912)

Previous NFR appearances • 0

Career highlights • Missed second pro season because of injuries (2008). … Finished 28th in the world in 2010. … Won this year at Spanish Fork and Loveland (Colo.). … Won Extreme Bulls Division 2 at Austin (Texas) and Pocatello. … State H.S. champion in 2006.

Kaycee Feild

Event • Bareback

Residence • Payson

2012 ranking • 1st ($141,639)

Previous NFR appearances • 4

Career highlights • Defending world champion. … Won six rounds and $179,327 at the 2011 NFR. … Biggest wins this season at Caldwell (Idaho), Reno, Fort Worth, and the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha. … Won the College National Finals in 2008.

Tom Lewis

Event • Steer wrestling

Residence • Lehi

2012 ranking • 14th ($48,014)

Previous NFR appearances • 0

Career highlights • Wilderness Circuit champion in 2009 and 2011. … Finished 41st in the world last season. … Scored wins this year at Salinas (Calif.), Hayward (Calif.) and Cedar City. … Former Utah state high school qualifier in steer wrestling, team roping and tie-down roping.

Clint Robinson

Event • Tie-down roping

Residence • Spanish Fork

2012 ranking • 5th ($94,934)

Previous NFR appearances • 3

Career highlights • Also accomplished in steer wrestling. … Placed in five rounds in the 2009 National Finals, ending up fourth in the world. … Finished seventh in 2006 and 10th in 2008. … All-Around Rookie of the Year in 2003. … Biggest win this year at San Juan Capistrano (Calif.)

Kelli Tolbert

Event • Barrel racing

Residence • Hooper

2012 ranking • 11th ($63,681)

Previous NFR appearances • 1

Career highlights • Qualified for her second National Finals Rodeo in the last three years. … Wilderness Circuit Rookie of the Year in 2009. … Won the second round and placed in five others at the 2010 National Finals, when she finished seventh in the world with earnings of $132,240.

Cody Wright

Event • Saddle bronc

Residence • Milford

2012 ranking • 5th ($82,339)

Previous NFR appearances • 9

Career Highlights • World champion in 2008 and 2010. … Captured one round and placed in five others at the 2011 National Finals to end up fourth in the world. … Five other top-six finishes, going back to 2003. … Won his year at Lewiston (Idaho), Prescott (Ariz.) and Odessa.

Jake Wright

Event • Saddle bronc

Residence • Milford

2012 ranking • 8th ($74,583)

Previous NFR appearances • 0

Career Highlights • Finished 16th in the world last year. … Missed qualifying for the National Finals by $85. … Secured first NFR berth this season by winning at Redding (Calif.), Window Rock (Ariz.), Loveland (Colo.), Evanston (Wyo.), and Casper. … National high school champion in 2007.

Jesse Wright

Event • Saddle bronc

Residence • Milford

2012 ranking • 1st ($133,098)

Previous NFR appearances • 2

Career highlights • Rookie of the Year in 2009, when he finished 19th in the world standings. … Fifth in the world in 2010. … Second last year after winning four rounds and earning $241,274 at the National Finals Rodeo. … Won this year at Clovis (N.M.), Ellensburg (Wash.) and Omaha. —

National Final Rodeo

P When • Thursday through Dec. 15

Where • Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas