Huge crowds gather again for Cleveland Rodeo

Published 12:20 am Monday, June 15, 2015

By David Freeze

For the Salisbury Post

Best friends Caroline Waller from Salisbury and Jennifer Stevens from Archdale wouldn’t miss the Cleveland Rodeo each summer.

Waller and Stevens attended high school and college together. Waller said, “We come every year because the rodeo is a lot of fun and we enjoy coming out to see people. They pack it out here. Just look around, the stands are full, so we learned last year to bring our own chairs.”

Stevens, a veterinarian who also owns horses, said, “It is just a great way to spend a summer Saturday night.”

On a night when the opening prayer includes a request that the animals buck and perform to the best of their abilities, many were relegated to standing to see the show. And quite a show it was.

Matt Smith, a bucking horse rider originally from Louisiana and now from Boiling Springs, S.C., is a veteran rodeo performer who rose to 24th in the world two years ago. He competes in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or PRCA after riding calves and steers at 3 years of age. Smith lives the rodeo life, competing in about 100 events a year. On Friday night, Smith had competed in Chesapeake, Va., before heading for Cleveland for the Saturday rodeo. Currently, he is recovering from a split pelvis and hoping to get back on track for national competition.

On this night, Smith hoped to do well but realized that his bucking horse would be a big part of his success. He said, “It is a two-day deal. The best scores are compiled over the two nights of the rodeo. The horse had better be good is all I can say.” Smith did ride well, receiving a 76 point score on his ride.

Cowboys and cowgirls who competed on Friday night already had scores, and a new group was on hand for Saturday evening trying to top those earlier scores. Many had moved on to other rodeos, leaving their scores for others to try to beat. Contestants came from as far away as West Virginia and Tennessee.

Organizers of the rodeo are Sharon and Alan Livengood. They own the 5L Rodeo Company that provides stock for the Cleveland Rodeo. The Livengoods live on the property and are veteran competitors themselves. Referred to as the “boss lady” by the rodeo announcer, Sharon Livengood has plenty to keep up with before, during and after the rodeo each night.

“Our contestants list is outstanding. The quality of the rodeo gets better each year. This year, we have the best of the best,” said Livengood.

She added, “But we couldn’t do it without the community support. Our neighbors look forward to this weekend and our sponsors are amazing. One of the best things is that many of the competitors are from this area. Three world champions live here in Rowan.”

One of those competitors was Taylor Earnhardt, daughter of the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt and sister of current driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt, from nearby Davidson, said, “I will compete in about 70 rodeos this year. I do barrel racing and breakaway roping. We have one stretch coming up when I will compete in 20 rodeos in 25 days. All of this fuels my own need for competition.” Earnhardt added that she doesn’t see Dale Jr. much during the summer, “He’s off racing while I’m at the rodeos.”

Not everyone in the Cleveland Rodeo arena was competing. Jake Willcox was the rodeo clown and often the center of attention while the next events were being set up. Willcox is 28 years old and from the Athens, Ga., area. He plans to work about 45 rodeos this year.

While preparing for his performance, Willcox said, “I grew up doing team roping, but later got into junior bull riding and clowning. I came out of the University of Georgia during the recession and there were not many jobs. My mom is really proud that I wear makeup and spandex on weekends even though I have two degrees.”

Willcox, referred to as the “Phenom of Funny” by the rodeo announcer, looks forward to next weekend when he will perform near home at Marietta, Ga.

He loves the rodeo life and said, “It is like a big family out here. I love the sport too and I get to make people happy. There is nothing like this in the world. Rodeo is family oriented and Christian based. Honestly, it is stupid that they pay me to do this. I make a good living and get to do what makes me happy.” Willcox stole the show by riding his own trained Brahma bull and jumping through fire. His wife, a school teacher, has joined him for the summer on the rodeo circuit. She competes in breakaway roping.

“Rodeo is a family event,” said Cindy Thackston of Belmont, N.C. She brought her 11-year-old daughter, Claudia Baucom, and her five-year-old granddaughter, Peyton Greene, to the Cleveland Rodeo. Thackston said, “This is our first rodeo. My daughter has always loved horses. We hope to have one soon. I am a little afraid of them but Claudia is not. I am glad that this is a Christian event too.” Baucom said her favorite parts of the rodeo were the trick riders and the bucking horses.

This was the fifth annual edition of the Cleveland Rodeo. The stands were packed throughout both evenings, prompting Sharon Livengood to say, “We will definitely have more seats available next year!