From Iowa cowboy to rodeo-winning millionaire, bronc rider Sundell has had a long, hard ride.
Wade Sundell came storming out of the tiny town of Boxholm, Iowa, on his quest to ride the world’s most explosive bucking horses in 2007. Before that, nobody outside of Iowa ever really associated the state with world-class cowboys.
The emerald green agricultural jewel has impossibly lush grass and cattle that are so squarely built and butterball fat that farm kids don’t even think about trying to tip them over on hot, humid summer nights when they’ve been into the beer. Peaches & Cream sweet corn grows as tall as Jack’s beanstalk from the rich, black soil and is sold on parking lots from the mounded beds of pickup trucks to local connoisseurs who judge each ear with the practiced eye of patrons of the art. An artist painting Iowa Americana wouldn’t be moved to include cowboys.
That might have changed last Sunday at RFD-TV’s The American Presented by Polaris Ranger when two joyful cowboys stood on the winner’s podium in the heart of AT&T Stadium. One of the world’s best bucking horse men, Dave Morehead of Three Hills Rodeo Company, and Sundell, the wild, bearded bronc rider with the contagious grin who had just become an instant millionaire in a single 8-second ride. Both Iowans bursting with pride after years of dedication to excellence in rodeo athleticism from a state that isn’t automatically granted respect by the rest of the rodeo community in spite of a strong, honorable history in the game.
Wade’s father, Doug, had a passion and a lot of success riding high-flying bucking horses. The family was either on the rodeo trail or submerged in Wade and his brother, Jesse’s high school wrestling careers. Wade qualified for the state championships once in the 112-pound division and twice at 119 pounds. Fit as a fiddle and rail thin now, he rides broncs at 155 pounds and is relieved he’ll never have to cut weight again.
In 2007, Wade Sundell bought his PRCA permit and tested the waters by going to 15 rodeos that were pretty close to home. The next year, he took his talent on the road, and by 2009, he was on his way to the Big Show in Las Vegas. In nine years in the pros, he’s won almost every major rodeo, been to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seven times, and has earned around $1.5 million.
The road is hard and expensive. Unlike other professional athletes, all expenses are borne by the contestant with no guarantees of a return. They gamble with their lives on every ride and pray that Lady Luck throws in with them. An average year’s mileage on Sundell’s 31-year-old (recently overhauled for back issues) body is around 85,000. Travel expenses eat the lion’s share of winnings, but at the end of the day, money isn’t why they do what they do. For bronc riders, it’s not just the challenge of riding the professional athletes who live to bend to no man’s will. It’s also an answer to an ancient call of the wild that’s impossible to deny.
Two great horses carried Sundell to the biggest paycheck in the long history of bronc riding. Lady Luck was with him from the start at The American when he drew the great Canadian bucking horse, Stampede Warrior. The two had tangoed the year before for the win that made Sundell two for two at rodeo’s newest and most lucrative event. This year, the plot thickened as another million dollars was offered to the only three contestants who had swept their events in the two-year history of the rodeo.
The horse who put him through to the champion’s round in 2015 didn’t fail him.
“If I got to pick a horse I wanted in the championship round, it would have been Maple Leaf,” Sundell said of the Texas-born champion bucking horse. Lady Luck was firmly locked on Sundell’s arm when Maple Leaf officially became his contest mount and stayed there through the barrel racing and tie-down roping while the other two Triple Crown contestants came up just short of wins.
Bronc riding history was made with Sundell’s 90.75-point ride that, in typical Wade Sundell style, risked it all with every move. He doesn’t know how to safety up in life or on the back of a bucking horse, no matter what’s at stake.
With eyes still wide with shock as the reality of his $1.1 million-dollar win sank in, he was asked at the follow-up press conference what he would say to young people who were bound to be inspired to follow in the footprints of his well-worn riding boots.
“I’d tell them there are going to be big bumps in the road and hard times ahead, but not to focus on them. Keep gassing it, keep giving it everything you’ve got. Never back up!”
Later, his family and friends gathered and celebrated into the night. There was beer and wrestling matches and smiles so wide that faces were sore for days. The cowboys of Iowa and his rabid, international fans rejoiced. The bearded, happy-go-lucky cowboy with abnormally large adrenaline jets was in Dallas, buying rounds for the house with an ear cocked to the faint, but steady drum of feathered hooves the size of dinner plates that reverberate across his soul.