FORT SMITH -- It's only appropriate that an old western town made famous by a judge who hanged more criminals than anybody in history on gallows that still stand as part of a museum tour continues to celebrate a rodeo steeped in 90 years of tradition.
A total of 640 riders, ropers and wranglers competed over six days for $170,000 of prize money at the Old Fort Days Rodeo in Harper Stadium at Kay Rodgers Park that concluded on Saturday night and began on Memorial Day with a parade along Garrison Avenue.
Cody Teel, a former world champion bull rider from Kountze, Texas, made his stop on Wednesday night.
"It's always a good rodeo," Teel said. "There's always a great crowd. It's a good one this time of the year to go to for sure. It's a great atmosphere. They're into rodeo; they know rodeo. It means a lot. We feed off that, that good energy."
It was the first time in six years for Teel to be in Fort Smith, but the Old Fort Days Rodeo was a regular stop for him at one point.
"I've been here several times," Teel said. "It's been six years or so since I've been here, but I was here a regular stretch from 2011 to 2016. I like it."
On Wednesday, Teel's 81 was the best of the night.
"It wasn't that great," Teel said. "It felt good to get a ride. It wasn't that good of a score, but hopefully I'll get a check. It's a good start to the week for me. To get one rode to start things out felt good and hopefully get rolling."
Teel rode Diamond G Rodeo's Ominous Onyx on Wednesday.
"I had a young bull, so he was kind of green," Teel said. "I was easy with him in the buck and chute. I didn't want to get too rough, and you almost have to try to sneak out. It was a solid bull to have. It was a good draw; hopefully it will be good enough for a check.
Teel, who's 30, has been riding bulls professionally for 12 years.
"It's been a long career," Teel said. "I'm fortunate for that."
He has seen his share of injuries in what is the marquee event of rodeos marked by eight seconds for fame.
"I've had my fair share through the years, but fortunately I've always been able to bounce back and finish the year out every time I've had one," Teel said. "It comes with it. There are controlled variables, and you try to take advantage of those and try to prevent them, but at the same time they're wild animals and a lot can go wrong fast."
Fort Smith was a start of a circle back home in Texas. He competed in Crossett after Wednesday then went to Oklahoma and Texas to complete a four-rodeo week.
STONE CLOSE TO HOME
Casey Stone has made Sallisaw, Okla., home for 24 years, but this year was his first to compete in the Old Fort Days Rodeo.
"It's special," Stone said. "I've been wanting to come to this one for a long time. This is my first time for bull doggin' here. I've just been going to other rodeos."
For once, though, it was nice to be close to home.
"For sure, 20 minutes to the house," Stone said. "I didn't get my pro card until later, and I've got it now."
Stone comes from a family of steer wrestlers following in the footsteps of his dad, Jimmy Sr., and brother, Jimmy Jr.
"My dad was a bull dogger; I roped calves and team rope, too, but we've all been bull doggers," Stone said. "If you weren't a bull dogger, you couldn't eat at the table."
Casey is a three-time world champion steer wrestler in the Indian Nationals Finals Rodeo and is an enrolled Native American from North Dakota.
His family moved from Texas to Sallisaw when he was 10 and immediately started working at Blue Ribbon Downs.
"My dad sold alfalfa hay to the race track," Stone said. "I galloped horses, and my brother shod horses. I've been around rodeo all my life. I'm 36 years old, and it's all I've ever done. My dad and my brother, that's all they've ever done."
Stone rounded out the week with a rodeo in Missouri and then three back in Oklahoma.
"It's a way of life," Stone said. "Growing up, we didn't go fishing, we didn't go to dances. We went rodeoing and rode horses every night."
Stone also trained horses at Blue Ribbon Downs and continues that still in addition to his competing at rodeos.
"I love training horses," Stone said. "I do it for the love of the game."
BURGETT ALSO CLOSE TO HOME
Travis Burgett also is a steer wrestler and enjoyed being close to home at the Old Fort Days Rodeo just across the Arkansas River from his home in Van Buren.
"It means a lot more," Burgett said.
He's been a steer wrestler for 25 years after also growing up around horses.
"I did all the horse events, rode horses and trained horses," Burgett said. "I went on to bull doggin'. I stuck with it, and I've been able to train some nice horses and still train."
The thrill of steer wrestling, though, definitely piqued his competitive spirit.
"I grew up around horses and had a craving for the adrenaline," Burgett said. "That was kind of the end of it."
Burgett will compete in about 100 rodeos this year and will next be in Springdale for the Rodeo of the Ozarks.
ROPER READY, SORT OF
Jayco Roper of Oktaha, Okla., thought he was ready for his bareback ride on Wednesday after a little studying on his draw.
"I watched a video earlier, and it did not do that," Roper said. "He was bucking today."
Roper rode Andrews Rodeo's Empty Promises to an 82, which was the best ride of the night.
"I felt really good," Roper said. "He also got me jerked out, but I was like, 'Not today, not in front of family.'"
Roper has been going to the Old Fort Days Rodeo ever since he can remember, first to watch and then to compete.
"This is definitely a familiar place for me," Roper said. "I've been going to rodeos here since I was 6 years old."
Roper was taking off immediately after riding on Wednesday night and finished out the week Kansas, Colorado and Montana with one day in between.
Right after his brother, Jacobs, scored an 81 in the Saddle Bronc Riding on Wednesday night, Sterling Crawley scored the night's best of 84.
That's not the point, though, for the brothers.
"We've rodeoed together since we were old enough to ride horses," Sterling Crawley said. "There's not really any competition between us. You can only do what you can do on your horse. I didn't get to watch his ride because I was rolling in from the back. That horse was kind of being mean in there. As soon as his feet hit the ground he was coming back to help me. That's the best thing about this sport: You're never riding against the other cowboy; you're riding against your stock that you drew that night."
Sterling Crawley's ride was on Andrews Rodeo's Cracker Jack, and the two have a history including last month at Helotos Festival Association Rodeo in Helotos, Texas.
"It was good; it was a fun horse," Sterling Crawley said. "I drew her three weeks ago in Helotos, and it went good there. The last time I had her before Helotos was three years ago here, and she bucked me off. The relationship is going better."
In Helotos, Sterling Crawley rode Cracker Jack to a first-place 85½ points to earn $1,419. Cracker Jack's average score last year was just a 72 in 11 events.
Jacobs Crawley's ride was on Diamond G Rodeo's Wicked Sport on Wednesday.
The two grew up on a ranch together, which helped form their bond.
"When we were 10, my dad moved us to a ranch," Jacobs Crawley said. "Heck, you can't really play with any kids because nobody can get to you. We've been very fortunate and very blessed to have each other."
They regularly compete in over 100 rodeos a year together and have for 12 years now.
"We're fortunate that there's two of us, because it gives us somebody we can rely on," Sterling Crawley said. "Blood's thicker than water. You might get aggravated with each other, but you've got to love him at the end of the day. That's always been our saving grace; we've never really had hiccups like everybody else did. We were raised side by side doing every event."
That doesn't mean, though, that there is no rivalry between the brothers.
"Now, if it's a competitive foot race, anything outside of business, absolutely," Sterling Crawley said. "To see who can spit the furthest, it can be a grudge match, but rodeo has never been that way with us. What's good for the bee is good for the hive."