For cowboy and coach, a past and future in rodeo

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Freshman Bryce Dibbern prepares to dismount Sandman the bronco after the horse failed to buck him off during a recent rodeo practice. Dibbern, who took four years off from rodeo to focus on football and wrestling, has emerged as a top performer on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln team.

Story and photos by Mitch Smith, NewsNetNebraska

It’s late Wednesday night, but the overhead lights are still humming in the rodeo ring.

Tucked out of view from the rest of the otherwise-deserted Lancaster Event Center, Bryce Dibbern and 10 college teammates mingle among broncos and bulls. Riding with country boys from places even the foremost Nebraska geographer couldn’t find on a map is a taste of home for the kid who grew up raising cattle.

“It’s rodeo that keeps me alive,” Dibbern said. “If I didn’t get to see cows or anything, I’d lose it.”

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Young for a retired athlete, with brown hair curled under his straw cowboy hat, Travis Marshall could pass for a member of the 20-person University of Nebraska-Lincoln Rodeo Team he coaches.

Marshall spent three seasons on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour after a junior college career that saw him ranked in the top 10 regionally.

Seven concussions later, a neurologist told him to quit.

The sport was rough on Marshall. Even before that last concussion during a training run in Iowa, Marshall’s body was worn.

A bull stomped on his chest at one competition, rupturing his spleen, collapsing his lung and leaving him hospitalized for four days.

Still, the Arthur native who grew up riding the high school rodeo circuit didn’t want to quit. His career was just starting to take off, and he wasn’t too old.

“The doctor told me, ‘I can fix your knee with surgery, but I can’t fix your brain.’”

Marshall hasn’t ridden a bull since that day 18 months ago.

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At the team’s first practice in August, Marshall gave his athletes a survey.

He asked about their aspirations and reasons for joining the UNL rodeo team.

They could either keep the surveys, the coach said, or hand them back to him.

Dibbern walked up to Marshall and handed him the paper. Dibbern was there to win, and his coach needed to know it.

While preparing to ride a bronco at a recent rodeo practice, freshman Bryce Dibbern wraps his arm with athletic tape. The two-time high school state wrestling champ placed second in steer wrestling at his first college rodeo.

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A few months ago, Dibbern’s uniform was a red and silver wrestling singlet.

Now the college freshman strolls into the event center with the top two buttons undone on a blue, bandana-patterned shirt that complements royal blue cowboy boots and a black hat.

A two-time Class D state wrestling champion from tiny Amherst High School, the farm kid mostly gave up rodeo after middle school in order to avoid the type of injuries that plagued Marshall.

But after defending his state wrestling title in February, Dibbern returned to rodeo. He’d practice in the arena on his central Nebraska farm that is home to cornfields, hay bales and 400 head of cattle. After riding in high school events last spring, the animal science major, who hopes to one day work in the beef industry, decided to stay with the sport at UNL.

Riding in his first college competition last month in Wisconsin, Dibbern took second in steer wrestling.

Now he’s trying to perfect his bareback bronco riding technique before competing in Fargo next week.

Three hours into the team’s weekly practice, those techniques were put to the test.

With no saddle and only a rigging device to hold onto, Dibbern climbed on the back of Sandman the bronco and waited for the stall to open.

The brown, snorting horse raced across the ring, kicking his hind legs to dislodge the blond-haired teenager on his back. The kicks kept coming, but Dibbern juked backward and clung on for at least seven seconds.

The horse couldn’t buck him, and Dibbern got off unscathed, with the help of another rider.

After shaking Marshall’s hand and unfastening a few more shirt buttons, Dibbern was almost giddy outside the ring. He hadn’t ridden a horse bareback in a few months. To stay on a bronco that wild for that long was, to say the least, a dose of encouragement.

He thinks he’ll be ready to ride that Oct. 14 event in Fargo.

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As bulls and broncos did their best to buck off his athletes Wednesday, Marshall did what he could in the ring. He distracted the animals (think rodeo clown minus the goofy outfits) and demonstrated hand positioning and riding posture to his team members.

He loves his new coaching gig, but the volunteer job can leave him weary after working all day at his own construction company in Omaha. He misses his time in the big leagues, back when he was paid to do rodeo.

But working with kids like Dibbern, he said, make the weekends on the road and late nights in the practice ring worth it. The team competes at 10 events every year, riding against major universities and obscure technical schools and community colleges from across the West and Midwest.

After recording the team’s best finish in his first collegiate event, Dibbern has some rodeo dreams of his own. Working with Marshall, he said, makes them feel all the more attainable.

“To know that he made it to the pro ranks — that’s the goal of every cowboy,” Dibbern said. “I love him for a coach.”

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