LAS VEGAS – There wasn’t much of a conversation on Sunday morning when Jess Lockwood slid on his cowboy boots inside his hotel room on the 12th floor of the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino hotel.
The 20-year-old walked into the living room and saw his best friend, Weston Hartman, and tried to stay quiet with his brother, Jake, and cousins, Alyssa and Thane Lockhart, still sleeping.
Lockwood said hello to Hartman, gave him a high-five, and the duo did their normal fist pound before heading out of the room and toward the elevator.
Just as Jess was leaving at 10 a.m., Hartman said to go get it done.
Lockwood simply responded with a nod.
Five hours later and Hartman was looking on from the dirt level of T-Mobile Arena as Lockwood was hoisting the PBR World Championship trophy high over his head as tears began to stroll down his face.
“I’m so happy for him,” Hartman said. “It was tough when he was really down in the dumps (in September) and now here is a 180 turn and he is holding up the gold buckle today.”
Lockwood kept an inner circle with him during the past week in Las Vegas as 20 family members and friends joined him on The Strip to watch him become the PBR’s youngest World Champion in PBR history.
Long after the confetti had stopped falling and he had done a series of endless interviews, Lockwood was escorted back to the locker room where Hartman, Jake and a small group were waiting for Lockwood.
“The four that stayed in the room with me the whole time – the Lockhart cousins, my brother and Weston – having those four with me all the time, I just feel relaxed and I’m having fun,” Lockwood said.
Hartman and Jake joked that maybe they should celebrate Jess’s $1 million championship by going to Chuck E. Cheese’s or that maybe Lockwood would finally get something to eat other than Subway for dinner at the Food Court across the street from the Monte Carlo.
The group exchanged fist pounds, high fives and laughed over Hartman wearing a Jess Lockwood championship t-shirt just as they did after Lockwood began the World Finals with a record-setting three straight round wins.
But all kidding aside, everyone in Lockwood’s inner circle – friends, family, coaches, mentors, etc. – knew this time was coming on Sunday afternoon.
The smiling, teary-eyed 20-year-old bull rider from “a simple family” as his mother, Angie, likes to call it, made a believer out of everyone that came in contact with him in less than two years because of a burning desire to be the best that is often times forgotten about by others because of his genuine, goofy personality.
None of them wavered in their belief, though, that Lockwood could overcome a season riddled with injuries that limited him to only 20 BFTS events – which was seven less than runner-up Derek Kolbaba – and hoist that championship on Sunday.
“It was a rough year overall, but it just all worked out I guess,” Lockwood said. “It’s just tough being hurt, but I just had to cowboy up and ride. There’s no words. It’s all a blur. I don’t know if I’m just dreaming or if it’s all real and a bull knocked me out, but hopefully it’s all real.”
Lockwood’s father, Ed, pulled his rope every night of the Finals and was a stoic, calming presence for his son, but when Lockwood hoisted that trophy even the proud father couldn’t help but have a small tear in his eye as he stood off to the side as Lockwood began his post-event press conference.
Angie called the championship, “unbelievable,” and was beaming with pride, but that she wanted the focus to be on Jess and everyone that helped him get to this moment rather than what this meant for mom and dad.
Hartman has been riding shotgun behind the scenes during Lockwood’s climb up the ladder even before the World Champion moved on a part-time basis to Bowie, Texas, in February 2016 to live and learn under the tutelage of PBR Livestock Director and co-founder Cody Lambert.
Lockwood and Hartman first met at the 2013 National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyoming, four years ago, when Lockwood was competing as a freshman.
“Being friends with him since his freshman year in high school and kind of watching him go through being an amateur and a professional, knowing he always had it was pretty awesome,” Hartman said. “This is really cool and special.”
Hartman still remembers how determined his buddy was as he looked at a ghostly, pale Lockwood inside a Bismarck, North Dakota, emergency room at the end of September.
Lockwood was receiving an IV of fluids and treatment after coming down with pneumonia during his cross-country trip to North Dakota after spending over 30 hours in a Long Island hospital recovering from four broken ribs, a punctured lung and lacerated kidney attempting to ride Blue Magic in Uniondale, New York.
As he lay there in nothing but an uncomfortable hospital night gown in New York, Lockwood continued to talk about coming back to win the world.
“He was really down and it wasn’t looking good,” Hartman said. “He was going through all of those injuries a little bit. I think deep down inside he was kind of fighting his head a little bit. Physically he was fine and said he was feeling fine. I knew he would come out of it.
“He kept his spirit and fought through it and wanted to start working out right away. He was always talking about how soon he could come back.”
However, there wasn’t much Lockwood could do for the broken ribs other than sit out and let them heal.
It was a frustrating turn of events for the Volborg, Montana, bull rider, who became a vigorous rehab expert this season after missing five weeks because of a torn right groin at Iron Cowboy in February.
He also was able to overcome being knocked unconscious by two-time World Champion Bull SweetPro’s Bruiser in Springfield, Missouri, to return the next week to win the BFTS event in Austin, Texas.
Still, Lockwood his confidence wavered some a little bit not because of a lack of faith in himself, but rather as an acknowledgement to how good his opponents were in the title race – Kolbaba, Cooper Davis, Kaique Pacheco and Eduardo Aparecido.
“I knew everyone was going to keep riding good, so they were probably going to gain some ground. I knew I had to come riding at the Finals,” Lockwood said. “But luckily I got to come back a little bit earlier than expected and I didn’t ride very well, but that made me kick my ass into gear when I got to Vegas.”
He returned two weeks ahead of schedule from the broken ribs, bucking off all four of his bulls before PBR Finals Week.
Coincidentally, Lockwood never regained the world No. 1 ranking after tearing his groin until he won Round 2 of the World Finals on Friday night with 89.75 points on Breaking Bad.
Once back on top, he never let it go.
“Each time I came back from an injury, I kind of had hell there for a couple weeks,” Lockwood said. “Hopefully I just got all of the injuries in my career out for a little while. I sure did stack them up this year.”
That 0-for-4 showing had him wavering on whether or not to go to the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour Finals before the World Finals.
He admitted to Hartman he was concerned over how his body would hold up with 10 bulls in eight days, but he also recalled a conversation he had with Lambert.
At the regular-season finale in San Jose, California, Lockwood was making a great ride on Blackie Wells before being ruled to have slapped the bull.
Lambert has served as a mentor, coach and somewhat father figure to Lockwood since the former teenager moved down to Texas.
The PBR co-founder made sure to tell Lockwood to relax and that he was right where he needed to be.
“He said, ‘You are there. You are there. You are coming back. Don’t worry about it,’” Lockwood recalled. “He said the next bull you get on it will click.”
Lockwood decided to ride at the Velocity Finals, going a dynamic 3-for-3.
The second-year rider earned 227.5 world points at the Velocity Finals, which gave him a little bit of breathing room in his final 447.5-point advantage over No. 2 Kolbaba in the world standings.
“I figured since I wasn’t riding good, I needed something,” Lockwood said. “I’d hate to show up in Vegas and not be as confident in myself as I should be, and that was kind of the case. I hadn’t rode anything coming back and you know you don’t want to show up to World Finals without confidence because you’re getting on the best bulls in the world.”
Lambert said when Lockwood first arrived on his ranch, he could tell that Lockwood had his sights on a gold buckle and nothing less.
“We could see this,” Lambert said. “We knew he was going to do it at some point, but he just improved so much, so fast and matured so much. He’s just 20 years old. He hasn’t reached his prime.”
Lockwood finished 2017 28-for-64 (43.75 percent) with four event victories, including the season-opening PBR Major in New York City.
He was able to overcome having the lowest riding percentage for any World Champion by making it count the most when he made the whistle. Nineteen of his 28 qualified rides resulted in him finishing in the Top 5 of a BFTS round.
Lockwood won nine BFTS rounds and was 8-for-15 in championship rounds / 15-15 Bucking Battles. His third-place finish at the World Finals was only his fourth Top-10 finish of the year.
The 20 BFTS events Lockwood competed in is the fewest by a World Champion since at least 1999.
“I went to half as many events as everyone, but I guess the ones I went to I made the most of, so I’m looking forward to hopefully a full year one of these times and hopefully it’ll work out a little bit better,” Lockwood said.
Lambert laughed at how people originally questioned the 5-foot-5-inch, 130-pound bull rider’s toughness.
“They always talk about a sophomore slump. Jess has gone through that, but he has turned it around fast,” Lambert said in early October. “He has gone through injuries and he has fought through injuries. Nobody should be questioning his toughness or his grit. I have seen his dedication and his desire. I don’t think anybody should question that either. Jess has been on a crash course to get better.”
2009 PBR Ring of Honor inductee J.W. Hart has also served as a coach to Lockwood and often times would bring practice bulls to Lambert’s ranch for him to get on.
He too found it hard to doubt Lockwood’s drive and determination to go win that gold buckle – even when those odds were starting to pile up against him.
Lockwood’s mental strength always amazed Hart, who had competed in a then-record 197 consecutive events to earn the nickname the Iron Man.
“It’s never wavered,” Hart said. “His line of sight and his walk has never veered left or right. Whether he was getting bucked off a couple in a row and he wasn’t doing worth a damn or he was hurt. When he got hurt, he never quit looking down there. He started working out and rehabbing that day. His eyes never lost focus down the line and that impresses me, because when you get hurt and you get banged up, the first thing to do is look over here and sit down.
“He sat down, but he was still looking. It seemed like he’s been so focused, just laser focused. And it was all for one goal, a belt buckle at the end of the time down here.”
As he began to unwrap the medicine tape that was covering his broken ribs, Lockwood tossed the bandage to the ground and let out an exhale after walking out of his hotel room five hours earlier.
“I’m a world champ,” he concluded with a huge grin. “It’s what every kid dreams of.”