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NMSU Steer Wrestler Leads National College Standings

LAS CRUCES -- At the rodeo, steer wrestler C.J. Aragon stands out for two reasons. At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 175 pounds, the New Mexico State University rodeo team member is about six inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than the typical bulldogger. He's also faster, leading the national collegiate standings with one regular rodeo season to go.

Nicknamed the "little big man," C.J. excels in quickness and technique. "Consistency really helps me," he says. "Other people might have a 3-second run and a 9-second run. I'm more likely to have two 4's."

A lot happens in a 4-second run. In a quick sprint, C.J. rides up to a steer that's been given a head start. Hanging off the side of his horse, C.J. waits until the steer is within reach, jumps off, takes the steer by the horns and wrestles the 550- to 750-pound animal to the ground.

During the run, a hazer -- usually C.J.'s brother Jake -- rides alongside the steer to keep it running straight and position it within C.J.'s reach. By yelling "Pull!" when the steer's horns are in position, Jake helps C.J. with his timing.

The key element is the catch -- grabbing the steer's horns while getting off the horse. After that, C.J. does what's called sliding and shaping to bring the steer down.

"When you're on the ground sliding with your feet out in front of you, it's basically like skiing except you've got a steer pushing you instead of going down the slope," C.J. explains. "You ski the steer around and then hook its nose in your elbow and drive it over backwards and try to make the steer get a clean fall."

On a typical run, C.J. accelerates to 35 miles per hour before coming to a dusty stop. Dirt grinds itself into his clothes and steer snot stains the brim of his battered straw hat, which he calls the "crash helmet."

"If it goes right, I don't remember what happens once I'm on the ground," he says.

This season has passed in a successful blur. With one collegiate competition remaining March 28-29 in Tucson before the regional finals, C.J. is ranked number one in steer wrestling in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association standings.

The NMSU men's team, third in the tough Grand Canyon region, is moving up, with a good chance of finishing in second place, which would mean a spot in the national collegiate finals in Rapid City, S.D., in June. Team members practice together four to five times a week at the NMSU rodeo arena on "A" Mountain.

In competition, C.J. has relied on a combination of brotherly support, an outstanding horse and luck in drawing good steers.

His horse, Otis, was named one of the year's top eight horses by the American Quarter Horse Association. "He's the most athletic horse I've ever seen in my life," C.J. says.

The flashy black horse, decked out in red leg wraps to match C.J.'s boots, also has his quirks. He's prone to act up if he's near too many other horses.

"He's not mean," C.J. says. "He's just grouchy."

Most importantly, though, C.J. credits his brother, a calf roper and steer wrestler himself, for helping him have a stellar season. "I think Jake's the best hazer in the nation, at least in college," C.J. says.

As a coach, Jake helps C.J. pinpoint problems that cost critical tenths of a second, as well as providing support and a sense of humor.

The brothers Aragon reunited at NMSU two years ago, after starting college in two different states. C.J. enrolled at Lewis-Clark State University in Lewiston, Idaho, their native state, while Jake attended the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

"We both decided that we wanted to rodeo together, so we started looking for a school that fit what we wanted and decided to come down to NMSU," C.J. says. "We liked the weather and it gives us a good opportunity to rodeo. It's a good school."

Their parents followed C.J. and Jake to New Mexico, settling near Belen.

Though he began rodeoing in junior high as a family tradition, C.J. didn't pursue it seriously until his senior year in high school in Kamiah, Idaho. He excelled at more traditional sports. In basketball, C.J.'s play at guard earned him the league's defensive player of the year honors. In football, he was a standout at corner, safety and quarterback.

Concluding he was too small to play college football, C.J. shifted his attention from the 300-pound linemen to steers twice as large.

For the last two years, C.J. and Jake have earned enough at rodeos to pay their way through school, though they've had a few slumps. At one point, C.J. can remember being part of a traveling trio with only $15 left, not even enough for gas. Determined to raise money, they entered -- and won -- a wild cow milking contest at a rodeo in Weippe, Idaho. C.J. went on to earn a buckle for steer wrestling as well.

Though they love to rodeo, both brothers are serious about academics, contrary to the stereotypical rough-and-tough bulldogger image.

"Bulldoggers are called gristleheads because they're the kind of guys who are crazy enough to jump off a horse onto a steer," C.J. says. "But my little brother has a 4-point grade average and I have a 3-point-2, so we work hard in the classroom, too."

Now a senior journalism/public relations major at NMSU, C.J. remains dedicated to rodeo, even after life-threatening injuries in Idaho three years ago.

He took a horn in the chest, breaking four ribs, puncturing and collapsing his lung, bruising his heart and breaking his breastbone, collarbone and arm.

Recovery took eight months, including four months or arduous physical therapy. Why make a comeback?

"I love doing it," c.J. says. "I kind of crave it."

While he hopes to have a successful rodeo career and competes in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events, C.J. also mulls combining his rodeo experience and education, perhaps doing public relations work for the PRCA. The 23-year-old plans to graduate next fall.

"My goals are to graduate and get a good job that's going to let me keep rodeoing," he says. "I'd like to try to win a world championship someday. It's probably a pretty lofty goal because there's a lot of great steer wrestlers out there, but I'd like to try."

Big-time dreams just seem to come naturally to the little big man.