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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
More than an adrenaline rush is on the line when Alex Chavers wrestles his next steer.
By KELLIE DIXON
Published July 19, 2007
Four years ago, Alex Chavers wasn't thinking about wrestling steer. The then-15-year-old was more concerned with landing stunts on his skateboard.
But these days, the rodeo discipline gets a majority of Chavers' attention. Next week the 19-year-old will compete in the National High School Rodeo Finals for steer wrestling. It's not his first national trip. Earlier this month, Chavers took sixth in steer wrestling in the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Oklahoma.
At the national high school competition in Springfield, Ill., Chavers will be one of two Brooksville residents competing. The other is Clayton Windsor, who lives just down the street from Chavers but is competing in team roping. The two friends rarely practice together because they do different events.
Chavers got interested in rodeo after his little sister went to a camp. He got hooked after he threw down his first steer at age 16.
Naturally athletic, Chavers played linebacker and point guard while attending Pasco High. But after the self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie got a taste of rodeo, he ditched football, basketball and skateboarding.
Instead, he spent his free time improving whatever natural skills he had. He also switched to being home-schooled.
"The amount of practice that it takes to get good is unbelievable," Chavers said. "It's not like you pick up a basketball and you automatically have a knack for it. If you want to be good at rodeoing, you're going to have to work at it. You're going to take some bumps and bruises along the way."
Steer wrestling worked especially well for Chavers because of his age. It was the easiest way for him to catch up with riders who grew up doing rodeo. Now the defending state champion even works with aspiring steer wrestlers.
Practice isn't easy, but Chavers enjoys it. He'll make just nine runs with his competition horse, Blade, so he doesn't "blow up" the horse. Simply put, Chavers doesn't want to overuse Blade, so he uses a device pulled by a four-wheeler to simulate sliding off his saddle and onto a practice steer, which is pulled by a tractor.
Chavers' practice has paid off. Once in the arena, he'll say a quick prayer, stretch and head for his horse. He'll nod his head to signal he is ready for the steer's release.
"Whenever the flag drops, I can't hear anything," Chavers said. "I don't think about anything. The reason for that is because everything that I have, it's all muscle memory now."
He doesn't think about how he intends to put his 180-pound frame on the steer and drag it down. He doesn't hear his stepdad, Doug Toney, screaming, coaching him from afar.
Toney, who grew up doing rodeo, has helped Chavers along the way. Toney said Chavers has made the most gains in communicating with his horse. Toney stresses time and again the horse is not a machine.
"A horse will tell you in certain ways 'I'm going to do this' but you have to feel it because it's not going to tell you," Toney said.
Chavers, meanwhile, thinks he has made the most improvement in his riding.
Chavers likes the sport better than any other he has played.
"It's really just like one big family," Chavers said. "Even though you're competing against each other, everybody is cheering each other on."