LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gage Gay still remembers all of the lights, cameras, interview requests and endless questions that were directed his way two years ago.
Gay was 19 years old and he had just eliminated three World Champions (Mike Lee, J.B. Mauney and Guilherme Marchi) at the 2014 Iron Cowboy event, only his sixth Built Ford Tough Series event of the year and eighth of his career.
From that runner-up finish on, the country kid from Staley, North Carolina, would be the talk of the PBR and the BFTS for the remainder of the season.
Gay was a budding star in the making. Sponsors were beginning to line up, CBS Sports Network cameras were always zooming in on him as he got ready to ride and fans were gravitating toward his youthful joy in the arena.
The cameras were there when Gay became the only rookie that season to win a BFTS event (Tulsa, Oklahoma) and they were there when Gay had realized he lost out on the 2014 Rookie of the Year title to J.W. Harris following Harris’ remarkable 2014 World Finals performance.
Nowadays, Gay – still only 21 years old – has been replaced by new teenage rookies Derek Kolbaba, 19, and Jess Lockwood, 18. The similar young gun excitement that was a result of Gay’s quick rise to BFTS stardom has now been absorbed by the sport’s latest shiny stars.
“It’s cool being the rookie and getting all of that attention, but it is cool not having all of that attention on me too,” Gay said. “It doesn’t bother me. I have always been a guy to just stand back and do my thing. I don’t need a whole lot of attention. It works for me.”
Gay heads to Little Rock, Arkansas, this weekend for the Bad Bow Mowdown 18th in the world standings and is looking to qualify for his third consecutive Built Ford Tough World Finals later this year.
It was only a year ago when Gay was going through the dreaded “sophomore slump” and was competing at the Omaha, Nebraska, BlueDEF Tour event instead of at the BFTS event in Nampa, Idaho. Gay would go 2-for-2 in Omaha to earn a return trip to the BFTS and has never looked back since.
In a way, Gay said his second season was much harder on him compared to his rookie year.
The obvious reason being he was simply converting more bull rides in 2014 (25) than in 2015 (17).
“It was just horrible,” Gay said. “I should have been getting on practice bulls and I (wasn’t) having my mind on the bull riding when I wasn’t. I was trying to let it come to me and I did so good the first year I expected to come in here and have it happen again. It doesn’t happen like that.”
It can be easy to lose your focus with so much outside chatter.
“It is hard to really block it out and not let it get to your head and think you are that good when you are just a rookie,” Gay said. “All of the guys that talk about you know what they are talking about.”
If he were to give any advice to Kolbaba or Lockwood, it would be to remember that getting, not to mention staying, on the BFTS is no easy task.
The bull riding will come naturally, that’s intrinsic, but all of the outside distractions like autograph signings, PR requests, media interviews, etc. that can take a toll.
“I have known both of them kids for a couple of years now, and I know both of them can ride really good,” Gay said. “All they have to do is keep their hand shut and their mind right and they will be here for a while.”
Kolbaba, who qualified for the 2015 World Finals at 19 years old with a BlueDEF Tour exemption, is competing in just his 13th BFTS event and is 15th in the world standings, while Lockwood, 23rd in the standings, is even more inexperienced with Little Rock being only his second event.
Kolbaba and Lockwood actually shared a hotel room during Lockwood’s BFTS debut last week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Lockwood rode Tom Horn for 88.25 points to win his first BFTS round.
Kolbaba agreed with Gay about trying to keep your mind focused on the bull riding.
“Jess already knows what the hell he is doing,” Kolbaba said. “There isn’t much I can tell him. It is all about being comfortable. Coming here. We are all buddies. Kind of settling in and not letting everything overwhelm you.”
The stakes and attention for not just this year’s young guns, but the entire BFTS roster will only continue to heighten as the season progresses. There are only three BFTS events remaining before Last Cowboy Standing, the featured event of Las Vegas Helldorado Days and the final PBR Major before the summer break.
The farther the season goes, the greater the strain can be on the mind and the body.
Gay kept it to himself for the majority of his rookie year, but he had to contend with an aggravated hip injury during second half of the season.
His hips have continued to be an on and off problem, and Gay underwent an MRI this past Monday after aggravating his attempting to ride War Party in Duluth, Georgia, last month.
Gay is still waiting to receive the results, but he believes hip surgery may be needed at some point in the near future – as possibly as soon as the summer break – after consulting with Dr. Tandy Freeman prior to getting the MRI.
“I am debating whether or not I will have to get hip surgery right now,” Gay said. “I have a bone spur on my hip. Right now it is not too bad. It just catches every now and then. Sometimes I can’t even tell it is there. Tandy said if I get it fixed quick it could just be like breaking a regular bone – five or six weeks. If I wait till the end of the year it could be five or six months. If I wait longer, they could be messed up forever.”
The third-year professional went 2-for-4 in Sioux Falls and is remaining positive about the situation.
Instead of dwelling on ‘what ifs,’ Gay wants to get back to having the same mentality he had during his rookie season – which was his best to date with an 11th-place finish in the world standings.
Gay has drawn Glory Days (3-3, BFTS) for Round 1 on Saturday night.
“Yeah, I am getting back to it,” he said. “Last year wasn’t any fun at all, but this year I have started having fun again. Everything goes a hell of a lot easier when you are having fun.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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