Growing up in California, Jace Helton never gave a thought to being a rodeo competitor or having anything to do with horses at all.
Then, he turned 10 years old, and his family went on a trip to Utah.
“My family and I went to visit my uncle who worked on a ranch in northern Utah. It just happened to be branding season, and when I saw people roping for the first time, I decided I wanted to learn how to do it,” he recalled. “At that point, I started roping the dummy, and I still had no idea that team roping was even a thing.
“My dad and I went to watch a friend at a jackpot. Then I was dead set on wanting to heel steers. When I was 12, we met a guy named Mark Ferlisi who lived down the road from us, and he taught my dad and me how to rope right there at his house.”
And now, the Weatherford College freshman from Menifee, California, is one of the best ropers in the nation. He’ll showcase his talent at the upcoming College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming, June 13-19, after winning the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Southwest Region in team roping-heeler.
“My goal was to make the college finals; whether it was in third or first, I just wanted a spot to Casper. I didn’t know how realistic it was missing the first five rodeos,” he said. “Me and Riley Kittle (his roping partner from Cisco College) talked about it, and we both knew that we couldn’t afford to make any unnecessary mistakes. We just said let’s catch the most steers, and if we both do our job every time, we should be able to get to Casper.
“By the last two rodeos, we knew there was a chance. Riley did a great job and made my job easy. We drew the right steers and ended up winning the region.”
Helton joined the WC rodeo team at midseason, transferring from California Polytechnic State University. When that school went entirely online due to COVID-19 he came to Weatherford for a few weeks.
“Pretty soon, a few weeks turned into months, and I just decided I was going to move out here and go to school,” he said. “I already had a few friends that went to WC, and I had heard nothing but good things about Johnny (Emmons, rodeo coach) and the school.”
No one in his family had ever competed in rodeo before him. His dad grew up a mile from the beach in California. His mom and dad both played sports in high school, and his childhood was full of baseball, surfing, skating, riding dirt bikes and going to the lake--until he started roping.
It didn’t take long for him to get very good at his sport. He won the California state championship his junior year of high school.
And now he’s made it to Casper out of the tough Southwest Region.
“It feels good going to Casper knowing I made it in one of the toughest regions. Riley is the quarterback, and he’s done a great job. Having this much confidence in my partner makes it a lot easier on me mentally getting ready to go to the college finals,” Helton said. “I’m really happy we won it, but ever since we took our win picture I’ve been looking ahead to Casper. That’s what’s really important to me.”
And getting there is even more special after the entire rodeo was wiped out in 2020 because of COVID-19.
“It was a blessing just to get to rodeo this year,” Helton said. “At the beginning of the school year, everything was still pretty much up in the air, so I was really excited things turned out the way they did.”
Helton is majoring in business marketing.
“When I ever get done rodeoing, I want to do commercial real estate, but there are a ton of avenues I can go down with a business marketing degree if I decide that’s what I want to do,” he said.
He also plans to compete in rodeo professionally.
“I’m trying to use the next three years of college to get my degree and get the horses and rig I need together so I can start rodeoing professionally when I graduate,” he said.
“I want to take a second to thank my parents for everything they do for me. I’m incredibly lucky to have the support I do, and I try not to ever take it for granted. Without them, getting an education and roping the way I do could never be reality.”