Steamboat Springs As a teen-ager growing up in California, Rob Smets used to dream of the day he would grow up and thrill thousands of fans in Candlestick Park as a professional baseball player.
"When I was a kid, my biggest hero was probably Willie Mays. I was a huge Giants fan," Smets said.
But that all changed one afternoon as Smets watched a group of cowboys practice bullfighting in an arena near his home.
A sophomore in high school, Smets was getting a few laughs by heckling some local cowboys. That was until one of them looked him straight in the eye and challenged him.
"Hey kid, if you think it's so easy, jump off that fence and give it a try," Smets recalls the cowboy saying.
So the 16-year-old jumped into the rodeo arena and never went back to the baseball diamond.
Today the rodeo bullfighter has thrilled millions of rodeo fans across the country as he built his reputation on the PRCA and PBR tours over the last 24 years. This weekend, the folks who come out to the Romick Rodeo Arena for Friday and Saturday night's 7:30 p.m. performances will get a taste of why this athlete has been invited to the National Finals Rodeo six times and won five World titles.
"We want them to come out and pay for the whole seat but we only want them to use a little part of it right at the edge," Smets said with a smile on his face.
The bullfighter, who will turn 42 in September, can be seen almost every Sunday night on television as part of the PBR coverage.
"He is a tremendous athlete and a tremendous person," rodeo contractor Donna Vold-Larsen said. "It's a real treat to get him here in Steamboat."
It will also be a real treat for bull riders who find themselves in harm's way this weekend at the Romick Rodeo Arena. Smets is one of the best at getting a 2,000-pound bull's attention and keeping it long enough to allow a cowboy to escape.
"He's the best in the cowboy-protection business," Vold-Larsen said. "I think he will thrill the fans with his natural athletic ability. He has a flair for getting the most out of the stock contractors' bulls and he really enhances their performance."
The bullfighter, who is based out of Shamrock, Texas, has found lots of luck along the rodeo road. He won national titles in Las Vegas in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1994. He also has been in the Professional Bull Riders championships four times during his career.
But like most bullfighters, the road to success has not always been paved with happy stories.
In 1992, Smets got knocked by a bull and broke his neck in three places.
He recovered, but had another wreck in 1996 that left him with another broken neck.
"I was at the National Finals scoring in 1990 and a bull hit him so hard it moved the scorers table," Vold-Larsen said. "But he's just like the energizer bunny. He just keeps popping back up."
Smets also takes the bad hits in stride and is comfortable with the belief that a higher power is looking out for him.
"In this business, it isn't if it's going to happen," Smets said of getting knocked down by an enraged bull. "But when it's going to happen."
Despite the falls, Smets' love for the game continues.
He has been able to support his family and make a living as a bullfighter for more than two decades and he hasn't made plans to quite in the future.
"I think God has a plan for me," Smets said. "I've taken a few bad spills but he keeps allowing me to come back."
Smets came to Steamboat Springs last summer and returned this year to work for his longtime friends Bill and Donna Larson.
"It's a great place to come for a rodeo," Smets said of Steamboat. "I can bring my whole family and make a vacation out of it."
It is a refreshing break for a rodeo cowboy who has worked every weekend since New Year's Eve.
Despite his strenuous rodeo schedule, Smets finds plenty of time to help out less fortunate children and to pursue his love of roping.
Smets was all smiles as he spent Wednesday evening at the Romick Arena taking part in a numbered roping competition.
"You might think that after working here all the time I would want to get away from the rodeo arena when I'm off," Smets said. "But I love to rope and I love to fight bulls. There is no place I would rather be."