It is rodeo week in Shawnee, which also means it is sweet tea week.
Restaurants in Shawnee that normally don’t serve sweet tea will do so during the week of the International Youth Finals Rodeo because so many cowboys and cowgirls in town for the rodeo will ask for it.
It is just a small example of the kind of relationship the Shawnee community has with the IFYR. The 22nd annual IFYR starts Sunday night at the Heart of Oklahoma Exposition Center and runs through Friday.
More than 900 high school age cowboys and cowgirls are competing for $200,000 in prize money in what is annually Shawnee’s biggest event.
The history of the IFYR begins a quarter of a century ago when Shawnee was the host of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s high school championship rodeo for three years.
The PRCA, however, doesn’t have a permanent venue for the event. That high school championship rodeo moves to different sites, but even before Shawnee’s three-year contract for the rodeo had ended, then-Expo general manager Ken Etchieson had a plan to replace it.
Etchieson, a former rodeo announcer who called the International Finals Rodeo, approached the International Professional Rodeo Association with the idea for the International Finals Youth Rodeo.
The IPRA, which is headquartered in Oklahoma City, did not have a high school championship rodeo at the time and agreed to become a sponsor and provide judges and other rodeo personnel.
“We wished them well and hoped it work,” said Dale Yerigan, the current general manager of the IPRA, who was on the IPRA board at the time.
Over the next 22 years, Yerigan admits that the success of the IFYR has exceeded his expectations. Etchieson “deserves tremendous credit for the idea and the concept,” Yerigan said.
The IFYR has become one of the IPRA’s most popular rodeos, and it’s served as a feeder for the organization. To compete in the rodeo, the cowboys and cowgirls can either buy an IPRA card or just a one-time permit for the IFYR, and then they are covered by the IPRA insurance.
Many of the young cowboys and cowgirls who have entered the IFYR go on to compete professionally in the IPRA and PRCA.
“It’s a good introduction to the IPRA through that event and a good experience for those kids,” Yerigan said. “We retain a lot of them as members afterwards. There has been a lot of talent come through there (IFYR).”
Trevor Brazile, Cord and Jet McCoy, Mike Outhier and Tuf Cooper are just some of professional rodeo’s best cowboys who cut their teeth at the IFYR. Former world bareback bronc champion Justin McDaniel of Porum is another and will be inducted Wednesday into the IFYR Hall of Fame.
Yerigan said the IFYR and the IPRA have been a great fit. Suzanne Gilbert said the same for the IFYR and Shawnee.
Gilbert, who has volunteered to work at all 22 rodeos, is in charge of special events at the IFYR. Most people in Shawnee are excited when the rodeo comes to town.
All of the participants in the IFYR, which normally has entries from more than 30 states and occasionally even other countries, are required to wear their back numbers everywhere they go. Not just at the rodeo, but even when they are in Shawnee.
“Even if they’ve got on their t-shirts and shorts, they’ve got on their back number,” Gilbert said.
The purpose of rule was to help the kids in case of an emergency, Gilbert said. But it also has made the cowboys and cowgirls easy to recognize and they are often treated like celebrities.
“We have had kids tell us that they have been out eating at a restaurant and getting ready to leave and find out somebody has paid their bill because they have their back numbers,” she said.