Based on his success over the last several years, you’d never know that Polson cowboy Payton Fitzpatrick did not compete in high school rodeo until his senior year. He rode mini bulls when he was a youngster, but “took some time off” before getting aboard full-size bulls on a regular basis.
“I started crawling on big bulls when I was 16,” he said.
Payton has not been a competitor in the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, but he’s had his share of “in-the-money” rodeos on the Northern Rodeo Association (NRA) circuit.
The 23-year-old reached the pinnacle of NRA by winning the bull riding title for 2018. The season culminated with the NRA Finals Oct. 4-6 at the Butte Civic Center, but he had already sewn up crown in the bulls by then. For the season, Fitzpatrick won nearly $6,800.
At the NRA Finals, “I made just enough to pay my (entry) fees,” he laughed recently. “I was after that saddle and that buckle (for winning the season title) and I was pretty tickled.
“My mom and dad were there every step of the way. My dad was the one who kept me going and to push on, to have high spirits and positive attitude,” Payton added.
Most recently, Fitzpatrick won third place in bull riding at the NILE Rodeo a couple of weeks ago in Billings. This winter, he will pick and choose the PRCA rodeos he’ll enter.
Before the NRA Finals, Payton finished second in the bulls at Hamilton and Helmville rodeo over the Labor Day weekend. “That kind of clinched my lead,” Payton said of the NRA standings. “I had it kind of won going in there (to the finals).”
Payton covered only one of his three draws at the NRA Finals. He scored a 73 on the second of three days, good for fourth place and a few bucks.
“It wasn’t really expected, not one of my goals,” he said of the title. “But after the Fourth of July, when I won Choteau, I knew I was sitting fairly high in standings … the stars kind of aligned.”
There was a big smile on Payton’s face when he received his NRA saddle and buckle, especially since he settled for second place in 2017 — finishing behind only Loncey Johnson of Dillon. He traveled the Montana rodeo circuit with his brother Grey during the ’17 campaign, but Grey contracted meningitis late in the season. Payton was second and Grey sat in third going into the finals.
Payton had Grey’s health in his head the rest of the season, but found out he had been released from the hospital — shortly before the NRA Finals.
“He’s all healed up now,” Payton said of his beloved brother.
Before competing at the NILE rodeo, Payton sat eighth in “permit” standings. He explained that circuits have their own “finals,” and are PRCA-sanctioned. Money earned makes you eligible for the finals, as well as the NFR in Vegas.
“It’s a dangerous sport,” Payton said of rodeo, “but you make it pay and stay healthy. I rode just about everywhere this year. My goal was to make it to the finals.”
During the winter of the 2018 season, Payton won the all-around and bull riding championship at the Brash Winter Series at the Majestic Valley Arena north of Kalispell.
When he’s on the back of a bull, Payton works as a roofer for Soapstone Construction out of Ronan. He works for Elmo McDonald, who is great about giving Payton time to rodeo. So early in 2019, he’ll be on top of a roof rather than a bull before he hits the circuit.
“I want to thank everybody for the support,” Payton said during his run for the NRA bull riding title. “I could not have done it without the help and encouraging words.”