Special to the E-T

One rodeo athlete at Tarleton State University is taking his “A” game to a whole new level.

Isaac Diaz, a junior majoring in animal industries, is heading to the bright lights of Las Vegas to compete in the 2009 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) held Dec. 3-12. This is his second time to qualify for the finals. He also qualified in 2007.

Diaz heads into the WNFR ranked ninth in the saddle bronc standings with $81,831 earnings in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) for 2009. His lifetime earnings exceed $300,000 since he joined the PRCA in 2006.

With more than $55,000 up for grabs for the top six contestants in each of the 10 rounds and the average worth more than $165,000, Diaz could have a very cowboy Christmas.

Unlike most sports, rodeo allows its athletes to compete simultaneously on the collegiate and professional levels. However, juggling both and being as competitive as Diaz is a full-time balancing act.

Diaz is originally from southern Florida, but it was rodeo scholarships that drew him Texas. He first went to Vernon College in Vernon, Texas, to compete for two years.

After Vernon, Diaz moved to Stephenville because of its central location and it was where his girlfriend was attending college.

“I wasn’t planning on going back to school, but my dad always wanted me to get a degree,” Diaz said.

It was through a conversation with Tarleton’s rodeo coach Mark Eakin that also helped persuade Diaz return to complete his degree as well as collegiate rodeo action.

“Mark is a great coach,” Diaz said. “I don’t know if I would have come back if it wasn’t for him. He supports what I do and helps me as much as he can.”

In addition to an understanding coach, Diaz must coordinate his schedule with the professors who teach the courses of the full load he carries each semester. Add in the college rodeos and more than 100 PRCA rodeos he competes in, it’s surprising that he doesn’t have his own secretary.

“It is tough to juggle everything and takes a lot of communication with everyone,” Diaz said. “I try enter pro rodeos near the college rodeos. But it costs more to do both because I have to fly around a lot. Hopefully, it should pay off in the long run.”

Paying off for Diaz includes his quest to make the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., next summer and having a successful PRCA career.

Diaz is on track to make the college finals and his professional career is as bright as the Vegas strip at midnight.

But his two biggest goals include getting his degree and investing his earnings wisely so that one day he can purchase his own ranch.

Until then, all of America and those who bleed purple can watch him compete in the 2009 WNFR. Each round will be broadcast live on ESPN Classic or ESPN2. For the complete broadcast schedule, visit www.prorodeo.com.