Student fights for dream
By KARA HACKNEY
Special to The Hays Daily News
Jacob Welker's family has made a habit of following dreams and putting in the work it takes to make them come true.
So it just seems right for the 19-year-old Pretty Prairie native to take his turn and do the same.
Welker, a Fort Hays State University freshman and son of Jeff and Denise Welker, is working toward what he calls "dream living." He is pursuing his dream of becoming a professional rodeo bullfighter, also known as a cowboy protector -- or, to put it simply -- the man who protects the bull rider from the bull itself.
While not the career choice of many, Welker's passion is evident and inspiring -- and will be showcased this weekend at the FHSU Rodeo.
Pursuing dreams is a familiar concept with his family. His father's dream of becoming a highway patrolman came true and concluded recently with his retirement after 27 years.
Welker's mother fulfilled her dream of running college track, and his sister made her dream of becoming a Kansas State University cheerleader come true and is captain of the cheer squad.
"It's been my dream since I was 5 years old," Welker said. "I figure you only live once, so you might as well give your dream a shot."
Welker took his shot approximately two years ago by participating in his first rodeo bullfighting school hosted by Sankey Rodeo Schools in Derby.
"I learned to be aggressive," Welker said. "Because if you're not aggressive, you won't be going to the bull, getting his attention and keeping everybody safe."
On Feb. 21 to 23, Welker put his schooling to work at the K-State college rodeo in Manhattan. He fought bulls alongside bullfighters Chris Munroe and Daniel Unruh.
"I got ran over once and dislocated my shoulder," Welker said. "That's just part of the job, but it was a good learning experience."
After all, the dream of bullfighting comes at a price, as any dream does.
FHSU Rodeo Coach Bronc Rumford said he is familiar with the rising star.
"I've known him his whole life," Rumford said. "His dad grew up 3 miles from me."
Welker's dad worked for years as a volunteer for the Abbyville Rodeo, a hometown show for Rumford, whose family is well-known for its stock contracting firm that brings livestock to rodeos.
"I can remember him when he was little -- I'm talking even before school. He was just fascinated by the bullfighters," Rumford said. "He would sit and watch those guys. ... And for a little kid to have that attention span ... a lot of that bull riding slack in those days would go on for two or three hours.
"He would never move."
It's safe to say Welker is moving now as he works toward a professional level in the sport.
In November, he attended a bullfighting school instructed by world champion professional bullfighter Wacey Munsell in Weatherford, Okla.
"I had six students, and three stood out," Munsell said. "All they wanted was to be in front of bulls and were like cow dogs eager to go work when a bull would face up and fight.
"Jacob was one of the three. That's what was impressive -- someone eager to learn and put what he learned to use.
"I wasn't sure of his athletic ability until he and I played in the Cowboy Golf Tournament in Pretty Prairie last summer. He got to playing around, doing back flips, among other things, that I'm unable to do while we were shooting, and I thought that this kid might be able to make a bullfighter."
Welker said having a cheerleader for a sister has its rewards.
"That's something my sister taught me," Welker said. "Backflips and back handsprings."
Welker's athletic ability is no secret, but bullfighting requires more than athleticism.
"Jacob is the perfect combination of when hard work meets talent," said Ross Russell, FHSU rodeo assistant coach.
While he might have been born with the talent, it seems Welker learned his work ethic at a young age.
"I was born with bilateral cleft lip and palate," Welker said. "We've gone down to Dallas, Texas, since 1999 for surgeries and orthodontic work. Everybody asks me what happened, if I had an accident or something.
"It kind of gives everyone a different view. Not everybody's perfect, and you just be the best you can be."
But while many might see the birth defect as a challenge, Rumford said he doesn't know Welker ever has thought of it as one.
"It's all he's ever known, and they've been working on it for so many years," Rumford said. "I don't really think he ever thinks about it until he has to go do his surgery."
Welker said it's important to have faith and mentions Joshua 1:9 as his favorite Bible verse.
"I just rely on God," he said. "He knows what my plans are for later on in life, so I put all my trust in Him and do what He wants me to do."
While he is studying animal science at FHSU, Welker said he hopes to live out his plan of professionally protecting bull riders in the rodeo arena.
He wants to focus on bullfighting now and have an education to fall back on when he can't fight anymore.
"In time, and not very long, he will be one of the top bullfighters in the country for a few reasons," Rumford said. "He is very athletic. He's quick, and he can move. His work ethic is outstanding, and he's got the mentality to handle the job. He also has some of the top guys in the world that are coaching him and he's gone to schools with. He's got good support, he's got good work ethic, and he's got the physical ability.
"So he's going to make it. It's just a matter of time."
Welker said he's ready for that time to come.
"Everybody has gotten their chance to live their dream, so I guess it's my turn to take my shot," he said.
"And that's what I'm going for."