NEW BLOOMFIELD — Justin Becker has his hands full.
Standing in the middle of the ring a tethered calf sprints at full strength away from him, carving a line in the dirt floor. Directly to Becker's left, his father and coach Terry Becker looks on with a stern gaze, ready to intervene should something go wrong but also critiquing his son's every move.
To Justin Becker's right, the rope keeping the calf from running out of the Beckers' New Bloomfield barn goes taut and Becker runs toward the calf. In what seems like one motion, he seizes the calf, turns it on its side and brings it crashing to the ground with a loud thud. He deftly rips out a new rope, and ties a precise knot around the legs of the fallen calf.
Justin Becker's bright green eyes glance at his father, then the rope fastened to the calf, and finally to the calf itself, before springing up, mission complete.
Just as calf roping requires Becker to keep track of a number of different factors at the same time, so does his lifestyle.
The recently graduated senior earned all-district and all-conference accolades in both basketball and baseball for New Bloomfield High School. The 17-year-old excels in the classroom (he scored a 35 in the math portion of his ACT) and takes what time he has leftover from school and sports to spend with his girlfriend. Justin Becker will play baseball and perhaps basketball next year for Westminster College in Fulton.
He is also starting to make a name for himself in high school rodeo. Heading into this week's Missouri High School Rodeo State Finals, he is ranked fifth in calf roping and third in team roping. Justin Becker says he is out practicing "about every day its available," or as often as the fickle Missouri weather permits.
"I don't take much time off, I guess," he said.
Becker started competing in rodeo in 1998. Along with his brothers Kyle Becker, 20, who competes in rodeo for Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, and Paul Becker, 12, the family has a number of saddles and belt buckles given as awards at various rodeos.
"They've pretty well grown up around it," Terry Becker said.
One of the most difficult parts in rodeo for Justin Becker is trying to get his horse to cooperate with him in the calf roping event, something he calls "the hardest thing in the world." In his opinion, there have been too many mistakes recently.
"Rodeo definitely teaches you how to fail," Justin Becker said. "You got to wipe the slate clean."
Justin Becker has had plenty to rebound from. He smiles as he pulls up the sleeve of his plaid shirt and shows off a winding scar running along the length of his forearm. He rotates it to reveal a nickel size welt on the opposite side where a bone popped through when he tripped practicing calf roping in October of 2008.
The injury was supposed to sideline him for six months. He was out for two.
"Rodeo is a pretty dangerous sport," Kathy Becker, Justin's mother, said.
One of the reasons the Beckers are drawn to rodeo is because of the family friendly atmosphere. Justin Becker's parents hold him accountable for how he acts during competition, but the friends the Beckers have made along the way also promote good sportsmanship and serve as an extended family. If a contestants' horse or calf gets sick or injured, they can often count on competitors to lend them their livestock.
"You have 27 sets of parents, not just one," Terry Becker said. "They are folks you are competing against, but also your friends."
"Every weekend I know where my kid is because I'm with him," Kathy Becker said. "(Rodeo) made us a lot closer as a family ... It's one of those things that you can do all your life."
Justin Becker says it was one of his goals at the beginning of the season to make it to the National High School Finals Rodeo and the state finals will be his last opportunity. The top four finishers in each event at the end of the season qualify.
"Pressure isn't an issue anymore," Justin Becker said. " I convert it into focus instead of nervousness."
"That's his job and he enjoys it," Kathy Becker said. "You have to have a purpose in life, I guess."