Kent State senior Keith Shamblin excels in two sports: he represents the Golden Flashes at the intercollegiate level in one, and he pursues the other at the amateur level in the summer.
Although the two sports are conducted in unique settings with very different sets of rules, there are definite similarities: the quest to conquer an opponent ... the desire to win ... the need to persevere.
Shamblin is in his fourth season as one of the Flashes' most accomplished wrestlers _ a preseason favorite to take home this year's Mid-American Conference title at 150 pounds. On the mat, his opponent is evenly matched in weight. But when Shamblin is performing in his other favorite sport, he's outweighed about 10-to-1.
His opponent isn't a man; it's a bull that usually tips the scales at more than a half ton. Shamblin has spent most weekends for the last few summers squaring off against these animals at rodeos around the country.
There are many physical qualities that prove advantageous in both wrestling and bullriding: strength, instinct, timing, balance, coordination. When asked what the biggest difference in requirements is, Shamblin explains with a smile that a wrestler needs a little more endurance than a bullrider.
To successfully "cover" a bull and receive a score, a cowboy must stay on it for eight seconds; a collegiate wrestling match lasts seven minutes in regulation.
Keith's older brother, Kevin, also rides bulls and is his travel partner in the summer. The brothers compete at local rodeos in northeastern Ohio and travel on the regional circuit. Although they try to enter as many nearby events as possible, they've gone as far as Arkansas and Alabama to track down weekend rodeos.
Rodeo runs deep in the Shamblin family. Keith's mother, Sharon, was a competitive barrel racer for many years, as was his father, Bruce. His father also has ridden a few bulls in his time.
Ironically, Sharon and Bruce originally met at a rodeo in 1971 and married two years later. When the pair was raising their three sons, of which Keith is the middle, they went to every rodeo that passed through town. Vacations still include trips to well-known rodeo events such as National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, which the Shamblins attended in 1996, or Cheyenne Frontier Days, which they will go to this July.
In fact, the Shamblin family sticks together in more ways than one, including their connection to Kent State. Besides Keith being a varsity wrestler, Kevin and younger brother Kraig are students. Kevin also works at the University Bookstore and Sharon is the secretary to Dr. Davina Gosnell, Dean of the School of Nursing.
The family currently has two horses, which Sharon rides every weekend she can. The Shamblins raised cattle until moving from Grafton to Palmyra Township in 1991. Although mom and dad didn't necessarily encourage their sons to start riding bulls, they never tried to stop them either.
"The boys always had 4-H steers," said Sharon. "When we came across one we couldn't tame, they'd just ride it. I guess one thing led to another."
Both Keith and Kevin have experienced some success since they began riding about three years ago. Keith's biggest win to date occurred in Fairmont, West Virginia, last summer, when he scored an 82 on a ride at the 4-T Arena and walked away with a career-best paycheck of $2,500. Scoring in bullriding is based on a 100-point scale that awards up to 50 points each for the cowboy and the bull.
Rodeo is unlike most sports because competitors have to "pay to play." In addition to rodeo entry fees (which can range from $50 to a few hundred dollars depending on the size of the event), travel and hotel costs are involved. So prize money can be deceiving.
Add to that annual membership dues for organizations such as the IPRA (International Pro Rodeo Association), of which Keith is a member, and rodeo becomes an expensive hobby.
Considering the obvious danger and the inherent expense, one might wonder what it is about rodeo that draws the Shamblins of the world to it. The excitement ... the thrill ... the sense of accomplishment ... the camaraderie among competitors.
"Ever since I was about five years old and my parents took us to rodeos, I knew that's what I wanted to do," said Keith. "I don't think my parents ever really thought we'd take it this far. It can be a dead-end road. But to me, it's like living a dream."
Kevin sums it up even more succinctly: "Every kid grows up wanting to be a cowboy."
Mom and dad try to attend Keith and Kevin's rodeos whenever possible, depending on the distance and timing. When it comes to Keith's collegiate wrestling career, the couple hasn't missed many meets _ home or away. When asked which sport she would rather be a spectator at when Keith is competing, his mother isn't very quick to answer.
"Both are nerve-wracking in their own way," she said. "I don't expect him to get hurt wrestling, but with riding bulls you never know. But we've been around rodeo all our lives ... it's a possibility you accept."
As Shamblin's wrestling career at Kent State draws to a close, he may be inclined to pursue rodeo on a more consistent basis. Keith's future goals in bullriding include trying to gain enough experience and success to be able to compete at events of the Pro Bull Riders (PBR), which one must be invited to join. Being a part of that organization, which was started by bullriding legend Tuff Hedeman, would allow Shamblin to enter major bullriding events at various locations around the country.
"I know that's a big goal, but I've always been good at anything I've set my mind to," said Keith. "I don't think that's too far out of reach in a couple of years."
His future may include heading west to be geographically closer to higher-profile rodeos, but he probably won't make any decisions until he graduates with a degree in general studies next year.
In the past Shamblin has had to balance the two sports he loves, giving consideration to his physical well-being while concentrating on his rodeo pursuits in wrestling's offseason.
Putting wrestling first has paid off for Shamblin. He's currently ranked second in the conference at 150 pounds heading into this weekend's MAC Championships with a record of 23-6. Shamblin has placed third at the MAC Championships twice (1995 and 1996), and last year was the runner-up in his weight class.
Shamblin recently moved into Kent State's top-10 list in all-time wins with 81. He also was the recipient of this year's Joe Begala Award, which is presented annually to the Kent State wrestler who best exemplifies academic achievement, wrestling skill and merit.
This year his goals are to win the MAC crown at 150 and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Championships. Kent State hosts the conference tournament today and Sunday; the national championships will be held at the CSU Convocation Center in Cleveland March 19-21.
Earning All-American honors would be about the best ending imaginable to Shamblin's collegiate wrestling career. The top eight finishers at the NCAA Championships earn that honor ... and eight is a very lucky number for a bullrider.