Taytan Wing was not at the Teton County Fairgrounds Saturday night, but not a cowboy or a judge present could say his bull ride wasn’t damn near flawless.
Before the rodeo got started, after his little sister, Bailey, brought the flag out into the arena for its opening, Wing’s family and friends gathered behind the chutes. They strapped Wing’s chaps onto the back of a bull, opened the gate and let out yips and hollers, traded back slaps and hugs as the bull spun and bucked. The chaps stayed on all eight seconds.
“That’s what we wanted,” Wing’s stepfather Chris Meeks said. “To send him off.”
Saturday night was a celebration of Wing’s life. The Big Piney bull rider, football player and wrestler died in April, just shy of his 17th birthday.
Along with his accomplishments on the turf and the mat, Wing was cutting his teeth as a bull rider at the Jackson Hole Rodeo the past few summers, like most of the other young men who suit up behind the chutes and get their turn in the arena. For his family the rodeo is where it made sense to celebrate a life cut short. A special buckle was made for the winner of bull riding that night, emblazoned with Taytan’s name, a set of wings, a bull and a cross. An extra $500 went on top of the champion’s earnings.
“We were kind of like, well he’s really good at football, really good at wrestling,” Meeks said. “We were going to do a scholarship deal, but at the same time he hated school. … Why don’t we give somebody a buckle and some money, they can do what they want with it.”
Wing died from an accidental gunshot wound in mid-April. It was Meeks who found him.
“It was just a tragedy. He got killed, Easter Sunday. Well, he was still alive but he died the day after Easter,” Meeks said. “He got killed on my birthday and we buried him on his 17th birthday.”
Wing’s funeral was April 25, more than a month into the heart of the coronavirus outbreak. His obituary says the service was to be held in the pasture next to his family’s house, where visitors could pay their respects from their cars for the service.
“We couldn’t have the funeral. You had to have only 10 people and they had to wear masks and all that,” Meeks said. “We had it right out in the yard. The whole crew was there, probably 500 people showed up.
“I said, ‘we’re having a god damn funeral.’ We pulled a flatbed trailer out there and I stood up there and talked, and gave the Cowboy Spirit at the beginning of it. … Everybody showed up.”
The last flight of bull riding Saturday night was sure to be where the champion was going to come from, with a stacked field of cowboys who’ve spent summer nights learning the craft just as Wing did. Kade Madsen shot into the lead, scoring an 85 atop 98 Trick Daddy. Payton Nelson, a Utah cowboy who has lit up the Jackson Hole Rodeo this year, matched his 85 atop 521 Whiskey River.
The final go of the night belonged to Briggs Madsen, the 20-year-old Utahn who said he’d just come back from his mission trip to South Carolina. His bull, 306 Conspiracy Theory, one of the better bulls the rodeo offers, came out spinning and kicking, and Madsen matched every move. With eight seconds passed, the announcer didn’t need to wait for the judges to know for sure the final go of the night was the winner.
And he was right. 89 points for Madsen, the first Taytan Wing Memorial buckle and 500 bucks of extra cash.
As the grandstands emptied, a young bull rider who’d missed his ride got his riding gear back on, and a new bull was brought into the chute for him. He rode the bull without any crowd, without any chance of getting money. Meeks chuckled a bit. Many nights in the rodeo just last year would have Wing in the young cowboy’s spot, getting another shot to get on a bull.
“They let that kid who’s learning, he got bucked off so they put him on another one,” Meeks said. “They used to do that for Taytan all the time. I think that was the big thing for me, just to send him off as part of our family. He loved this. He was entered all the time, that was what he was doing.”
Meeks and Wing’s mother, Misty, met Madsen, presented him the buckle and chatted. Madsen didn’t know Wing, but if there ever was a night of bull riding at the Jackson Hole Rodeo to send Wing out on, that might have been the one.
“Meeting his parents, I can tell he was a great young man,” Madsen said. “So to finish out with an 89-point ride for him, that couldn’t be better.”
There were tears streaming down faces and into masks as Wing’s family walked off from behind the chutes after his chaps’ final ride to start the show. Meeks was fired up, pounding the gate as the bull bucked. Without a man’s weight on the bull’s back, he wasn’t so sure those chaps were going to see anything more than a few lazy steps out into the arena.
“For us, this is closure,” Meeks said. “I didn’t think that bull would do anything, but the son of a bitch jumped out there and bucked, and if Taytan had been riding that son of a bitch, he’d have won the f---ing bull riding … he set up there and he rode him.”
The buckle and the award money were tokens, and “closure” was what Wing’s family was really after Saturday night at the Teton County Fairgrounds. Meeks said those eight seconds were it. They were the closure.
“I just got to watch him stick it on one, and that puff of smoke was his ashes, man,” Meeks said. “And boom! He stuck one.”