Tyler Earwood of Fairview and Cody Gilley of Holly Pond are used to competing against one another. They did it for several years as high school athletes for their respective schools.

Like high school athletes everywhere, they shared big dreams of one day competing in front of a huge crowd in a packed arena — they never would have guessed, however, that it would be inside a rodeo arena.

In the past year and a half, both young men made the decision to trade in their tennis shoes and cleats for cowboy boots and spurs and follow a new dream — the dream of becoming a world class bull rider.

Both Earwood, 19, and Gilley, 17, are among the more than 160 cowboys and cowgirls competing for prize money and belt buckles at this weekend's Eighth Annual Cullman County Sheriff's Rodeo at the Agricultural Trade Center on U.S. Highway 31 in Vinemont.

Gilley answered the call to cowboy up Friday night. Earwood will strap himself to his first bull of the new season during tonight's final round.

The rodeo action will get under way at 7:30 p.m.

"I remember coming to a rodeo event right here at the Ag Center and I knew right then bull riding was what I wanted to do," Earwood said.

It was the same for Gilley.

"I saw a rodeo here and when I watched the bull riders I thought about how cool that was and I got hooked," Gilley said.

But it takes more than just a desire to become a rodeo cowboy, let alone a bull rider, so both began to ask questions and the answer led them to West Point's Clark Brown, a Professional Bull Riders contractor.

"To learn to ride anything you have to go where the stock is, and Clark Brown in my opinion raises the best bucking bulls in Alabama, by far," Gilley said.

After his first time on an 1,800-pound giant, Gilley said he never had a doubt that he had found his calling.

"Oh, I got tossed. I got tossed a lot. But you can't let that stop you. You have to keep going," Gilley said.

"I've never regretted it," Earwood said. "Proudly showing off the Sipsey Arena Championship buckle he won this past September. "I made it to the finals of the National Bull Riding Association and I'll make it back there again. My goal is to be one of the best there is.

It's a dream, however, that for Earwood and Gilley, has already come with a price.

Earwood is coming off reconstructive surgery on his knee -- an injury he suffered during an event in Jasper last year. He also has a titanium plate in the left side of his face, complements of a bull he rode at an event in Moulton last year.

Gilley sustained two fractured discs in his back at a rodeo in Double Springs, but as they prepare to mount rides this weekend, both just shrugged the injuries off as part of the job.

"There's a reason bull riding is by far the most popular event at the rodeo. It's not for everybody, but there's nothing like the feeling you get when that eight-second horn sounds," Earwood said.

"It's an adrenaline rush like you wouldn't believe," Gilley said. "And if you call yourself a bull rider you may not admit to being afraid of the bull, but you had better respect them."

This weekend, Earwood and Gilley say they will cheer each other on when they ride.

Earwood already has a buckle. Gilley has competed in the Alabama High School Rodeo Finals, but has yet to win his first event buckle.

"I'm still looking for that first buckle, but I plan on finding it -- maybe this weekend," Gilley said with a sly grin.

It was a grin that didn't escape his friend Tyler.

"Yeah, and maybe I'll get my second buckle," Earwood said.

This is the eighth year the Sheriff's Office has hosted the rodeo and while Friday night's attendance wasn't available a press time, the near capacity crowd impressed event organizer Lt. David Sandlin.

"Seats are filling up fast and they're still coming in," Sandlin said. "I'm not surprised because this event has gained a reputation as being one of the top rodeos in North Alabama. Lone Star does a great job for us. They put on a great show, their rodeo stock is among the best you'll find anywhere and they draw some of the best cowboys and cowgirls in the Southeast."

And there are the rodeo events themselves -- events like steer wrestling, calf roping, team roping, barrel racing, saddle bronc riding and most everyone's favorite -- bull riding.

"We came out to see the bull riding," said Butch Mize, a Cullman resident who once lived in Fort Worth, Texas.

Abby Cook of Cullman said what she enjoys most about the rodeo is watching the children enjoy themselves.

"We're having a great time," Abby Cook said.

"I want to see the cows and the clown," said daughter Sarah Ella, 6.

If you didn't buy your tickets in advance, tickets to tonight's final go around can be purchased at the gate. The cost is $12 for adults and $10 for students (age 6-18). Children under five will be admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

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