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Chance Kretschmer doesn't wear a cowboy hat much these days, but he's still a cowboy through and through.

"I started roping when I was 2," said the 21-year-old Kretschmer, who has traded his cowboy hat for the football helmet he wears for the University of Nevada. "I first started team roping when I was 6. I grew up on a ranch, so it has just always been part of my life."

As a junior, the 6-1, 225-pound Kretschmer, who hails from the tiny Nevada town of Tonopah, is one of the top running backs in the country. In 2001, he led the nation in rushing as a freshman, only the second freshman in NCAA history to accomplish the feat (the other was current NFL star Marshall Faulk when he was at San Diego State).

So far this season, Kretschmer has rushed for 567 yards in five games. His 113.4 yards-per-game average leads the Western Athletic Conference and ranks him 12th nationally. Making this year's accomplishments even more remarkable is the fact he missed virtually all of the 2002 season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on a late hit out of bounds in Nevada's second game of the season against BYU.

Such an injury usually requires a minimum of a year for recovery. As usual, Kretschmer beat all expectations.

"They say you shouldn't be realistically back until a year and I played four games before my year date was up," he says. "I guess it was about 81/2 months when I started."

Kretschmer's return to top form hasn't come as a surprise to Nevada coach Chris Tormey.

"He's tremendously tough," Tormey says. "He's got that cowboy mentality. We had a pretty good feel for his rehab and saw how hard he worked to get back. We already knew about his mental toughness. I'm not really surprised [how quickly he returned] to be honest with you."

Tormey knows a few things about cowboys. He grew up in Eastern Washington and played football at Idaho at the same time future all-around champion Dee Pickett was playing at Boise State. Pickett's son, Cody, plays quarterback for the Washington Huskies, for whom Tormey was once an assistant coach.

On Saturday, Nevada will meet Washington in a non-conference game in Seattle.

Tormey sees similarities between Kretschmer and Cody Pickett.

"I don't know Cody personally, but I know Dee a little bit," Tormey says. "I do know Cody has that cowboy toughness like Chance. He came back from a shoulder separation a couple of years ago. He's a great competitor and he plays really hard. I would have to say they're cut from the same mold."

Kretschmer doesn't know Pickett either, though they have friends in common. "I've heard he's a great guy," Kretschmer says, adding they also have a little cowboy mentality in common.

"To go rodeo, you've got to be tough. There's nothing about it that's easy. I think he plays football with his heart, too, and that's the way you have to approach things. Your heart will take you where you want to go."

Growing up, Kretschmer competed in junior rodeos against a number of Nevada cowboys currently on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, including team roper Randon Adams, tie-down roper Matt Shiozawa and saddle bronc rider Matt Marvel to name a few.

Earning His Way
"I started competing in team roping when I was probably like 7 until right up to high school," Kretschmer recalls. "I went into mostly just sports after that. I went to little jackpot ropings and stuff like that, but I never competed [in rodeo] in high school."

Kretschmer was a three-sport star at Tonopah High School, starring in football, basketball and track. He led the Muckers to division titles in football as a freshman and junior and to basketball titles as a junior and senior. He earned all-state honors in both football and basketball.

Coming from a small school, he wasn't heavily recruited out of college and wound up walking on as a non-scholarship player at Nevada. After one redshirt season, he entered his freshman year as the Wolf Pack's third-string running back, but when the two backs ahead of him went down with injuries, Kretschmer moved into the starting job and started smashing records.

While football is his focus, he hasn't lost his love for rodeo. He's become a fixture at the Reno Rodeo each June.

"He's been around horses and livestock all his life, so I thought he'd enjoy being out here helping out," says Reno Rodeo arena director Mike Lucke, a longtime friend of Kretschmer's parents, Ray and Lynn. "So he came out and started volunteering."

Reno Rodeo Association president Tom Cates remembers Kretschmer being quiet and shy when he first started volunteering at the rodeo. "At first he just kind of stood back by the gate, but pretty soon he started fetching horses for us. Once [rodeo producer] Cotton Rosser found out how handy he was, he hired him to untie the calves and do other things."

This past year, Kretschmer helped open the gates at the bucking chutes during the roughstock events. Reno Rodeo officials see Kretschmer as a great asset for their event. "For every bit as good an athlete as he is—and he's a great athlete—he's an even better person," Lucke says. "He's just a good, good kid."

Cowboys Keep Tabs
Kretschmer has made a lot of friends in the rodeo world. Among those he's gotten to know well over the past few years are Reno Rodeo barrelman Flint Rasmussen and bullfighters Rowdy Barry and Joe Baumgartner.

Barry, who lives in Kennewick, Wash., called Kretschmer this week to say he'd be attending Nevada's game against Washington.

Rasmussen, the five-time reigning PRCA Clown of the Year, says he tries to follow Kretschmer's achievements through newspapers and the Internet. "I relate to him too because he played high school football at a small rural high school and so did I," Rasmussen says. "We have a lot of stuff in common. Even my dad is calling me every weekend, asking 'How did Chance do?'"

The past two years, Rasmussen has incorporated Kretschmer into some of his ad-lib comedy sketches during the rodeo, usually with Kretschmer on the pointed end of Rasmussen's barbs.

"You know how many Wolf Pack football players it takes to change a light bulb?" Rasmussen asked during one performance of the rodeo. "I don't know, but they get three credits for it."

Later, the two were throwing a football in the arena when Kretschmer dropped a pass. "Come on Chance, I've seen better hands on a snake," Rasmussen cracked.

It's all good fun, Rasmussen says.

"If a person can take it, it shows that he's a good person," he says. "I know he'll play along with whatever I'm doing out there, especially if it means defending his honor."

This past year, that included a foot race across the Reno Rodeo arena in which Kretschmer, in his cowboy boots and Wranglers, handily defeated Rasmussen, who was in his shorts and turf shoes.

"I still say he cheated, just like on his algebra tests," Rasmussen says with a laugh. "It was a no-win situation for Chance. Either he got beat by a clown or he beat a clown."

Kretschmer says when his football career is over, he could definitely see himself giving the rodeo circuit a try.

"Definitely, I would like to," he says. "We mess around in the training room. They've got a little roping dummy in there, just kind of a little cowboy toy. I rope on that thing every day. They're like, 'You ever going to do this?' and I say, 'You know, if football doesn't take me somewhere, I'll definitely pursue rodeo."

Kretschmer has two cousins competing on the pro circuit. Marvel Murphy is a barrel racer in the Women's Professional Rodeo Association and Ty Murphy is a tie-down roper and team roper. He competes for Western Nevada Community College and also has his PRCA card.

"There's a lot of great people out there," Kretschmer says. "I think it would be a lot of fun."

Guy Clifton covers rodeo for the Reno Gazette-Journal. He can be reached at 775.788.6337 or gclifton@rgj.com.