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Breathing Room

As much as he hates being away from his family for long periods of time, Darby Hunt didn't seem to mind the cross-country return trip from the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Pocatello, Idaho, to his home in Jacksonville, Fla.

It's amazing what a quick $11,711 will do to a guy's psyche. And wallet.

"Those were the biggest four days of my career," Hunt, 35, said. "I felt like I should have won a little more, but I won't complain. I can get bills paid. This is something you strive for — to be the best at what you do."

Hunt was his event's overall earnings champion at the DNCFR, which wrapped up March 20. He was a late addition to one of the PRCA's most lucrative and prestigious rodeos after year-end champion Luke Campbell and runner-up Lex Owens were unable to make the trek to Idaho.

Hunt quickly jumped on the opportunity and an airplane to test his luck against 23 other bulldoggers. He placed in every round, saving his worst time — 5.3 seconds — for last but still drawing a check.

About the only thing that didn't go right for Hunt was the drive back home. His friend and fellow Southeastern Circuit steer wrestler David Quirin suffered multiple injuries during a first-round accident and had to be flown to Mississippi for treatment.

So Hunt spent some of the extra time by mapping out the rest of his spring and summer with his newfound windfall.

"I'll still stay close to the house," Hunt said. "I'll pick and choose some good rodeos and go on a summer run. I'll probably try to get to Corpus Christi [Texas] and Fort Smith [Arkansas], and we'll see what happens after that."

But mainly, Hunt was thankful for the chance to catch up with bill collectors, even if he's not wearing a championship buckle.

"This gives me a little breathing room," Hunt said. "I'd sure like to have that buckle, but money is always good, too. You can't buy much with a buckle."

Hunt turned pro in 1998 and enjoyed his best season in 2001, when he earned $14,080 and claimed his circuit's year-end title. He has been in rodeo for most of his life and actually started his amateur career riding bulls. As his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame filled out, he knew his strength wasn't in the roughstock events.

So he turned to the timed-event end of the arena and steer wrestling. With the help of Southeastern Circuit all-around cowboy Spunk Sasser and such names as ProRodeo Hall of Famers Steve Duhon and Ote Berry, as well as Ivon Nelson and D.R. Daniel, Hunt realized he could make a living turfing steers.

The first two months of 2004, however, didn't give him much encouragement.

That changed the week before Pocatello when Hunt won his event title and $1,744 at the Okeechobee (Fla.) Cattlemen's Spring Rodeo.

"Getting to go to the DNCFR was obviously well needed," Hunt said. "This winter has been really cold, and I'm not talking about the weather. I haven't done much other than break barriers. It's kind of aggravating, but maybe that's all fixed now."

Hunt just wants to share his fortunes with his wife, Shellie, and 3-year-old daughter, Try.

"My wife and I train team roping and bulldogging horses, and my daughter is my biggest fan," Hunt said. "Anytime you can rodeo with your family, that's a big plus. We've thought about maybe moving to be closer to more rodeos, but family is real important to me and it's probably why I haven't been more into the rodeo business. All of our family is here in Florida."

So while Hunt obviously enjoyed his time in Idaho, he was nonetheless overjoyed to return home. The earnings were just a bonus.