Natchez High graduate riding strong for McNeese Rodeo team

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NATCHEZ — Nearly a year into his collegiate rodeo career, Lionel Brown Jr. hasn’t just made an impression — he’s made history.

Brown, a Natchez High graduate and Sibley native, became the first black man to join McNeese State University’s rodeo team.

And he became the team’s president as a freshman.

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But the race part isn’t what he’s proud of.

“In high school I was one of the only African-American people to rodeo so it just kind of transferred over,” Brown said. “I don’t even think about it anymore unless someone brings it up. Some people are surprised, but my teammates weren’t. I knew a lot of them from competing against them in different events in high school.”

Brown was more excited to be named president, although he’s not sure how it happened.

He said one day his coach, Justin Browning, called him into his office and asked if he wanted the job.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, I’m a freshman. How did that happen?’” Brown said. “It’s a lot of politics, and with me being a freshman it was tough. I didn’t know what was going on at first. But now I’ve got the hang of it.”

As the rodeo team’s representative, Brown attends weekly meetings with the school’s other organizations and does a lot of paperwork.

Between that, practice and schoolwork, there isn’t a lot of time left over.

That’s tough, said Brown’s mother, Doris Brown. She said her son wanted to get a job to help defray the costs of being on the rodeo team, but she told him no.

“Everything is on the parent,” Doris Brown said. “He had scholarships this first year, and that helped for a semester, and he had some sponsors. But the economy now is killing that.”

The rodeo team is more like a club, so it doesn’t have athletic funding. The participants buy their own horses and equipment and must pay for food and shelter for those horses. They also pay their travel expenses and registration fees for each event.

Lionel Brown had scholarships from the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association and the Mississippi High School Rodeo Association before his freshman year.

Despite the costs, Doris Brown said once she realized how much her son loved the rodeo, she decided to do anything possible to let him continue it.

“This is his dream,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can with everybody having to put together to make this work. It’s a family deal to be able to do this.”

The rodeo does run in the Brown family. Lionel Brown’s father introduced him to it at age 7 when he bought him his first horse, and now his two younger sisters compete as well, one in high school and one at the middle school level.

Lionel Brown is a calf roper, which he said he loves because of the dedication and concentration it takes. But he didn’t always want to go to McNeese — he had plans to attend Mississippi State.

“I found a pamphlet that I made in fourth grade that said I was going to go to MSU. I said, ‘I was right, I just didn’t know which MSU it was,’” he said. “The (McNeese) coach came to my high school rodeo when it was held in Hattiesburg. He called me the following week and asked me if I was interested in coming down here. I said yes I was and asked what I needed to do to get there.”

McNeese is the only school in Louisiana with a rodeo team, and it’s a good one.

The Cowboys are ranked atop the Southern Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, and they are No. 3 in the county with just one meet to go.

Lionel Brown, who played football and was a powerlifter at Natchez High, said collegiate rodeo is much different than high school, but it’s something that’s made him better.

“Being on a good team makes you better. If your team is tougher than the others, you’re going to be tougher,” he said. “When you’re on a good team, you have to be so much better just to make the team, and you have to really be competitive to stay on the team.

“It helps you when you get to the rodeo because the competition doesn’t seem as hard. It helps you relax knowing that you compete against the toughest every day.”

Lionel Brown has had a broken arm and concussions, among other injuries, and is putting off a non-rodeo related hip surgery because it would keep him from doing what he loves for six months.

For his mom, the rodeo isn’t about the travel or the money or the awards. Even though she’s only gotten to see her son compete once at the collegiate level, she knows it makes him, and her family, happy.

“I don’t know how much time the five of us have spent in the car together,” she said. “But with this sport, everybody’s together. That’s very important right now, with the divorce rate and everything else, to stay together and learn to help each other. Rodeo families are very close.”