It wasn’t too long ago that Wallowa County cowboy Derek Kolbaba was looking up to the bull riders who competed in local rodeos, seeking autographs and the opportunity to talk to his heroes.

Now, the 21-year-old bull rider is the one signing autographs and meeting young fans as he competes on the Professional Bull Riders tour.

Kolbaba, who as a young boy would “get on bulls in the practice pen just because (he) loved it,” said, “It’s crazy to think (that I) now have people who want to interview me and people who want my autograph. You wouldn’t ever imagine as a kid that anyone would ever want your autograph. It’s such a blessing and so cool.”

There’s good reason for the increased notoriety the Wallowa County native is receiving these days. The third-year pro is the No. 1-ranked PBR bull rider in the world heading into this week’s Built Ford Tough World Finals at
T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Kolbaba took over the top spot last week after winning the Cooper Tires Take the Money and Ride event in San Jose, California.

Kolbaba, who currently lives in Walla Walla, Washington, said he knew he’d taken over the top spot in the rankings even before leaving San Jose.

“(The standings) are updated pretty fast. I think I knew even before I got my buckle there,” he said. “This year, it’s so close right now. I think the top five guys are all within 100 points of each other. It makes it that much more fun, more exciting. Makes a guy want to get down to Vegas a little quicker.”

Kolbaba, who spent Friday morning in La Grande visiting with staff at Legacy Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, a sponsor of his for the past two years, said being a top-ranked bull rider is something he’s dreamed about since he was a child in Wallowa County.

“That’s always been the dream of mine — to be a bull rider and to be the best,” he said. “That’s what everybody shoots for. If you are going to do it, you might as well try to be the best.”

Kolbaba’s dream got its start as a youngster inside Joseph’s Harley Tucker Memorial Arena. The arena hosts Chief Joseph Days, the rodeo Kolbaba’s great-grandfather, Harley Tucker, co-founded. It was there his love for rodeo was fostered by family and friends who helped the young Kolbaba get to practices and rodeos around the Northwest, including his father, Kyle, who competed in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos in the late 1980s and early 1990s and qualified for the Circuit Finals multiple times. Kolbaba knows what his status as the PBR’s top cowboy means to his family.

“It’s awesome to have a support team like that. They’ve all hauled me around since I was kid going to junior rodeos. To have them support me now is pretty awesome,” he said. “It makes it that much more special. It’s almost like (my success belongs to) all of us. It’s the culmination of lots of years of hard work. It’s cool to have that and people who support you.”

When the PBR-season ending Built Ford Tough World Finals kicks off Wednesday, Kolbaba will be riding on the sport’s biggest stage against some of the same cowboys he grew up idolizing.

“I looked up to all those guys who were riding in the PBR then,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to show up to the Built Ford Tough events and see those guys you’ve looked up to and are now competing against.”

Kolbaba has five first-place finishes on the PBR Built Ford Tough series in 2017 and has amassed more than $300,000 in winnings so far. While he’s excited about the opportunity to put his No. 1 ranking on the line, Kolbaba knows it’s how you finish a season that matters.

“It doesn’t really count unless you are holding that gold buckle,” he said. “You can’t really be complacent with (the No. 1 ranking). There is still plenty of work to get done, plenty of bulls left to be (ridden).”

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