LEHI --- A tidy basement apartment in northeast Lehi is home to a young married couple, Ben and Mury Carson. There are the usual knickknacks you would expect in a comfortable home, until you walk into their living room where two life-sized horse saddles are on display stands.
Ben is the national college rodeo champion and the saddles are the trophies he won along the way.
"I'm gonna ride in that one," Ben said, looking at the Rocky Mountain championship saddle.
"Mury won't let me ride in that one," Ben said, grinning and nodding at the national trophy. The saddle is made from elephant hide and is hand-tooled with an intricate pattern and lettering letting people know the saddle owner is a champion.
A UVU junior, Ben is part of the university's rodeo team, which tied for third place at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., June 10 to 16. Two of its members won individual national titles, Ben in steer wrestling and Tag Elliott from Thatcher, who placed in bull riding. They are the fifth and sixth national champions in the UVU rodeo program's 44-year history.
The UVU team tied with Missouri Valley College for third, finishing behind Walla Walla Community College and Sam Houston State University in the 55-team finals. It was UVU's best national rodeo finish as a team since placing second in 2007.
The win benefits the school and team with prize money to help fund future rodeo programs, but it also benefits the winners. Ben was given a scholarship of $2,700, enough to pay for one semester and books, and a prize purse of $2,000. He also received a gold-filled western belt buckle identifying the owner as a national rodeo champion.
There are other trophies he usually comes home with after a rodeo win -- bruises all down his right side from the steer's body slamming into him at 25-30 mph.
"He's been very fortunate, he's only got knocked out once in Pocatello, Idaho," said Mury, who added she worries more about him in the arena than she ever did about herself. A pole riding champion from Lehi High School, Mury Carson has a gentle smile that softly lights up her face as she looks at her husband at the kitchen table.
Steer wrestling is based on team work, Ben said. You, your hazer, your horses and the steer are all in the ring. Once he's out of the shoot gate the clock doesn't quit ticking until Ben can jump from his horse alongside the steer and send all four of the steer's hooves airborne.
A hazer is the cowboy riding a horse on the steer's right guiding the animal straight into the arena.
"If I'm not there, he won't catch it, so it's a big responsibility," said Ben's hazer, Ryley Johnson of Lehi. "I was pretty nervous. I didn't want to screw it up."
He and Ben are best friends. Their fathers, Chris Johnson of Lehi, and Todd Carson of Lindon, have been best friends since they were children.
"It's almost like we're brothers together rather than a friendship," Ryley Johnson said. "We went to school together, we rodeoed together, we've worked together, we even got married about the same time."
And the last two years they have ridden the same horse, Johnson's 13-year-old quarterhorse, Mr. NightLinger, who was especially trained for steer wrestling by Ryley and his father. As friends, Ryley and Ben also seem to share championships alternately and both won scholarships to UVU for their high school rodeo records.
"Last year I won the region, this year he won region, and then we both went to nationals this year," Johnson said.
Except Johnson had what rodeo cowboys call "one of those weeks" and missed placing in the first run.
"It was the happiest weeks of my life and one of the worst weeks of my life," Johnson said. "I was happy that Ben got it and frustrating for me personally. I should have done better than I did. I made a couple of mistakes, but I was more than happy to help Ben win it."
He said he knew Ben was going to win. A year older than Johnson, Ben has a shy smile until the sparkle in his brown eyes take over and he grins.
Noticeable too is a scar about two inches long that crosses his forehead at an angle where a horse kicked him when he was 2 years old. He comes from a rodeo family and as a Pleasant Grove High School alumnus is the older of two other brothers, John Carson who is getting ready for an LDS mission, and 12-year-old Sam Carson.
Their mother, Melissa Carson, said rodeo is a family experience.
"It takes the whole family to go out," she said. "It really has been bonding time for our whole family."
You need family to practice with so someone can open the shoots, but more than that there is a larger rodeo family. It's a community experience, she said.
"They have friends all over the state of Utah and Idaho, friends you can call on if you needed something," Melissa Carson said.
Learning rodeo is a lot of hard work and there was a time the family thought steer wrestling for Ben was not his forte. Like swimmers learn how to dive, there is always that first jump in rodeo.
As a young rider, Ben was having trouble making that first jump, freezing each time on the horse.
"That is pretty scary jumping off a horse at 100 mph," his dad, Todd Carson, said. "He wouldn't get down, wouldn't get down."
Then the magic of another gender happened by.
"She was pretty cute, she helped open the gate, and he shot out like a pro and jumped and grabbed the steer just like he knew what he was doing," said Carson with a chuckle. "And a cousin, Frances Carson, said we are going to have to have her come all the time for practice."
Both his parents are thrilled to see him take nationals by the horns.
"It's great. He's worked hard. He deserved it," Todd Carson said. "He's had a lot of accomplishments before this and I think it just accumulated.
Todd Carson describes his son as having a cool head, something needed for a 4-second feat in the sport.
"What it comes down to is a head game, using your head under pressure, and using those averages to your benefit," Todd Carson said.
"It was just a thrilling experience to watch him, he's worked hard," Melissa Carson said.