Riding for his hero

Austin Corson keeps Hertzog's colors alive

They had an unfamiliar set of feet in them, but the red boots stood out just as brilliantly as they always had.

"Where'd you get those red boots?" a curious cowboy asked Austin Corson as he prepared for his ride.

Corson smiled big and said, "They're Wes Hertzog's."

Wes Hertzog, a familiar local rodeo cowboy and eight-time Saddle Bronc World Champion in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Series, died Aug. 26 at age 53 from injuries sustained in a rodeo ride at the Routt County Fair in early August.

At Hertzog's funeral, Corson wore a T-shirt dedicated to the cowboy. "A legend and a hero," it read.

To Austin, that shirt had a real meaning.

Hertzog promised to ride well in memory of Austin's dad, Bruce Corson, in a 2002 rodeo -- a dedication Austin never forgot. Hertzong won that saddle bronc competition and gave the belt buckle to Austin.

That gesture moved Austin to do the same for Hertzog.

When his hero was in the hospital with fatal injuries from a ride, Austin wrote Hertzog a letter and promised he'd ride in his honor at his first high school rodeo.

So, after his first attempt, Corson specifically dedicated the second ride. He jumped out of the shoot and rode for eight seconds in a fashion Hertzog would have been proud of.

"It would have felt good to ride in his honor even if I didn't make it," Corson said. "But to actually accomplish it made it even better."

Corson had never ridden saddle bronc before his trip to the Ute Mountain Rodeo. This summer, Hertzog coached him to prepare for his first ride. Hertzog also gave the rookie cowboy some of his own gear, which included the red boots.

At Hertzog's funeral, they read Corson's letter. The hundreds of people at the funeral knew that Corson would ride for Hertzog.

"There's more pressure when you're riding for somebody," Corson said. "I just held on with all I could."

Austin's mom Kelly was at the rodeo. She said it was moving to see her son look up to the sky and tell Wes, "That was for you" after he held onto the bronc for eight seconds.

"It really showed there is somebody up there looking over us," she said. "It made a believer out of Austin."

Kelly cherishes the picture she has of Austin in the red boots holding on to the bronc with one hand as the animal bucked with all its might.

"It's such a great picture," she said.

Austin said he wasn't thinking much during the ride, but a familiar "lift, lift, lift" raced through his mind.

That was the repetition that Hertzog ingrained in Austin's head.

Corson was the only cowboy to hold on for eight seconds that day.

"I'd like to thank a lot of people for helping me," he said. "But Wes, even though he wasn't there, helped me a lot."

Austin wasn't sure whether anything would be able to beat the feeling of his first eight-second ride.

"It felt awesome," he said. "To wear his stuff and to honor him was one of the highest highs I've ever had."

Wes told Austin he'd experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during his rodeo career. Never was that more true for Corson's last two weeks.

Finding out that his hero was in a coma at a hospital was the lowest of lows. Having a chance to honor him just as Hertzog had done for his family was, as he said, the highest of highs.

Even if he doesn't ride the full eight seconds again, Corson will honor Wes every time he saddles up in the bright red boots and colorful turquoise chaps.

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