"There are still seven months left," said Gerke, 22, of Brighton, Colo. "I'm not counting myself out. Last summer, I won enough in three months to qualify for the (Wrangler) NFR. I've had a lot of people come up to me asking if I can do it. I think I can.
"I just hope my elbow holds together."
Gerke, elbow brace in tow, is finally ready to get his encore season off the ground. He'll find out how quickly his surgically repaired bone responds to the event likened to riding a jackhammer with one arm. It includes a full course of rodeos over the next two weekends seven to be exact, from Kansas City, Kan., to Fort Smith, Ark., and west to Elizabeth, Colo.
He knows he is capable of another run in 2005, as evidenced by his breakthrough year in 2004. Not only did he win some nice buckles for aggregate titles at such rodeos as Rapid City, S.D.; Greeley, Colo.; and Cheyenne, Wyo., his debut run through the Wrangler NFR had him challenging for a gold world championship buckle heading into the final weekend. Through Round 8, he was in third place and was on pace to shatter the aggregate record after averaging 85.5 points per ride.
The aggregate title, with its nearly $38,000 bonus, could have been enough to put him over the top and into rodeo immortality.
And while Gerke's will to win bubbled over with each passing day, his elbow couldn't keep up with the world's rankest broncs. He didn't place in Round 9. He went all-out in the 10th round still mathematically alive for the aggregate and world title but ended up on the Thomas & Mack Center dirt early with a no score and in obvious pain.
"I didn't have much left at the end," Gerke said. "It was OK as long as I had a little time off. That didn't happen at the NFR."
Just as it was getting good for Gerke, his momentum was stopped by an operation.
Last Dec. 22, Dr. Tandy Freeman of the Justin SportsMedicine Team repaired a ligament in Gerke's elbow and cleaned up bone spurs. Five months later, Gerke is healed and ready to play catch-up with the rest of the PRCA's bareback riders.
The injury, which actually had its origin eight years earlier when Gerke suffered a broken growth plate in the same arm, manifested itself at the Pace Picante ProRodeo Challenge last September in Omaha, Neb.
"I won the round," said Gerke of his Sept. 27 ride. "But on the last second of the ride, my horse got me into my hand and locked the elbow out. It really stretched the arm out and tore it all loose. From there, I hit Dallas (Pace Classic) and the NFR. That's all I could take."
So, Gerke was forced to shut it down and watch the first half of the rodeo season unfold in front of him. In that time, he took a job at an outfitter in Santa Barbara, Calif., and guides people on camping and fishing trips. After 10 years of non-stop rodeo, maybe it was time for a little break.
"I've been riding and breaking a lot of horses," said Gerke, who has an associate's degree in diesel mechanics from Odessa (Texas) College, where he won the college bareback riding title in 2003. "I also got certified in horseshoeing, and swinging that hammer has really helped in my rehab."
During last year's run, Gerke may have been known more for his hairstyle than his riding style. As the summer wore on, Gerke decided not to cut his hair.
Superstition? No. But he did have other, more charitable ideas.
"I had an idea of donating it to a cancer foundation since I started growing it," Gerke said. "If I made the NFR, I would let it grow more. My cousin found a foundation on the Internet called Locks for Love. They make wigs for cancer patients who have lost their hair."
Gerke hasn't decided on his optimum hair length as he sets off on his follow-up season. Usually with rodeo cowboys, if something works, they stick with it. But with the way Gerke rides, he should be OK, shaggy "doo" or not.
Now it just depends on the elbow.
"I think I'm ready to go," Gerke said. "Everything that happened last year is something I have dreamed about for years. It's like I'm walking upstairs, going a notch higher every time. Last year, the NFR was at the top of the stairway, and I had my foot halfway up there, but I tripped at the finish line. I'd love to get back there this year, and if I can reach that goal, I'll set a new one when I get there."
Now that he's back, Gerke hopes to ride for a while. He'd rather not have to play the disappearing game anymore.