Unbridled Courage to Walk Again
Winter 2020 Issue Written by Cyd Hoefle Photography by George McBroom Jr., Jenae Marie, and Shelby Vezain
J.R. Vezain's Story of Determination and Spiritual Strength
“We’ll get through this,” J.R. Vezain said to his young wife. “Whatever it takes.”
Those were the first words J.R. spoke to his wife, Shelby, after the bareback riding accident two years ago that paralyzed him from the waist down.
Through the entire ordeal, from the moment J.R. knew that the horse he was riding was going to fall on him, until today, two years later, the couple have claimed God’s presence, promises and plans on their lives.
It was close to the end of the 2018 rodeo season. As a past pro-rodeo rookie of the year and six-time qualifier at the NFR, J.R. was in the 13th or 14th place, on the bubble, fighting to stay in the top 15 spots with several other cowboys. He was on the top of his game, physically, emotionally and mentally. Winning in Pasadena would secure him a coveted position at the National Rodeo Finals.
He’d drawn the horse Brazos Bash, a young mare with only one showing on the PRCA. When the clock started, she and J.R. came out of the chute strong. The mare had bucked a couple of times when suddenly she bumped back into the chute, reared straight up and flipped over backward. Her body crushed J.R.
“I remember everything,” he said. “I knew the second she broke my back. Then she rolled away from me, and when she jumped up, she stomped me right in the gut. I couldn’t breath and the pain was the worst I’d ever felt. I went to sit up and couldn’t move my legs. I didn’t know how bad it was, but I knew it wasn’t good.”
Air-lifted to a top-ranked critical care hospital in Houston, J.R. underwent emergency surgery when it was determined that his T9 and T10 vertebrae were broken. Amazingly he suffered no broken ribs or internal injuries from being stomped on—a medical miracle in itself.
“I was hysterical,” Shelby, who was back home, said. “I couldn’t get a flight out until 7 the next morning and I didn’t see J.R. until that next afternoon. We had just found out I was pregnant, and I was an emotional wreck. Still, every time I took the time to pray, God would give me peace.”
Three days after the wreck and surgery to insert rods into J.R.’s back to fuse his spine together, he got real with the doctors. “Just how bad is it?” he asked.
The doctors told him, “It’s as bad as it could be without severing the spine. You have a slim to slight chance of ever walking again.”
J.R. replied to them, “I can take a slim to slight chance. That gives me something to work with.”
He spent days in ICU, and then was transferred to begin physical therapy. He was determined. When the people in occupational therapy thought they would need a week to teach him how to adapt to life in a wheelchair, he took a day. When physical therapy set goals for him to achieve in a week’s time, he did them in a few days.
Being an athlete helped. Working out regularly, his body strength was at its height. Even today, his upper body strength is amazingly good. But it’s his faith, he says, that sustains him.
“I remember the verses that were going through my head as I laid in the hospital,” he said. “Romans 8:28, James 1: 2-4, Jeremiah 29:11, all of them reminded me that God has a plan for me, and He is going to help me through this every step of the way.”
Shelby agreed. “I spent my entire pregnancy in the hospitals with J.R.. We prayed against morning sickness those first few months and continually for a healthy baby, and God answered both prayers.”
After a month in Houston, J.R. and Shelby headed to Salt Lake City where he endured five more months of rehabilitation. With rehab in the morning and afternoons free, J.R. found a new hobby in leatherwork with someone who offered to let him use his shop. He took advantage of that and honed his talent. Today, in addition to ranching, he tools purses, spurs and breast collars and has had hundreds of orders.
After six months of being away from home, the couple returned to the Newman family ranch at Melstone, arriving just before the birth of their son, Ryatt.
Looking back over the first year, both J.R. and Shelby describe what they say is “God’s fingerprint all over the entire situation” and claim He set them up for this time in their lives.
In the months leading up to the accident, the couple had been doing a Bible study called “Coming to My Senses,” about a young man who had broken his neck in a motocross accident, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. He was given a million-to-one odds of ever walking and after years of rehabilitation, made a 20-mile trek, on foot, across the desert.
“The timing of that study was only God,” J.R. said. “I remember telling Shelby, ‘If I ever ended up like that, I hope I’d have his attitude.’”
As the months peeled off the calendar, he continued to push himself. His in-laws transformed their garage into a gym so he could pursue a daily workout regimen.
“It’s redneck for sure,” he laughed. “But the attitude of our family is, ‘How can we make this easier for everyone?’ Not just me, but also for everyone trying to help me.”
There are pulleys and mechanisms located around the ranch to ensure that J.R. can stay active and help out. His pickup and 4-wheeler have been modified for him to drive. His saddle has extra padding on the seat so he can spend time riding without getting sores.
He’s been able to help with calving, branding, working cows, moving cattle and shipping, and this spring he even roped calves to tag from his ATV. There’s nothing that he wants to do that he hasn’t figured out a way to do.
As a young rancher, he’s increased his sheep herd to over 1,000 head, and he and Shelby have added to their cow herd. It would be a remarkable feat for anyone J.R.’s age, 28, but even more so because of his disability.
“I wouldn’t be doing as well as a rancher if I hadn’t gotten hurt,” he said. “I know I’d still be rodeoing. This has made me refocus.”
Daily, the couple remain steadfast in their prayers for the miracle of J.R. walking again.
“It’s taking longer than I’d hope for sure,” he said. “I don’t try to put on false hope. It sucks being in a wheelchair. But every day, I get out of bed and get going. No matter how bad a day I think I might be having, I remind myself that someone out there is praying they could have what I have. There’s always someone in a worse situation.”
“J.R. doesn’t feel sorry for himself,” Shelby added. “It’s obviously hard, but it could be worse. He has never asked God why He allowed this. He’s never wondered, why me? His faith is amazing.”
The Newman Ranch at Melstone has multiple family members living on it. Besides J.R. and Shelby and Shelby’s parents, there are several brothers and an uncle. The uncle is a paraplegic, resulting from a car accident in his teens. Shelby doesn’t remember him any other way. Her grandmother, who was her uncle’s caregiver, modeled for her what a caregiver looks like.
“I’ve never been uncomfortable with J.R. like this. I know what he’s capable of. We just adapt and move forward.”
Eighteen-month-old, Ryatt, rising from his nap, toddled out of his room and climbed on his dad’s lap. J.R. hugged him and spoke to him softly before he climbed down in search of toys.
“He’s a wonderful father,” Shelby said. “I can confidently leave Ryatt with him and know I don’t have to worry. He figures out ways to do everything.”
J.R. and Shelby’s optimism, inspiration and faith have impacted thousands. J.R. posts his progress on Instagram and is followed by 18,000 people. He’s been asked to speak at rodeos, churches, camps and high schools. Telling his story helps them both.
He also has become a rodeo judge, and enjoys staying in the rodeo circle, a tightly knit group that has offered him support and help in many ways.
“We aren’t the first ones to go through this,” Shelby said, “But if we can give someone else hope, we’ll try to do that.”
Last year J.R. spoke to over 1,500 high school students at the High School Rodeo Finals in Rocksprings, Wyoming. The message he gave them was to not take anything for granted. Along with a positive message, J.R. will always bring the Gospel into his talks.
“I can’t imagine going through this without my faith in Jesus,” he said. “I’m just a broken man in a broken world trying to show people who God is.”