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From champions to stock handlers, meet the 'Faces of the Rodeo'

James Cheng / msnbc.com

Cowboys enter the arena with flag-waving fanfare during the first go-round of National Finals Rodeo Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 in Las Vegas.

“There’s never a child born at some time in his life that didn’t want to be a cowboy. You can always buy a hat as a little kid. You might get to go to the fair and sit on a pony. Some of them are raised where they have a horse, but there’s always gonna be cowboys.”
-- Randy Corley, rodeo announcer

LAS VEGAS -- From the legends of outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James to the charismatic swagger of entertainment stars Gene Autry and John Wayne, the cowboy life has left an indelible mark on American culture.
What kid hasn’t donned a cowboy hat and silver star, shoved a cap-loaded six-shooter into a plastic holster and imagined capturing the glory of the Old West?

It’s a fantasy that harkens to a simpler time, when pioneers worked the land as farmers and ranchers. They lived off what they produced themselves, and their biggest reward came from the product of their own sweat and toil.

It seems like a long time ago, and it’s hard to imagine living such a lifestyle surviving the sensory overload and short attention spans of modern day pop culture. But it has survived in one sector of American life: the world of professional rodeo. It’s a sport where the majority of those involved are connected to the Western way of life – the backbone of American culture, in a way -- through ranching and farming.

We will take you behind the scenes of professional rodeo this week at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where the best cowboys in the world are competing in their version of the Super Bowl. We’ll introduce you to the tough, gritty competitors themselves and try to discover why they compete in such a dangerous sport, risking so much for so little. We’ll also get to know many of the other people involved with the sport, from the former legends to the stock handlers, from the bullfighters to the medical staff and beyond.

“One thing good about rodeo is it’s the way this country was settled, the Western way of life,” says Dean Oliver, a former calf roping champion who at age 81 still comes to the National Finals every year to work as a grip for a television crew. “I really like the type of people who rodeo and ranch. They’re honest, they work, they won’t cheat you. I like to be related to their way of life.
“Kind of like the people that came over in the wagon train. They were tough, and cowboys are tough. I respect that.”

Toughness. Respect. Honesty. They are themes that come up time and time again in Western culture. But how strong and deep is that culture? How does it survive in the flash and glare of the MTV generation? How does a sport keep that spirit of the West alive?

We aim to find out. So saddle up and ride with us into the world of professional rodeo. Every day this week, we'll post new "Faces of the Rodeo."

See Faces of the Rodeo: The cowboys. Get to know some of the top competitors in rodeo, and find out what they love about their sport.