This teenager comes from the inner city — and he will star in Cal Poly’s rodeo

This rodeo loving student had his day made with gifts from Cal Poly

A high school student from Inglewood, California has been invited to star at Cal Poly Rodeo. James Ray Jr. has formed an unlikely bond with the university’s rodeo coach, Ben Londo, and hopes to join the program one day.
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A high school student from Inglewood, California has been invited to star at Cal Poly Rodeo. James Ray Jr. has formed an unlikely bond with the university’s rodeo coach, Ben Londo, and hopes to join the program one day.

It’s not too often an inner-city teenager gets hooked on the rodeo, but that’s true of James Ray Jr. of Inglewood, who will be a star guest of this year’s Poly Royal Rodeo.

After discovering professional bull riding on YouTube about six years ago, the 16-year-old sophomore has fixated on rodeos and especially the job of protecting bull riders in the ring from being gored.

In fact, he wants to make a career of it.

Ray likes to wear a cowboy hat and a belt buckle when he’s not in school uniform, and he eagerly shares his knowledge of all things bull riding and rodeo. His teacher, Briana Kramer, calls him “Cowboy James.”

Ray is enrolled in an individual learning needs program at Amino City of Champions Charter High School, a public school of mostly minority students.

Through a relationship with Cal Poly initiated by Kramer, Ray also has formed a special bond with Cal Poly’s rodeo coach, Ben Londo, and hopes one day to attend the university and join the team.

Ray will visit Cal Poly as the San Luis Obispo university hosts its Open House through Saturday to showcase the campus to prospective new students and the community.

From left to right, Cal Poly Rodeo coach Ben Londo and James Ray, Sr,. and James Ray, Jr., pose for a photo. Courtesy photo

Ray will be a featured star of the Poly Royal Rodeo, set to take place Friday and Saturday nights, starting at 5:30 p.m. each evening at Spanos Stadium.

“At his core, he wants to be an entertainer, protecting other people,” Kramer, reached via phone, said of Ray. “He wants to put on a show for the crowd, he wants the crowd to laugh and be engaged. And he wants to do that for his career and his life.”

Ray’s new connection to Cal Poly could also be an inspiration to pursue college.

“We had no idea what to do,” said Karen Ray, his mother. “You try to gear your kid for college, but he was only talking about bull riding school. Now, this could really happen. My boy could get a college degree and fulfill his rodeo dreams.”

How it all started

It all began when Kramer asked students in her freshman English class what they were passionate about. She had noticed before that Ray was generally reluctant to talk unless prompted.

“After I posed that question, he went off about rodeo and being a cowboy protector, not a rodeo clown, but someone who protects the riders after being on the bulls,” Kramer said, chuckling. “He could recite the statistics of bull riders and knew all about the professional rodeo. I couldn’t get him to stop talking about it.”

Kramer, whose two brothers attended Cal Poly, decided to write the university to obtain rodeo-related information for Ray.

She received back a box of swag from Cal Poly Rodeo Coach Ben Londo, with which she surprised Ray. She captured his excitement on a video posted on YouTube.

“So James, what is your favorite thing in the whole wide world?” Kramer asks in the video, posted June 18, 2018.

“Bull riding,” Ray responds.

“And how do you feel about rodeo?” Kramer follows up.

“I like them both,” he responds.

Inside the box, Ray discovers a booklet on the Cal Poly rodeo, gloves, a hat, a shirt, a sweatshirt and a poster signed by the team.

James Ray Jr. (far right) and his family on a visit to San Luis Obispo. His teacher, Briana Kramer, is pictured (far left) in a green Cal Poly sweater. Courtesy photo

“Maybe Cal Poly might be a school?” she asks.

“Yeah, it definitely going to be a school,” Ray responds.

That initial exchange led to Ray’s visit to the Cal Poly campus with his family. There, Ray met Londo and practiced eluding a pretend bull in the ring.

“When I spoke to him, I noticed he’d done a lot of research,” Londo said. “Even the techniques for stepping around bulls. He has moves. He’s not just interested. He really wants to pursue this.”

At the Poly Royal Rodeo, Ray is expected to demonstrate his bull-evading skills, with the use of a pushed wheelbarrow that will mimic a bull’s movements. The demonstration will be at the end of Friday’s event, which lasts about two hours, with a possible repeat performance on Saturday night.

“Bulls are naturally aggressive animals,” Londo said. “They want to hunt the cowboy. James will get to show his protector skills in front of an expected audience of about 15,000 or 16,000.”

A passion for rodeo and education

Kramer said that Amino City of Champions, a public charter school, has parents who are generally invested in their kids’ education and supportive. But the community also has some negative influences such as gangs and drugs.

The Los Angeles Lakers once played at the Forum, and Inglewood will soon open the new Los Angeles Rams football stadium, helping to revitalize the community’s economy, Kramer said.

James Ray Jr. said in a phone interview with The Tribune that many of his classmates dream of becoming movie stars or athletes.

He acknowledged that his friends think he’s a little strange for liking rodeo, but said, “They are still my friends.”

Meet Cal Poly Rodeo Coach Ben Londo. “You know, rodeo, it’s a lot more than just a sport," Londo says. “It’s a heritage. It’s a way of life." The 2018 Poly Royal Rodeo — the largest college rodeo in the U.S. — will be held April 13-14.

“I love cowboys and horses,” Ray said. “Horses are my favorite animals.”

Ray said he discovered the Professional Bull Riders organization in 2013 from YouTube. He now easily rattles off the names of the sport’s stars.

“I like the strength the bull fighters show,” Ray said. “They can take a hook from the animal, but they protect the cowboys.”

His father, James Ray Sr., said he has taken his son to the Bill Pickett Rodeo, an African-American rodeo celebrating black cowboys and cowgirls. And the teenager has been to multiple rodeo events throughout the Los Angeles area, including performances at Staples Center.

James Ray Jr. and his teacher, Briana Kramer, pose for a photo. Courtesy photo

“When I asked him early on what was the difference between a matador and a rodeo bull fighter, he gave me a two-and-a-half hour lecture about it,” James Ray Sr. said.

Ray Sr. said his son, who is high functioning, is in a school learning program to meet his special needs after being hit by a car at a young age, which affected his cognitive development.

Ray Sr. said he encourages his son’s interest, but also wants him to have a back-up plan. College is a great option, he added.

“Before, he didn’t like school, but he knew he had to go to school,” James Ray Sr. said. “But since he has visited Cal Poly, once he left he became excited about going there and keeping up with his homework.”

James Ray Jr. said he’s “working on his grades” to do the best he can in school, so he can pursue his dreams. He said he’d like to attend Cal Poly.

Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, which has a rodeo program that partners with Cal Poly’s team and facilities, is another possible option.

“I’ve taught for six years (in the L.A. area), and it has been a hell of a past six years,” Kramer said. “It’s difficult. But James is definitely one of the reasons I’ve stayed in teaching. This is a very rare event and it came at a perfect time.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.