BILLINGS — Matt Triplett has been easy to recognize this week.
The Columbia Falls native and Kalispell resident is one of 36 bull riders at this weekend’s Professional Bull Riders Billings Invitational, and his face is plastered on many of the Billings Invitational promotional materials, alongside the world's No. 2-ranked bull, Smooth Operator.
Triplett chowed down on a plate of eggs Benedict late Thursday morning at Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery, alongside competitor Dakota Louis, a Browning native. About a block away, and visible from Stella’s front windows, was one of those promotional banners, adorned on the side of the First Avenue North sky bridge.
Triplett has been the poster boy at previous PBR events, he said, and he considers it an honor. The fact that he gets to serve as the face of a Unleash The Beast showcase in his home state has made this week even sweeter, especially considering his injury history.
“Most of us started when we were little kids, and we’ve just turned on the PBR and dreamed about just even being there,” Triplett said. “So to see stuff like that (banner) just kind of makes us feel good inside and just makes us work harder and harder to keep having that occur each weekend.”
Triplett is No. 13 in the PBR world rankings and is looking for his first ever win at the Billings Invitational. He finished second in 2014 and seventh in 2017. He didn’t get a chance last year because he was recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery.
Another shoulder surgery caused him to miss the 2016 PBR World Finals. He’s also undergone elbow surgery, and a sprained wrist kept him out for more than a month earlier this year.
While Triplett is planning to ride this weekend, he has to pass concussion tests in order to do so. He suffered the concussion at last week’s First PREMIER Bank PREMIER Bankcard Invitational last week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and he chose to wait until this week to get a concussion test. A new rule requires riders to spend multiple days with a head specialist if they fail two concussion tests within 12 months, he said, and he wanted to maximize his chances of riding this weekend.
Louis, who earned the Native American invite for the Billings Invitational, has also suffered some serious injuries, including a broken wrist last fall that forced him to miss eight months.
“You’ve gotta be prepared for everything that gets thrown at you,” Louis said. “It ain’t for the weak.”
A tattoo on Triplett’s left arm aptly summarizes his and Louis’ mental state going into this weekend: “Bruised but not beaten.”
Louis is ranked 115th in the world and is riding in Billings for the second time in his career. He placed 17th at the STANLEY Performance in Action Invitational in 2014.
“Definitely one of my highlights, just to be here in front of the home state crowd,” Louis said.
Louis has lived in Pendleton, Oregon, for the last six years, so riding in Montana has truly been a homecoming. Triplett moved back to Kalispell in 2017 after two years in Hillsboro, Texas, but he plans to move again, this time to Sioux Falls, the hometown of his fiancé, Cierra Zomer.
Triplett is confident he can leave Montana with a Billings Invitational crown, while a friendly competitor will try to send the poster boy packing.
“Me and Triplett, I’ve known him forever,” Louis said. “To see us both be at the best level of bull riding there is, it’s pretty much a dream come true.”
Lockwood won’t ride
A broken collarbone will force Volborg native Jess Lockwood to miss another event.
The No. 3-ranked bull rider in the world does not want to risk more shoulder damage and will be replaced by No. 57 Luis Blanco at the Billings Invitational, according to PBR.com reporter Justin Felisko.
"If I tried to ride, it would just re-break because its not solidly held together yet," Lockwood told Felisko. "I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing because it's working real good."
Lockwood broke his collarbone at the 2019 Global Cup event in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 9. He plans to return on May 3 at the Touring Pro Division event in Uvalde, Texas, he told Felisko.
Lockwood won the 2017 world championship and has competed in Billings four times, with a first-place finish in 2016.