For Jeff Bilberry, the High Plains Rodeo Association has become a “family” of support since the death of his youngest son 17 months ago. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor
A story of a 3-year-old son’s death, and a family’s will to go forward.
On a ranch northwest of Kenna, where the wind meets his thoughts, Jeff Bilberry finds solace.
There, the vice president of the High Plains Junior Rodeo Association often thinks about life, God and his 3-year-old son Trey, who died in a 2003 horse-riding accident near Kenna.
He remembers family dinners when Trey would insist on blessing the food, even though he didn’t always make sense. Or the days on the ranch when the youngster would help his father move cattle, which never seemed to scurry fast enough for Trey, Jeff’s youngest son.
It’s been 17 months since Trey fell off a horse and was dragged to death with his foot caught in a rope, but the boy’s name still arouses a myriad of emotions from the “family” that is the High Plains Junior Rodeo Association.
“God said he would take care of my needs and take care of my family if I just trust him, and that’s how I’ve dealt with this. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been days when my head has been so low and the tears have flowed,” Jeff said.
Trey and his family have made such an impact on the junior rodeo that members created a special award in the boy’s honor. The Trey Bilberry Memorial Award goes to the competitor in the 8-and-under division who shows the most heart and courage.
Heart and courage are words often used to describe Trey’s family, which include his mother Cheree, his brother Trent, 13, and his sister Tori, 16.
For Kristy Porterfield, of Brownfield, Texas, it was the courage Trey’s family harbored after his death that she said changed her life for the better.
In the midst of what she described as severe depression after experiencing a deteriorating disk, Porterfield was bed-ridden for much of the spring and summer of 2003. When she arrived at last year’s junior rodeo finals in Clovis — about five months after Trey’s death — she received comfort from a family she said needed it much more than her.
“Jeff called me over and said ‘I’ve heard you’ve been having troubles,’ and I said ‘I can’t even look at you. I’m not worthy of looking at you,’” Porterfield recalled.
After Bilberry prayed for her, Porterfield said she came away “a lot lighter,” and began to put her life in perspective.
If the Bilberrys can give of themselves in the midst of Trey’s death, she thought, then she can also.
“They’re strong. Instead of being broken, they repair others by their brokenness,” said Porterfield, who wrote a poem honoring Trey for the Bilberrys.
Framed alongside a small glove, a bandana and a little lasso, the poem was presented “from (Kristy’s) heart with deep respect,” and was displayed this weekend at the Curry County Fairgrounds.
Jeff feels the same way about members of the rodeo association; he said they have banded together to support him and his family after the tragedy.
“The rodeo family, they hurt too. This is not about Cheree and I or my other two kids, this is about all of us. We’ve had such a good support group here, people who pray for us, and talk to us and still comfort us,” Jeff said.
Trey, who was wearing his father’s High Plains Junior Rodeo calf-roping championship belt buckle when he died, wasn’t the first victim of a Bilberry family tragedy.
In 1997, before Trey was born, Cheree lost a daughter during childbirth. The heartbreak of their daughter’s death prepared the Bilberry family to deal with loss and adversity, Jeff said.
But Jeff said he still gets knots in his chest when he’s out on the ranch he operates northwest of Kenna. Alone with God and his creation, that’s where Jeff contemplates his life and his calling to serve Jesus. It is also where he remembers the energetic little boy who loved attention and had no fear of riding horses, not much fear of anything, Jeff said.
It’s where he remembers how Trey dealt with family tension, when the Bilberrys were in a rush and trying to get organized.
“He’d say, ‘Are ya happy?’ whenever things got tense,” Jeff said. “And when things get tense I remember that phrase and smile.”
Since Trey’s death, Jeff said he’s become more safe and he worries a bit more about his children. But there was never a thought about giving up the rodeo lifestyle or asking his other children to do so.
His son Trent was this year’s muggin champion — a team calf-roping event — earning the title by just one point.
“It wouldn’t be fair to my other two children to make them stop … life’s about moving forward,” Jeff said. “There’s never been a doubt.”
When he was a little boy, Jeff said his grandmother would tell him his guardian angel had holes in its wings from so many close calls.
Maybe it’s age, Bilberry said, but now he worries a bit more and takes fewer risks than he did in the past.
“My wife can drive off to work on Monday morning, and I wonder will I ever see her again,” Bilberry said. “Those things I’ll deal with for the rest of my life, (but) you have to say ‘God, I put (my family) in your hands.’”