HARRIS COUNTY - HSA INSIDER

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: 6-year-old mutton buster steals the show at rodeo

Patti Smith (left) and the Houston Rodeo crowd got a treat when Marlie McDonald won the mutton busting. abc13.com

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Let me preface this by saying you can’t really prepare for interviewing five- and six-year-olds. Especially at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The cowboys and cowgirls are easy. You have day sheets and background notes. You know the world champions, the contenders and the up-and-comers. You have a feel for the sport, the events and you know that, no matter what happens, you’re as ready as you can be for the night to unfold. Actually, you’re ready 20 nights in a row.

But mutton bustin’? That’s a whole different story.

We have a list of those tiny riders, their ages, what they want to be when they grow up and their favorite rodeo food. Honestly, most of my interviews are grins, shrugs, a few no ma-ams or yes sirs and an occasional hands-up, raise-the-roof celebrations for the big screens.

Most say very little or nothing. It’s like pulling teeth. And, if they do talk, you hear “Oh, I practice on my dad” or “I practice on my dog.” You think it’s the funniest thing ever when they do say it.

But then you get someone like Marlie McDonald.

The six-year-old with tangles of red curls and a personality as big as NRG Stadium brought down the house on opening night of the 2018 rodeo.

She held on for dear life and fought to win the first mutton bustin’ event of this year’s Rodeo Houston. Then, in the blink of an eye, she out-headlined headliner Garth Brooks.

The next day, she went viral.

I saw her with her red hair and thought she was the cutest little thing. And that’s the comment I made to start the interview – “Oh, look at you and your red hair.’’

I felt a bond because we both have red hair. Marlie wanted none of it.

She had her answer prepared. She went on about her dad and how she did what her parents told her –“I just hold on really tight."

She just took the interview from there. She was so caught up in the moment, so excited. Usually when the kids look up at the big screen and see themselves talking and they get distracted so I try to keep them from looking up.

You could tell Marlie saw herself and got a kick out of it. It fired her up and she kept going and going. I knew she wanted to be a spy so when I asked her what she wanted to be. The crowd loved it when she blurted out – a spy.

Then I asked her what part of being a spy was so interesting and her answer was a homerun with the crowd.

"Like, where you get to fight for the world,’’ she said. “And the bad guys...where you get to fight them."

There were 70,000-plus in there for Garth and the whole place went nuts. She stole the show. Garth was supposed to be the big entertainment, but I think Marlie was the hit of the night.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this spunky little girl had always been a fighter. Her mother Natalie was 34 weeks pregnant when Marlie was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Four days after she was born, doctors operated and removed the tumor and Marlie underwent two years of chemotherapy.

She’s now considered a long-term survivor and goes once a year for checkups.

The full story – not just the mutton busting champion and budding spy with curls -- went viral. My mother was in Florida and she saw it on the local news.

What’s really kind of cool is you see these kids and it makes you realize everyone has a story, I saw her and I thought here is this adorable little red-headed kid with these curls everywhere. She’s very precocious and has this big, giant personality.

Then you hear the rest of the story.

Her parents said they never knew if there would be a day when she could do something like she did Tuesday. That makes Marlie’s story all the more special.

And to hear her dad talking about what a blessing she is to the family and the big plans God has for her . . . It just really puts things into perspective.

You get caught up in the daily grind of the rodeo – it’s like Groundhog Day 20 days over and over and over again – and then you get stopped dead in your tracks.

There are some cool stories every rodeo, but I don’t think anyone has ever struck a chord the way Marlie has. She took – not only Houston – but the whole country by storm. She just won everyone’s hearts.

The other cool thing? She’ll be back for the final night of the rodeo where you’ve got the best of the best for the kids’ mutton busting. And the headliner that night? She’ll be the lead-in to Garth Brooks once again.

And honestly, I’m really hoping that Marlie wins the championship so I get to interview her again.