Brodbeck completed 360 appearances during the 2019-2020 academic year, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Texas Tech University has named Cameron Hekkert of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, as its 59th Masked Rider. Hekkert is a senior sport management major in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Honors College and will begin studying in the School of Law in fall 2021. She will serve in the Masked Rider position for the 2020-2021 academic school year.
Emily Brodbeck, a graduate student from Lubbock majoring in wildlife, aquatic and wildlands science and management in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources (CASNR), has now passed the reins of iconic black steed Fearless Champion to Hekkert as the summer semester comes to a close and Red Raiders prepare for a return to campus.
"Cameron is very personable, smart and enthusiastic," said Stephanie Rhode, director of the Spirit Program. "She's kind and easy to work with, and I know that as we hand the reins to her, she recognizes what it means to serve and represent our university. She's been around the program so much, through the High Riders and as an assistant to previous Masked Riders, and has put herself in a really good position to understand the university, the Spirit Program and how our traditions work."
As the 58th Masked Rider, Brodbeck completed a record 360 appearances during the 2019-2020 academic year, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that led to the closure of campus and the cancellation of countless events in the spring.
"Emily has been a fantastic representative of the university, and as a hometown girl, it was even more important to her that she not miss any appearances in Lubbock," Rhode said. "We always find such great students to fill this role. They are some of the best students at the university, and Emily is no exception. She's very smart, very patient and being the Masked Rider has allowed her to grow, mature and gain an incredible amount of self-confidence."
Brodbeck said while the pandemic definitely changed the last part of her service as Masked Rider, it did not take away from the overall experience of representing the university.
"Having the honor of representing the university as the Masked Rider is indescribable," Brodbeck said. "Having the opportunity to represent the university I love with Fearless Champion, the horse who became my best buddy, surrounded by the best of family, friends and fans, is something that is incredibly unique and has forever changed me as a person and a Red Raider. I learned so much from the people I met from all over the country and had the opportunity to be a part of something so historic and special."
The first half of Brodbeck's year of service was similar to those of past Masked Riders. She spent time becoming acquainted with those in the Spirit Program and becoming closer to Fearless Champion, with whom she made numerous appearances at campus and community events, local schools and Texas Tech sporting events.
But near the beginning of the 2019-2020 football season, Brodbeck faced her first small hitch of the year. During a routine checkup, a veterinarian saw inflammation in Fearless Champion's front legs and suggested he go on light duty to prevent an injury like the one he suffered the year before.
On Oct. 4, the university announced the return of Cody, the black, quarter horse gelding from Archer City, to the Spirit Program. During the 2019-2020 football season, Cody completed the majority of the game-day runs after Fearless Champion was restricted. Cody's return to the program this time meant Brodbeck would be responsible for both horses until Fearless Champion was healed.
"Although football games are an absolute blast, they also are a lot of hard work and this was amplified when Cody came back into the picture," Brodbeck said. "This was physically, mentally and emotionally draining, but thanks to tremendous support from friends and family, I was able to work through the situation and come out tougher from it."
Despite the extra work, Brodbeck continued to forge bonds not just with other members of the Spirit Program, but also with the people she met during her time as Masked Rider.
"The Spirit Program felt like a family more than anything," Brodbeck said. "Everyone is incredibly welcoming and supportive of everything we put our minds to. I have made friends through this program who I will forever love and cherish. Stephanie, coaches Bruce Bills and Erin Alvarado, the cheer and pom squads and Raider Red made my time as Masked Rider all the more special.
"Getting to interact with people and being the one who introduced them to a horse for the first time – or the hundredth time – and having conversations with Texas Tech fans about their lives and what they love about Texas Tech, or being their introduction to the Texas Tech family – it was all an absolute honor."
She also made countless memories her fellow Red Raiders and others within the Texas Tech and Lubbock communities.
"The 2019 Burkhart Walk for Autism Awareness was where the reality of becoming the Masked Rider really solidified in my mind, where I truly got to see the pure joy Fearless Champion brings to people," Brodbeck said. "I also will never forget walking the streets of New York City, in full dress, waving and giving 'Guns Up' and hearing 'Raider Power' after witnessing the men's basketball team win the Jimmy V. Classic in December. And, of course, the home football games where I got to ride Fearless across the Jones AT&T Stadium field with Red Raiders cheering from all sides will stick with me forever."
A Masked Rider's term typically ends with the Transfer of Reins ceremony each April, after the months-long application and selection process for the new rider is completed in March. This year, when the campus shut down after spring break, the selection process was put on hold and the ceremony was eventually canceled.
"COVID-19 most definitely changed the landscape of the last portion of my term as Masked Rider," Brodbeck said. "We were only two days away from leaving for the Houston Rodeo when I received news of its cancellation. This was more or less a last 'hurrah' for my assistants, Raider Red and Fearless Champion. Then came the cancellation of the Transfer of Reins, where I would have gotten to say goodbye and thank everyone who made my year possible. Additionally, I had plans of traveling to Daytona to watch the spirit squads and Raider Red compete at nationals, but those were canceled as well. I was absolutely wrecked. Nevertheless, I understood why it had to happen. Our health and the health of others is of utmost importance and cannot be risked."
Postponing the selection process meant there would not be a new Masked Rider to care for Fearless Champion this summer. Rhode said Brodbeck graciously stepped in to care for the horse, even though she was not required to do so. For Brodbeck, extending her service was an easy decision.
"My favorite part of serving as Masked Rider was most definitely getting to work with Fearless Champion," Brodbeck said. "For 15 months, he was my best buddy. I got to see him almost every single day for 458 days. I have spent countless hours with him, cultivating a relationship that will never be rivaled. He is a truly special and unique horse, and he will always be the highlight of my time as Masked Rider."
While the pandemic did not greatly affect her academics, the transition once courses went fully online was still a rough adjustment in the beginning. However, being around Fearless Champion made it better.
"Fearless Champion was incredibly helpful in my maintaining a schedule and keeping me on task," Brodbeck said. "He had no clue there was a pandemic occurring, he just knew he wanted to be fed, exercised and loved. Ultimately, he made the strange times a little less strange because he was a constant, an anchor."
Brodbeck had a few words of wisdom for Hekkert as she begins her service as Masked Rider.
"My main advice to Cameron is to take things seriously, but have a lot of fun and make the absolute best of your short time," Brodbeck said. "Although I had more time than most, it still went by incredibly fast. I learned to never say 'no' to an event because it may end up being your favorite one, and, with the current possibility of canceled events, you may not get another opportunity like it."
Brodbeck is currently working on her master's thesis and will graduate in May. She hopes to start her professional career soon after graduation.
"I plan on staying in Lubbock for the near future, but because of Texas Tech, my opportunities are endless," Brodbeck. "Going into my year serving as the Masked Rider, I expected it to be an amazing experience, but it was that and so much more. It definitely exceeded my expectations.
"There are so many extraordinary people behind the scenes who became instrumental in my life and shaped my path. I started this year more timid and nervous, but I am leaving this position a changed, stronger person. I have grown so much and will endlessly value the time I was able to be a part of this program."