Sheila Shaw was only half-joking when she said her ailing teenage son might have West Nile virus.
"I had worked with a guy who had it, and he told me the symptoms," she said. "We were down in at the Panguitch Invitational, and Jeff got so sick he had to sit in the truck until his event. He felt like he needed to keep his commitment (to his team roping partner)."
After the rodeo, the family headed home to Payson where Sheila said her son's condition just got worse. Both mother and son said it was nothing like a regular case of the flu.
"He had a really high fever and got to the point where he couldn't even hold his head up," she said." He was just listless. He was sick for three days, and then once we got home, we went to the hospital."
Jeff said he could barely muster the strength to walk from the truck to the arena.
"I'd never really felt that way before," said Jeff, who just graduated from Payson High School. "I was really dizzy and sick. I just wanted it to be over with."
Jeff Shaw was 15 years old two summers ago when he was diagnosed with viral meningitis caused by the West Nile virus. He lost most of his hearing in one ear, although most if it has now returned. Already a pretty lanky kid, he lost nearly 30 pounds, and it has taken him nearly the entire two years to gain that weight — and his strength — back.
"He spent a week in the hospital, and then he slept a lot," said his mom. "Slowly he got back to doing things, but it took him a whole year just to gain the weight he lost. The strength took longer. He was way into rodeo, and it really set him back to lose all that weight."
That has made tie-down roping and team roping a chore. A cowboy, afterall, has to have enough weight and strength not just to ride a horse and throw a rope, but in tie-down roping, he has to jump from the horse and then tie the calf as fast as he can.
This is the first year the senior has a chance to really excell at a sport he's been practicing all of his life. In fact, the Shaw family has made the trip to the Utah High School Rodeo Finals 13 consecutive years, as his three older sisters were also rodeo participants.
This year is a bit more exciting for the Shaws as not only is Jeff in the top 10 in tie-down roping and team roping, but he also has the chance to make the national team if he finishes in the top four. That's special for a lot of reason, but first and foremost because this is his last opportunity to represent the state at the national competition in July.
"It's so competitive," said Sheila. "It's anybody's race."
Jeff Shaw will be one of several hundred high school students who will compete at the Wasatch County Fair Grounds beginning today. Their hope is to earn a saddle and a state title, but it's also to finish in the top four in each event so they can help Utah make a little history in Illinois in July. Utah has won two consecutive national titles and has a very good chance to be the first group to ever win three in a row.
The competitions are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. The state championship rounds will include the top 10 finishers in each event on Saturday at 5 p.m. The national team is picked from the top four in each event, which takes into account the entire high school rodeo season.
For Shaw, and his teenage competitors, this is what he's been working for all of his life.
"When I was sick, this was all I wanted to do," he said. "I just wanted to get back on my horse and rope again. I have grown up around it, but I just love the horses, the roping, the riding and especially the competition."
He plans to rodeo at UVU next year and said he's both excited and a little nervous about today's competition.
"It's exciting," he said. "I feel pressure, but it's really exciting to be in the top 10 after all that hard work. It feels good to have something pay off ... I sure appreciate it — and my health a lot more."