GREAT FALLS — Saturday night at the rodeo began with a tribute to a late legend.

It ended with a blessing for a departed and devoted great grandmother.

Indeed, emotion overflowed as the 41st annual Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals continued Saturday night before a sellout crowd of more than 4,000 at Pacific Steel and Recycling Four Seasons Arena.

The evening started with a poignant salute to the late Jim Croff, the much-beloved former saddle bronc star and MPRC president who passed away last summer.

The performance concluded with a crowd-pleasing 84-point ride by Browning bull rider Dakota Louis, who won a whopping check of more than $3,200.

But he wasn’t thinking of himself when the ride was over.

“My ride tonight went out to my great-grandma, Aurice Brown Show. She passed away a couple hours before the rodeo tonight,” Louis said. “I know I had a guardian angel out there riding with me.”

The Circuit Finals, with total prize money of nearly $168,000, wraps up with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday afternoon. Year-end circuit champions and MPRF average winners qualify for the rich Ram National Circuit Finals, slated April 2-5 in Kissimmee, Fla.

Go-round winners on Saturday night included Louis, who lasted eight seconds aboard a Keller-owned bull called “Ivy League.”

Others who earned first-place checks of better than $2,300 included Jessy Davis of Power (88 points in bareback), Dustin Bird of Cut Bank and Sid Sporer of Cody, Wyo. (6.3 seconds in team roping), Ty Erickson of Helena (3.6 seconds in steer wrestling), Houston Garrett Brown of Miles City (79 points in saddle bronc), Haven Meged of Miles City (8.6 seconds in tie-down roping), and Madison Wilkerson of Bozeman (13.11 seconds in barrel racing).

Many of the winners paid homage to Croff, to whose memory Saturday night’s performance was dedicated.

“He did so much for this circuit and for Montana rodeo, through a lot of hard work and dedication,” said Dustin Bird, the highly respected roper from Cut Bank who has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo five times and remains among the best in the world at his craft. “Jim was very humble, very generous and a very kind man. Every time you saw him, and it didn’t matter if it was here at the rodeo or at the grocery store or wherever, he was always nice and wanted to visit. It’s a very sad deal and our whole Montana rodeo community is at a loss.”

The Bird family has been at the forefront of Treasure State rodeo for decades.

“My family has been coming this rodeo for a long time, competing alongside of Jim and knowing him well,” Bird said. “It’s a sad deal for all of us.”

The Bird-Sporer connection edged the duo of Volborg’s Ridley Day and Taylor Williams. The latter team leads the average, by only by one-tenth of a second over the Bird-Sporer duo.

Other winners also had Jim Croff on their minds Saturday night.

“Jim was a good guy, a special guy,” said bareback star Jessy Davis, who won his second go-round in as many nights with a fantastic ride aboard a Brookman bareback horse called “Straight Jacket.”

“Jim helped make this rodeo what it is,” Davis said. “And it’s hard to beat.”

Davis has made seven trips to the National Finals Rodeo and earned more than $1 million in a stupendous career. He said Jim Croff was a down-to-earth man who made a cowboy proud to represent Montana.

“If you had a problem or a question, he’d help you out and do the best he could,” Davis said. “He dang-sure made this rodeo the way it is.”

The great Ty Erickson, who won his first world championship last month at the NFR in Las Vegas, earned his second go-round triumph in as many nights with a slick 3.6-second effort in the steer wrestling. Erickson, who tied the Four Seasons Arena record with an amazing 3.3-second run on Friday, has been fast all weekend.

But he paused for a moment on Saturday when asked about Croff.

“I’m one of the younger guys (29) and hadn’t really gotten to know Jim that well,” said Erickson, the former Helena Capital and Montana State star. “But everybody talks about how awesome of a person he was and how good he was for the sport of rodeo. Any person like that is a legend in my book.”

For the second night in a row Erickson outclassed a talented bulldogging field. Luke Gee of Stanford (4.1 seconds), Will Powell of St. Ignatius (4.2) and Ross Mosher of Augusta (4.4) each turned in fine runs.

Erickson shared his horse “Crush” with Mosher and Powell.

“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” said Erickson of the 8-year-old black gelding. “He worked outstanding for every one of us. He gave us all a chance to win.”

The horse carried Erickson to a world title last month in Vegas and seems destined to help the Helena man accomplish great things in the future.

“I can’t express how good he’s doing, because his first rodeo was only last March,” Erickson said. “It’s pretty incredible for a horse that green to come in here and do what he’s done. Both at the National Finals Rodeo and here at our Circuit Finals. That’s a lot of pressure on a young horse, and he’s handling it so well.”

Erickson wasn’t the only world champion who stood out on Saturday. Tie-down roper Haven Meged, a 21-year-old from Miles City who made his first trip to the NFR last month and came home with a gold buckle, flashed his championship form with an 8.6-second run.

Meged was joined by fellow Miles City man Houston Garrett Brown, who earned 79 points aboard a Kesler saddle bronc called “Copper Cat” en route to a go-round victory.

“It felt good,” said Brown, 21, who graduated from Powder River High in Broadus and is now on the rodeo team at the University of Wyoming. “A guy could always do better but I made it eight seconds and I’m happy about that.”

Brown is competing at his first MPRF.

Meged has won many awards in the last year, but he took pleasure in the go-round victory of his fellow eastern Montana cowboy.

“We’re both from Miles City so it’s pretty cool,” Meged said. “He went to Broadus, but his address is Miles City.”

Meged is proud to put that part of the Treasure State on the rodeo map these days.

“Honestly, it’s not easy to come from Montana and be successful (at the highest levels of pro rodeo), so just hats off to everybody who has done that,” said Meged, who will graduate soon from Tarleton (Texas) State. “To represent our state is just awesome.”

Meged this weekend is riding “Cadillac,” a 4-year-old sorrel gelding.

“This is his first rodeo and he’s doing a great job,” Meged said.

Youth was also served in the barrel racing, where 22-year-old Madison Wilkerson of Bozeman turned in the best run of the weekend with a 13.11-second trip.

Wilkerson is making her first MPRF appearance.

“My horse turned up sore (on Friday) and I was just really tentative,” she said, referring to a poor run in Friday’s opening go-round. “He felt good tonight and he worked great.”

Wilkerson’s horse is “Jose,” an 11-year-old bay. The team has competed at Four Seasons before, because Wilkerson is on the Montana. State rodeo team.

“I haven’t had any luck here,” she smiled. “I’ve always hit barrels. So I just had to ride him extra hard tonight.”

Mission accomplished. And memories made.

“It’s really exciting,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a great experience.”

Saturday’s show was just that for thousands of fans and several check-cashing professional athletes.

And for many cowboys, including bull rider Dakota Louis, Saturday night was a mixture of success and grief.

“Yes sir,” Louis said. “To have men like (Jim Croff) build the foundation of this rodeo and make the platform that we get to be one, we’re all just very thankful.”