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If you only saw him in suit and tie, you wouldn’t realize there’s a cowboy side of Ryan Growney, the general manager at South Point Hotel and Casino.

He runs a facility that has dedicated about half a million square feet, including 1,200 stalls, to an equestrian center. He’s right at home when the real cowboys come to town.

Growney, son of a former FBI agent, grew up in Las Vegas and attended the rodeo finals every year as a kid. It was there he met a rodeo stock contractor by the name of John Growney. After doing some research, they came to the conclusion they are probably related and call each other “cousins.”

For seven straight summers, starting at age 15, Ryan went to work on John Growney’s ranch in Santa Maria, Calif. Ryan recalls bringing two pairs of jeans, five T-shirts, a pair of boots, “a messed up cowboy hat,” and some deerskin gloves with him that first summer. The gloves didn’t last long. John Growney told him they were really nice before tossing them out of the truck window.

“The first time you forget your gloves, your hands are going to be so sore, you’re going to be worthless,” John told Ryan.

It was the first step toward toughening up not only his hands but the young boy in general.

Ryan traveled throughout California, Arizona and Oregon to help put on rodeos. When one ended, they loaded the horses, bulls, cows and steers and headed to the next town.

“As a city kid,” Growney said, “getting to do that was extraordinary.”

Ryan, now 36 and entering his sixth year as South Point’s GM, “had the brains” and was “very book smart” as a youngster, John Growney said.

What he needed to add was more common sense and to learn how to react quickly in potentially dangerous situations.

“Coming into the rodeo world just balanced him out,” John said. “He’s really well-respected in the rodeo world and the whole agricultural world. Everybody is really proud of him.”

Ryan’s office is a short walk to the equestrian center. He still likes to take his dress shoes off and put on cowboy boots when he gets the chance.

“By no means am I a terrific cowboy,” Growney said, “but I can ride a horse, move cattle, load trucks, feed, do all the things you have to be able to do to take care of these animals.”

Growney’s future was also being shaped around the same time by another unforgettable opportunity. He had been introduced in high school to then Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson Jr. by mentor and family friend Michael Gaughan, who is now Growney’s boss as owner of South Point.

Growney, a football player and valedictorian at Gorman High, was awarded a full-ride scholarship to be the Hoyas’ student manager. Thompson retired after Growney’s freshman year, but longtime assistant Craig Esherick took over and bestowed a rare honor on a student manager. Growney was named one of three team captains before his senior year.

Esherick told the student newspaper “the players decided it by the respect they gave him (Growney).”

“Next to the rodeo gig, it was the best experience I had ever had,” Growney said.

Growney returned to Vegas in 2002 with a finance degree from Georgetown. He prepared for law school but soon realized what he really wanted to do was learn the casino industry.

He trained to be a dealer, learned how to run a craps table, took reservations and even worked in a butcher shop. All of those different roles helped prepare him for management positions. Growney was named GM of the old Barbary Coast at age 26, and was the director of operations at Sam’s Town when he got the offer from Gaughan in 2010.

Besides handling 49 equestrian-related events this year, South Point is also preparing to host the United States Bowling Congress’ women’s championship beginning in April. It will be held in a recently built $30 million, 60-lane championship facility located a floor above the equestrian center.

Why have they made such a commitment to horses and bowling balls considering neither attracts much of a fan base?

“We’re in it for the participants,” Growney said. “They stay here the whole time, eat in our restaurants, play in the casino. It’s very niche, but it’s been very successful.”

Just don’t expect to see him out there rolling a string of strikes. He can ride a horse, but Growney admits he’s not much of a bowler.

Dave Dye is a former sportswriter for the Detroit News and He has covered six Stanley Cup Finals, five Final Fours, three NBA Finals, three Rose Bowls and one World Series. Email: [email protected].

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