The 15-year-old was nervous and breathing hard as she hoofed it into the ring at Fair Park's livestock judging pavilion, the pressure of her decorated family history behind her. Not to mention a wheat-shaded, half-ton steer.

Seven years ago, Laurel Kelley's sister had raised the State Fair of Texas' grand champion steer; 20 years earlier, so had her aunt. Meanwhile, her mom had raised a second-place "reserve" grand champion.

"I just wanted to do good for everyone," Laurel said.

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And when it was over, she had, as the judge wasted not a moment choosing her 17-month-old crossbred steer, which Laurel had raised since December and named RFD, as winner of the fair's annual youth livestock competition.

"This is amazing," said Laurel, a sophomore in Yoakum, which straddles neighboring DeWitt and Lavaca counties in southeast Texas. "This has been a dream of mine for a long time to win the State Fair of Texas."

Now she can truly say that RFD has lived up to his initials, which she said stand for: Real Frickin' Deal.

Nearly 2,300 animals were entered in this year's competition, including 347 market steers. Of those, 56 steers went to sale, vying for the grand title.

As the winner, RFD will probably fetch a healthy sum at Friday's annual livestock auction: Last year's winner, Buzz, was nabbed by Dallas' III Forks steakhouse for $112,000. The year before, the same buyers ponied up $110,000 for Corndog.

Both are living out their days on a ranch, as members of the fundraising-focused Big Tex Champions Club were relieved to learn at a benefit dinner last month.

The money raised at auction benefits the fair's scholarship programs, with a good portion going toward the winning youngsters themselves.

One of the fair's oldest traditions, the contest recalls the event's 1886 origins in agriculture, said Daryl Real, the fair's vice president for livestock and agriculture.

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As that foundation has faded into a society dominated by technology and machination, "this is the only window the general public ever sees agriculture through. They get to see livestock up close and personal."

And for kids, it's a chance to gather leadership skills and share time with their families, who share in the process.

"The base skill is responsibility," Real said. "Those animals are dependent on them. Beyond that, they learn where their food comes from, the whole cycle of how food gets from farm to plate."

The steers were judged according to breed and weight division within those breeds. Group by group, they paraded into the arena throughout the day in various degrees of order and fidgetiness as the youths stroked their bellies with show sticks to calm them down.

Anxious parents watched from the bleachers, calling out encouragement.

Laurel Kelley, 15, left, posed Thursday with her Grand Champion Steer, RFD, in front of Big Tex along with her parents, Jennifer and Tom Kelley from Yoakum. The steer will be auctioned today and could be sold for more than $100,000. 

Laurel Kelley, 15, left, posed Thursday with her Grand Champion Steer, RFD, in front of Big Tex along with her parents, Jennifer and Tom Kelley from Yoakum. The steer will be auctioned today and could be sold for more than $100,000. 

David Woo/The Dallas Morning News

Meanwhile, judge Ryan Rathmann, an associate professor of animal and food science at Texas Tech University who himself grew up showing calves, sized up the animals with long glances, squeezes of hide or strokes of the hand across the animals' broad backs.

"He's so functional from the ground up," he said of one animal. "Just a good, practical steer. He's got a lot of good meat product in him."

Two finalists from each division advanced to the final round of judging, and the nervous kids marched their animals around the ring one last time.

"These kids have a lot of adrenaline pumping through their bodies right now," Rathmann said. "It's the pursuit that matters. It's about working hard and doing things with your family."

Laurel's family members let out a whoop as RFD was named the champ. They surrounded her afterward, her father, Tom, wrapping her in a hug.

Beforehand, knowing how nervous his daughter was, he'd given her a pep talk. Just go have fun, he'd said. Now it was time to celebrate.

"Good job, baby," he told her. "I'm so proud of you. I knew you could do it."

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