Cowboy Nation: Viva Calf Ropers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Cowboy Nation: Viva Calf Ropers

For ten days each year, Las Vegas is rodeo heaven--and the boys with the pigging strings are Wayne Newton
By Lynn Snowden

For ten days every December, Las Vegas becomes cowboy country. Every car driving down the strip bears the rangy silhouettes of Stetsons, every butt parked in front of a blackjack table is stamped Wrangler, and nearly everyone seems to be wearing a handmade sign that announces I NEED RODEO TICKETS. Welcome to the National Finals Rodeo, the World Series of the sport, the place where cowboys come to win their share of more than $2.5 million in prize money, not to mention the new Dodge trucks that are up for grabs. So holy is this pilgrimage that rodeo fans eager for proximity to the last remaining true-life symbols of how the West was won will pay $30,000 for a single cramped spectator box.

The crowd packs into the Thomas and Mack Center every night by 6:45, and things always start the same: with all hats coming off for the national anthem, sung with varying degrees of expertise by country-and-western singers who are lucky or smart enough to be booked in town. Still, notwithstanding all the big-name vocalists who would come and go at this year's NFR, the loudest ovation for a visiting celebrity went to a horse: Scamper, a retired barrel-racing champion whose appearance brought an emotional crowd to its booted feet. Justin, the equine star of the recent movie Black Beauty, took a few bows one night but summoned only polite applause. He is, after all, only an actor, not a rodeo star.

For the past five years, Ty Murray has won the All-Around Cowboy buckle, and it's no surprise, since the 25-year-old star rides in all three rough-stock events every night--bareback riding, saddle bronc, and bull riding--and is the only one to do so. This is also why Murray runs the way he does: short little steps, the gait of a man with chronically pulled adductor muscles. Groin pulls are another occupational hazard, something that's plaguing one calf roper, Marty Jones, so badly that he can barely walk out of the arena after he's tied his calf and the adrenaline rush of competition has passed. One bareback rider competes with a concussion he sustained the previous evening, and a steer wrestler has a pulled pectoral muscle though he still goes out there every night.

Deb Greenough, a 30-year-old bareback rider, is standing in the locker room, massaging his tender arm and elbow with a liniment called Flex-all 454. "It's good stuff!" he says. "Just don't get it in your eyes." He chuckles to himself, rolling his sleeve back down with care and buttoning the cuff.

Over at the "electrical massage" tent run by the Thumper company, man and beast alike can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of a device that one young cowboy told me was "like a vibrator." He's one of the guys who takes care of the livestock for competitors (to spare them from having to get up early and do the drudge work), and he suddenly colored at the realization of what he'd said. "I mean, it's just a big ol' buzzy thing that massages you." That didn't come out right, either. "Hell, I don't know what a vibrator is. I've never even seen one! All I know is that it's a big electric thing, and the horses really like it. They get sore too, you know."

Each night's rodeo is over by 9:15, leaving plenty of time for drinking and two-stepping at the Gold Coast before the 11-o'clock awards ceremony, where the winners are presented with shiny trophy buckles by the ever-smiling Miss Rodeo America.

"Fifty thousand dollars!" the announcer says to Joe Beaver, the extremely portly three-time world-champion calf roper who just won the eighth go-round and who is among the top moneymakers in rodeo. The announcer is referring to Beaver's total NFR winnings thus far. "That's quite a ranch payment!"

"Yes," beams the six-foot-three roper as he receives his buckle, revealing a taped-up broken pinkie that's been an annoyance for the past two weeks. "I bought two places and sold one," he says.

Everyone with a program knows how much Beaver and every other cowboy have earned, not only at the NFR, but all year long, since earnings determine a cowboy's overall ranking. I try to imagine a football, baseball, or hockey program with each player's year-to-date salary next to his name (with income as a reward for good performance only) and questions in the locker room that center upon exactly how he's spending it. Cowboys, however, are happy to answer such queries. "I'll build another corral," says one. "Thinkin' about an addition to my home," says another. Since the purses have become fat only within the last ten years--some top rodeo stars can earn as much as $100,000 a year, although Ty Murray nearly triples that--a certain amount of this brash money chat can be put down to the novelty of it all. Now cowboys can set a little aside, which means it's not quite time yet to think about getting a real job.

After the awards ceremony, everybody heads over to the Stardust to see Ricky and the Redstreaks, a mediocre band that is something of an NFR institution, rock and rollers who get cowboys to dance on the tables when they play "Wild Thing." It's easy to spot the competitors at these après-rodeo parties, since they wear their National Finals Rodeo Competitor jackets like a pack of varsity cheerleaders and never take them off, even if it's so hot in the ballroom that a woman in a buckskin halter top has beads of sweat running down her back. The jackets make it easier on the buckle bunnies, as rodeo groupies are quaintly named, if it's too dark or they're too nearsighted to read belt buckles accurately. The jacket tells you more than the buckle, anyway, since it bears the cowboy's event, his full name, and the number he wears in competition.

The calf ropers accessorize the jacket and buckle by wearing two "pigging strings"--the short nylon ropes they use to hog-tie calves-- looped across their torso. They say they carry them because the ropes need heat and moisture to stay supple, but you wonder what kind of roping needs to be done at two in the morning. Still, you have to forgive them: They made it to the finals, and dammit, they're going to wear the proof of their godliness all the time.

"It's real hard in the summer," says 30-year-old Todd Boggust, a ten-year veteran steer wrestler who explains the rodeo life to me one fine morning while he mucks out the stalls of his two horses in the temporary barn behind the Center. "You drive all night, three, four nights in a row, you're always on the move. Then you drive by someone's house and see a guy in his backyard, barbecuing a steak." He shakes his head while he heaves a trophy saddle onto his sorrel. "That's when it's real hard."

Most of the competitors list an "other occupation" in the media guide, which is a sort of who's who in rodeo, and most say they're ranchers, farmers, or horse trainers. The overwhelming majority are married with kids. But being one of the top 15 in your event, or even one of the top 50, means you're not really home much.

While they suffer more physical abuse, competitors in the rough-stock events are at least spared the inconvenience of having to travel with animals. Everyone else must either shoulder the expense and logistical hell of transporting their horses or arrange to rent some from a stock contractor for 25 percent of any winnings. Most cowboys cut expenses by traveling with other competitors in their event, which leads to a certain amount of cliquishness. Predictably, everyone thinks that his event requires the most nerve, stamina, and skill, and that every other event is overrated.

"Bull riders can kiss my ass," says a calf roper who, like everyone else talking trash, wishes to remain anonymous. "Everyone thinks they're so cool." We're watching the Brazilian bull rider Adriano Moraes as he completes a successful ride and dismounts with the delirium of a soccer player scoring the winning goal. "OK, now raise your arms up," the calf roper says mockingly, "and now throw your hat in the air." Calf ropers consider this kind of excessive enthusiasm to be unseemly; instead, they generally like to busy themselves with coiling rope while the applause thunders on.

Calf ropers receive their share of good-natured put-downs, too. "Calf ropers are moody, and they pout a lot," says a steer wrestler hanging out in the press room. "They're whiners."

I ask Shawn McMullen if it's true that calf ropers are into bondage, since a response in the affirmative might well convey a better image for them than being a pack of whiners. Tonight McMullen is locked in mortal combat with four other ropers for first place. He clutches his pigging strings. "Excuse me?" he asks.

"Do you like to tie people up?"

"You mean girls?"

"Yeah, girls."

He considers this; standing beside him, I notice that he's put on a bit of after-shave. I check the program and see that Mr. McMullen is single.

"Well, ma'am," he says, "I really wouldn't know the first thing about it." Somehow I believe him. He's a nice boy who majored in computer science at college in Odessa, Texas. "I do my own taxes on a computer," he says. "And sure, I deduct my horses." I ask if he ever has dreams about roping. "No," he says. "But I fall asleep thinking about it."

"You think calf roping is an exciting event?" scoffs a bull rider. "Well, I guess it's not as dull as barrel racing." This last crack is aimed at the women-only sport in which riders try to gallop in a tight triangle around barrels without knocking any over. The horses for this event are extremely expensive and need a lot of training, which means that even if you do well in competition, you probably won't earn as much as you spend. While there are women's rodeos, in which women compete in all events, at the NFR you know it's time for the barrel-racing when you see a stampede of people racing to get to the bathrooms before the bull riders come on.

There is one group of competitors that no one will bad mouth, the guys who are indisputably the toughest and coolest in the sport. I'm speaking, of course, of the rodeo clowns. A cowboy only has to get himself safely off the bull's back and out of its way, but the men in greasepaint and baggy shorts dare the beast to charge them, and they save lives in the process.

Clowns have become so proud of their abilities to distract bulls that they now have their own competition, "bullfighting," which is not anything like the sport popularized by Ernest Hemingway. This event is much more akin to a Bugs Bunny cartoon; they fight the bull using wit and humor rather than weapons. They're awarded points for sheer bravado and craziness in taunting a bull and then scurrying out of its way, doing a handspring off the animal's forehead, or leading it in a crazy zigzag around the ring, just barely escaping impalement. The bulls, like the clowns, improve with experience, but the bulls, unlike the clowns, are never in danger of being killed.

"Bulls are so intelligent," says rodeo clown Loyd Ketchum. "They learn your moves. It gets tougher and tougher to outsmart them."

So what would a person who works every day in the presence of a fur-covered derailed locomotive be afraid of? The five-foot-five Ketchum adjusts his glasses and says with a chuckle, "I'm scared to death of snakes."

Most bull riders don a modified jockey's vest that provides a tiny bit of protection for his vital organs--"I think it's a good idea," says one rider, in a spectacular understatement--and Clint Branger wears a mask to prevent the steel plates in his face from being driven into soft tissue, should the bull rear up and make brutal, sudden contact.

None of these small safeguards and none of the fast-acting clowns can save Brent Thurman, who, in the last event on the last day of the rodeo, becomes tangled in his leather rigging after being bucked off and has the misfortune to land beneath the bull. The animal unwittingly steps on his head. Thurman, who is just 25 years old, will die six days later, never having recovered consciousness. He will be the third rodeo performer to die in 1994, the first ever at the NFR. Despite the periodic cries that rodeo is cruel to animals, it appears to be far crueler to humans.

Shortly after Thurman is rushed to the hospital, it is time to announce this year's world champions. The cowboys, like everyone else, are in a state of shock after seeing the accident and enter the arena to face a subdued crowd. It's suddenly apparent how many of the cowboys in the stands, some old, some not so old, are in wheelchairs or are using canes or crutches.

The final results hold some surprises: While Adriano Moraes rode all ten bulls successfully--only the third NFR competitor ever to do so--a Canadian named Daryl Mills beats him for the championship. The calf-roping struggle that had Joe Beaver storming into the press room screaming "son on a bitch!" when he realized that the title evaded him by just $13 goes to Herbert Therior.

Ty Murray, the crowd's sentimental favorite, gets a big hand for winning the All-Around Cowboy title yet again. Murray approaches the mike to say what needs to be said. "When you see what happened to Brent, he says, "you realize that just being here with your friends and family is what it's all about."

There is another round of applause as the crowd tries to cheer itself up. The Dodge trucks are driven around the arena. Everyone shakes hands, some exchange an embrace or two, and the winners go back to their hotel rooms to change into black tie for the awards banquet. But for all the other cowboys on this cold December night in Vegas, it's time to quickly load up their trucks and head for home.

Lynn Snowden is the author of Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher--My Year-long Odyssey in the Workplace, published by W.W. Norton. She wrote about Picabo Street in the November 1994 issue.

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