Cowboy Nation: Viva Calf Ropers
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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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
“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,
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
“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,
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?”
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
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
“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
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
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
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.