The buckle that the best cowboy in the world wins each year after the National Finals Rodeo is as big as a small dish, gold-plated and jewel-studded, and it is a great way to hold your pants up. The fact that it is worth $200 in a shaky market is just part of the appeal. Make it low-grade tin and it would still represent a year's worth of sudden starts, jarring stops, ungentle descents from high places and a forlorn effort to build rapport with an animal that wants absolutely nothing to do with you—all in the face of the keenest kind of competition. Wearing the buckle also means you have won more money on the rodeo circuit than any other cowboy and, in the year 1967, that comes to $50,000. The man who will be taking up a notch with the buckle this year is Larry Mahan, age 24, a cowboy who smiles a lot, talks with the rarest hint of a drawl, has a firm grip on his investment portfolio and, during those few instances when he has both boots on the ground, comes on with the assurance of a bright young whippersnapper whose future is at somebody's board of directors' table.
But do not be deceived. In two short years, Mahan has not only moved to the top of his profession, he has turned it inside out with a rush that still has old hands standing around with mouths agape. In 1966 Larry won $40,358 which, for reference, puts him in the same tax bracket with those cowboys who are mentioned in reverent whispers—Buck Rutherford, Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders. Until this year, Shoulders was the top money winner, with $43,381, but last September Mahan, in a flurry of whirling bulls, collected $2,600 for a week's work in Albuquerque and Memphis and passed Shoulders as the world's richest cowboy.
Since then, Mahan had become richer by $5,000 and last week as he drove into Oklahoma City to do battle with the cream of this year's crop of riders and the most vicious stock money could buy, he needed just $2,000 more to reach rodeo's version of a magic figure—$50,000. It is a figure that has the same meaning around the old corral as the four-minute mile did 15 years ago in track.
Although rodeo people are blinking over the dollars in Mahan's bank balance, his earnings represent only a part of what he has done to old standards. An invitation to compete in the NFR means a cowboy has been one of the top 15 competitors in one of the six standard rodeo events—bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding, calf roping, team roping and steer wrestling. (There is a seventh, added recently, for the girls, who race quarter horses around three barrels and down a short straightaway to the crashing accompaniment of Camp Town Races; a very demanding bit of horsemanship.) When you consider there are 2,700 people who go at this business seriously each year, the honor of an invitation becomes obvious.
Until two years ago, the Ail-Around Championship was awarded to the cowboy who was the tops in two of these events. Then along came Larry Mahan. He arrived in Oklahoma City last year qualified in three events, and that is something no cowboy ever dreamed of before. Mahan was fourth in the country among bareback riders, sixth on saddle broncs and fifth aboard the awful, awful bulls. It was, at the time, the ultimate in rodeoing.
This year, Mahan hit the ultimate again and then some: going into the finals he hit the top five in three events—he was fifth in bareback, third on saddle broncs and first with the bulls. To compare what Mahan did with winning baseball's Triple Crown would be understating the case. If you can conceive of, say, Jim Lonborg winning more than 20 games, pressing Harmon Killebrew for the home run title and stealing 50 bases, then you have the picture.
To discover why Larry Mahan should sit so tall in the saddle, or sit tall without a saddle for that matter, is to delve into the never-never land of star quality. Jim Shoulders, who won a staggering 16 National Championships including five Ail-Around titles himself before he retired in 1965, talks of the obvious when he says: "Larry does have great coordination and he does work hard at his trade. But so do a lot of other cowboys. You can look at them and tell right off they have it and that they are dedicated to rodeoing. And yet they don't make it. Larry's different. Why? I don't know."
The new breed of young go-getters is popping up in every sport and Mahan is everything that a cowboy, or a ball player, was not a few generations ago. Said Skipper Lofting, who did his rodeoing in the mid-30s: "The cowboys then were a cliquey lot. They would just as soon talk to a rattlesnake as to a newcomer. Many of them fitted the old mold as hard-drinking, hard-swearing brawlers. They were starving to death, but they distrusted anyone who used the word 'organize.' The early ones were mostly open-air delinquents, Civil War draft dodgers and out-and-out renegades."
Later, when there were no more Indians to shoot up, rodeo cowboys would arrive at a slumbering town, check in at the local saloon, wreck it, stagger off to the rodeo, ride their broncs, collect their winnings and head right back to the saloon—and wreck the wreckage. Those old cowboys spent what they had when they had it, and wahoo. There was color there, and it is disappearing.
Larry Mahan goes about it differently. He does not smoke, he drinks moderately—"I've seen those old drunks," he says, "and that's not going to be me 20 years from now"—and as a participant in an act that rates up there with bullfighting and linebacking for longevity, Mahan is using every modern device he can. That includes flying his own plane to get to as many rodeos as he can squeeze into a year, usually around 90. What he does with his winnings is invest them, in real estate, the market and business ventures.
Presumably, Larry Mahan was taken from the delivery room in Salem, Oregon, where he was born, put on a horse, and pointed in the direction of home. At least, his first time in a saddle took place in one of those early infant years that is beyond recall. By the time he was 10, Mahan was spending most of his time at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, breaking every colt he could find. Two years later, Mahan entered his first junior rodeo, roping and riding calves, for which he won six dollars and a belt buckle. If there was ever any question about his going into teaching or driving a truck, that was the end of it.
Not that there weren't moments of reflection. Before he was graduated from high school, Mahan entered a rodeo in Stockton, California, where he got on a bull named Rattler. A few seconds out of the chute, off flew Larry, which is nothing unusual in a cowboy's life. But it was then that Mahan learned firsthand the peculiar characteristics of a Brahma bull. Rattler looked around for his ex-rider, found him and tromped on his jaw, breaking it in five places. For two months Mahan took his nourishment through a straw. "I've got to admit." he said, "I had a few chickens in my gas tank after that."
Whatever misgivings Mahan had about boarding bull or bronc, they did not last much beyond the time he could again open his mouth fully. Within four months he had married a willowy dark-haired beauty named Darlene and had moved to Arizona, ostensibly to enter Arizona State University. ASU, it happened, had an excellent rodeo team.
As a newlywed Larry found that money was short, so he postponed his education for a year and tried the rodeo circuit full time to collect tuition. He was just one of many young men in a crowd, all struggling to pick up entry money for the next rodeo. In Mahan's case, however, a difference was quickly apparent, and Mel Lambert, who was announcing at the Oregon State Fair that year, spotted it. "Folks," he boomed out over the public address system, "that cowboy who just finished his ride is Larry Mahan. Now don't you forget that name, because someday he is going to be the All-Around Champion."
Lambert recalled recently, "You could just see it—the way he sat on a horse and spurred, he was all business and he had the try [a cowboy's term for never-say-die] to get him wherever he wanted to go."
A rodeo—any rodeo, in any town, at any time—was where Mahan wanted to be and he would drive thousands of miles to get there. Such minor happenings as being jerked down on the back of a bull's head—that was in Helena, Montana—and having the bone between his nose and upper teeth cracked, did not constitute sufficient cause to miss a turn. On another occasion, Mahan did take the time to be X-rayed after a bull had kicked him in the neck. The doctor, looking at a wet negative, found nothing wrong, so off Larry went, taking on any animal he could get in the next rodeo. His neck did bother him from time to time, but not enough to keep him out of action. A month later, a friend asked Mahan if the doctor had ever reached him. "No," said Larry, "why?" No reason, really, it turned out. When the doctor got a look at the dry X-ray he found three cracked vertebrae in the backbone near the neck. What's a broken neck between rodeos? It did not even slow Mahan down. "I guess it just healed by itself," he said. "At least it stopped bothering me."
The urge to get on bucking animals went beyond a means of just fattening the kitty. "If you're having troubles with a type of bronc or bull," Mahan says, "the best way I know to lick them is getting on as many of them as you can." For that reason, he entered a riding school run by Canadian All-Around Champion Kenny McLean in British Columbia. "He was having trouble with horses cutting to his right," said McLean, "so in seven days, he got on 49 of 'em."
"I was so sore I could hardly leave Canada," said Mahan. But horses cutting to the right no longer posed a particular problem.
This time last year Mahan came to Oklahoma City for the NFR firmly established as All-Around Champion, a man of stature, admired by all cowboys, sought after by commercial enterprises for endorsements, hounded by autograph seekers, adored by his public. And the first three bulls Larry Mahan got on at the NFR deposited him on the arena floor. In such ignominious positions are lives changed. For Mahan, it was indeed a turning point. "I had ridden a lot of bulls by then," Larry said, "but never with much thought. I used the same tricks on every bull no matter what his style and, while I was placing fairly often, it was obvious what I was doing wasn't enough. So for that fourth bull, I did some thinking."
That fourth bull also happened to be one that, following his recent form, Mahan should not have been able to stay on. It was a big brown brute that hopped out of the chute and immediately swirled in a tight circle to the left. Whether it was pure luck or just the end of his slump, Mahan stuck on and placed in the go-round, and when he left Oklahoma City after the nine-day event, it was with the idea that the year 1967 was going to be one of contemplation, study and just as many rodeos as he could get to in his brown and white Comanche.
The year was hectic all right, often with two rodeos to contend with simultaneously, distance and weather permitting. September came and went, along with Shoulders' old record, and by the time the National Finals in Oklahoma City confronted him, Mahan's second straight All-Around title was secure. All that he needed for $50,000 was about $2,000 in prize money and he had nine nights to get it.
He passed that figure on the eighth go-round, after accumulating a little more than $1,500 earlier. Only a bull and a bareback bronc out of 21 animals had their way with Mahan. But his first horse, in the bareback event, came out of the chute as if it had been hauling ice for the last 30 years. Mahan easily stuck the full eight seconds—Lynda Bird could have gotten married on the critter without too much trouble—and all he got for his effort was 11th place and no dollars and no cents.
But he then drew a saddle bronc called Red Pepper and there was a horse to gladden the hearts of record breakers wherever they may be. Mahan knew he had a good one and he shot the works, leaning way back, rolling his spurs up Red Pepper's neck and then rocking forward with each buck. It was beautiful. It was also worth $387.49, the amount that goes with winning a go-round, and it put Mahan within $96.14 of what he came for.
When the bulls moved from their pens into the chutes, a sense of urgency spread over the arena, as it does at every rodeo. The cowboys, who had been joshing and bantering, became quiet and tight-lipped. You could feel the tension all the way up in the last row.
Mahan's bull was called Hamp. He was black-and-white and he came out spinning hard to his left for five seconds. Suddenly he stopped spinning and leapt almost straight up, coming down stiff-legged. Mahan stayed right with Ol' Hamp, got the eight-second whistle and jumped clear. It was a ride worth fourth place and $96.89. It brought his prize money to $50,000.75 (by the end of the finals: $51,996.37) and the coffee tab was on Larry Mahan.