In their travels from one dusty Western town to the next, rodeo cowboys provide high entertainment for uncertain return. They routinely endure trials of the kind that Larry Mahan, the sport's premier performer, suffered last September in Ellensburg, Wash. Riding a bareback bronc, Mahan was bucked rudely into the air, his hand catching in the horse's rawhide rigging as he came down. Outsiders sometimes protest that rodeo is cruel to animals, which must have struck Mahan as ironic once the horse stopped dragging him like a rag doll along the hard ground.
The accident left Mahan with a broken leg, ending at least momentarily his remarkable domination of competitive rodeo. Not only had he won the all-around cowboy championship an unprecedented five straight years, but he had pretty well wrapped up the title on each occasion even before arriving in Oklahoma City for cowpunching's traditional windup, the National Finals Rodeo. With Mahan hobbling on a cane as this season ended, the outcome was necessarily different. Flocking to the Oklahoma Fairgrounds Arena for 10 performances in nine days, rodeogoers chomped on their caramel apples, politely applauded oratory to the effect that cowboys never burn their draft cards—"the last of the rugged individualists" one speaker called them—and scarcely gave Mahan a second thought as a couple of young hands named Phil Lyne and Bob Berger staged a guns-blazing showdown for all-around cowboy of 1971.
The idea being that this was more sport than Wild West show, the rodeo had no trick roping and the like, hardly a casual omission in a city that has named all sorts of things, from its airport to a barbershop, after Will Rogers. Cowgirls, done up in sequins and crushed velvet, competed on horseback for the women's barrel racing championship while the band played De Camptown Races, but the boys generally shunned fancy duds in favor of workaday denim. This helped make for a businesslike atmosphere, as befits a sport that determines its champions on the cold-eyed basis of who wins the most cash.
The one who led coining into Oklahoma City, with $44,905 in winnings, was the 24-year-old Lyne, a pale, sturdy Texan whose command in the ring belied the fact that he was only in his third year on the professional trail. A fellow who learned to rope and ride on his family's 2,000-acre cattle ranch south of San Antonio, Lyne regards his nomadic life in rodeo as temporary. "All this travel poops a boy out," he says, his voice edged with appropriate weariness. "But the good thing is, you're your own boss. Being a cowboy beats being a welder or a cook; for me, it does, anyway. I figure I'll maybe stick with this a couple, three years and then go back to ranching."
Like others trying to make it on the cowboy circuit, Lyne competes in 100 or more rodeos a year, receiving no guarantees or salary and paying all expenses, including entry fees, out of his pocket. The National Finals, open to the 15 biggest winners in each of rodeo's six standard events, gives the leaders one last opportunity to flesh out their earnings for the year. Lyne qualified in calf roping and bull riding, and he needed to pick up additional prize money to avoid being cut down by Berger, whose $42,728 in winnings put him uncomfortably close. Berger had the benefit of being on familiar sod for the finals. He lives 18 miles down the road in Norman, where his wife Darann is studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma while trying to crack the pulp-Western market by writing stories with titles like Indian Em'ly and John Smith, Town Tamer.
More seasoned than Lyne, having placed third in the all-around cowboy race in 1970, the 26-year-old Berger did well enough this year to become the only cowboy other than Mahan ever to qualify for the finals in three events. That gave him one more crack at the week's loot than Lyne, but the fact that it was the three riding events in which he qualified—bull, bareback and saddle bronc—assured him of a rough week. Mahan had competed in the same combination of events but he is of sterner stuff than Berger—a slight 135-pound fellow with choirboy features who does a creditable imitation atop a high bucking bull of a twig in a tornado.
Berger's punishment began on opening night when he came out of the gate astride a bareback bronc whose antisocial tendencies were immediately apparent. The horse swerved in one direction and Berger, hat flying and chaps flopping, went hurtling in another, wrenching his left elbow in the spill. The next day he suffered a bruised foot when a saddle bronc toppled onto him, and on Friday, as the rodeo neared its climax, he very ably rode a bull—its name was Sue—only to fracture his left hand while tumbling off at the end after the buzzer. "Do you want to ride tomorrow, Bobby?" the doctor asked while examining the X rays that night. Berger, holding an ice pack to his swollen hand in the emergency room of the Baptist Memorial Hospital, looked up with wide eyes and nodded.
With his hand in a cast, Berger continued to spur on ornery animals on Saturday afternoon, the cheers of his fellow Oklahomans urging him to stick with it. But the little man's medical problems became ridiculous when he was thrown again in that session, spraining his right wrist and suffering a possible fractured toe. After that he was so lame and halt—he could hardly get his boot on—that he passed up three rides. Still the battered cowboy returned, competing in three events in the final performances despite bruises and bandages on literally every limb.
"I'm just trying to keep myself together," Berger said, his agonies written on his boyish face. Remarkably, though, he still had a mathematical chance of overtaking Lyne going into that final day.
For all his ailments throughout the rodeo, Berger had lasted the prescribed length of time—eight seconds in bull and bareback riding and nine in saddle broncs—often enough to keep the pressure on Lyne. He won $477 with a first in bull riding one night, pocketed $298 for a second-place tie in saddle bronc another, added $119 here and $59 there. But Lyne, relaxing between rounds with a chaw in his cheek, was coolly going about the business of adding to his own dollar total, his strongest bull rides or fastest calf-roping clockings always seeming to occur whenever Berger began edging close. "The only way Bobby is frail is his looks and that's deceivin'," Lyne said of his rival. "He could get hot and win this whole thing." In contrast to Berger, the Texan's most serious complaint was a mild cold.
The one certainty was that rodeo would be getting a champion, whether it turned out to be Lyne or Berger, from the ranks of cowboys' new breed. Both men attended college on rodeo scholarships, Berger graduating from Cal Poly and Lyne lacking just six credits for a degree from Sam Houston State. Berger pilots his own single-engine Comanche painted in bumblebee yellow and black, while Lyne is now taking flying lessons. Each is following the lead of Mahan, who has been traveling to rodeos for years in his own plane. As the sport's glamour boy, Mahan supplements his prize winnings by endorsing products as disparate as saddles and swimwear; it provides substantial income and Berger and Lyne have lately been coming in for similar fringe benefits.
A few grizzled, rough-and-tumble boys are still around but the world of tax consultants and business deals is closing in. With the sport's annual attendance at 25 million, the Denver-based Rodeo Cowboys Association, representing 3,000 professionals, has just negotiated a promotional tie-in with Winston cigarettes, and there has been talk of trying to corral some of that good network TV money. Concerned with rodeo's image, association officials spent part of their time at the finals grumbling about the salty language and nudity in J. W. Coop, a new Cliff Robertson movie featuring real-life cowboy Dennis Reiners. The world premi√®re, held in Oklahoma City during the rodeo, was marred when Reiners, who also recently appeared on television's Dating Game ("Do you like to horse around?" he inquired of one bachelorette), was banged up in an auto accident on his way to the theater. The injury caused him to miss two days of competition at the rodeo, a case of poor timing roughly equivalent to contracting laryngitis at La Scala.
Certainly traffic accidents were superfluous; there was enough mayhem in the ring, where bucking stock bearing suitably menacing names like Widow Maker and Crazy One were exacting a nightly toll of casualties. The roughest, rankest bull at the finals was generally conceded to be a 7-year-old Charolais named 00, an animal that had taken on some 200 cowboys in its rodeo career and thrown them all. In the daily matchups of man and beast, three contestants wound up drawing 00, and Bobby Berger was naturally one of them. It was not to be his lucky week.
The other two cowboys were bucked off; Berger's turn came Thursday, the day before he broke his hand. When he recovered from the shock of drawing the dreaded animal, Berger said gamely, "Well, if I ride that bull, the judges ought to give me a good score." He then went out and became the first man to do so, stubbornly withstanding 00's violent lurches before finally eating dirt at the very instant the eight-second buzzer sounded. It was a grand moment, yet not so grand. Contending that the bull had not bucked with its usual vigor, the judges gave Berger a so-so score that put him out of the money for the night.
But Berger received better marks on other bulls, grittily staying aboard nine of his 10 mounts, being bucked painfully off only on his final animal Sunday. Besides winning $2,981 in daily prize money in his three specialties, he was the most consistent bull rider throughout the rodeo, which brought an additional payoff of $1,037. The total would have been enough to take the championship had Phil Lyne simply remained in the barns squirting tobacco juice on the ground. A versatile athlete who won money at one time or another this year in every event—something few cowboys have ever done—Lyne picked up $4,340 in his two specialties, finally clinching the all-around cowboy title with a second place Sunday in calf roping. He also wound up as the biggest winner in that category on the 1971 rodeo circuit.
Unlike most of his rivals, Lyne generally competes in calf roping on borrowed horses, and it was on one of them that he provided probably the most dramatic moment of the week. Anybody who can chase down a calf on horseback and then rope and bind it in less than 12 or 13 seconds is generally considered to have excelled. As Lyne waited his turn during one performance, two of his competitors achieved successive times of nine seconds and 8.9 seconds, the latter the fastest clocking in the 13-year history of the National Finals rodeo. With third place seemingly the best he could hope for, Lyne calmly settled into his saddle and, rope coiled and ready in his hand, nodded to attendants for the chute to be opened.
The calf rushed onto the arena floor with Lyne in close pursuit. The cowboy carved the air overhead with his spiraling rope, then lowered the loop cleanly over the calf's head, bringing the animal to an abrupt, neck-jerking halt. He leapt down and gift wrapped it in a single motion. It had taken all of 8.5 seconds. Amazingly, the mark was equalled by another contestant, Oklahoman Barry Burk, two days later. As Lyne returned to his horse, richer by $477 in first-place money for the night, the excited announcer asked him to take a triumphal ride around the ring. He doffed his $100 beaver hat and rode instead for the exit. Asked later if he had declined to circle the ring out of shyness, he reflected a moment. "Sometimes I'm shy, and sometimes I'm not," he said.
Once all hands finished tucking the last cent of prize money into their Wranglers or Levi's or Lee Riders, depending on which brand a fellow had endorsed, Lyne's total for the year stood at $49,245, Berger's at $46,746. The very thought of such riches stirred pangs of anxiety in the man Lyne had succeeded as best all-around cowboy. Pausing on his way to a luncheon at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City's biggest tourist attraction, Larry Mahan leaned on his cane and confided, "Just sitting around here like this can make you a little depressed." Aiming for next year's championship, Mahan expects to test his injured leg in a rodeo Jan. 1 in Odessa, Texas. Well, Phil Lyne is fixing to be there and Bobby Berger will probably drag his broken body to Odessa, too. It should be a good test.