The National Finals rodeo, one of the jaw-jerking athletic events in our culture and one that tells us about a past we would rather believe in, went off largely unnoticed last week in Oklahoma City. A Saturday night TV news show dwelt for more than a minute on a college wrestling match and never got around to mentioning that the world's best cowboys were in town. But the fairgrounds arena was pretty well full for every performance, and the drama was as thick as anything you ever saw in a theater.
Fathers and sons, that was the ticket. Not in the sense of sons overthrowing fathers exactly, but of sons becoming an extension of and perhaps an improvement on the old man. Every event had its heroes, but it was bull riding that caught you in the throat. Families figured in it. Bobby Steiner, Don Gay, Pete Gay and Marvin Paul Shoulders are the sons of rodeo fathers. Shoulders' father is named Jim, and you can walk into a honky-tonk tonight in Penns Grove, N.J. and the guy on the third stool will tell you about him and what he used to be.
And in the middle of all this was a man who is one of rodeo's two big stars of all time (Shoulders, of course, is the other). His name is Larry Mahan. He has just won his unprecedented sixth all around rodeo cowboy championship, beating Shoulders' record by one. Mahan had that wrapped up before the National Finals ever started, but he was still in competition for the annual bull-riding title. And, at 30, Mahan is somewhere between the fathers and the sons.
Bobby Steiner, for a family example. He is the grandson of a Texas rancher who learned an early lesson about the land: it is easier to ride it than plow it. Bobby is a frail-faced 22-year-old who ran away from home in Austin at 16 to join the rodeo. His grandfather Buck, now 73, was a rodeo star and today owns 92 different pieces of land around Austin, including a ranch in the hills along the Colorado River. But Buck Steiner works behind the counter at the Capitol Saddlery, a shop that makes boots and cowboy stuff, rather than retire to rock on his veranda and count the legs of his animals. Bobby's father Tommy is a well-known rodeo stock contractor. Bobby himself is as close to being the best bull rider in the world as he is to two of his best friends, Pete and Don Gay.
Pete Gay was the first of the boys in his family to run off to the rodeo and make good riding bulls. His father Neal did the rodeo circuit and has produced rodeos in Mesquite, Texas for 16 years. When Pete took off two years ago at 19, Neal told him, "You can go to the rodeo if you want to, but if you get broke out there, you just set your satchel down right where you're at and get you a job. Don't be calling on us for money. I've worked hard, and I've got debts, and we've still got a family to raise. You've got a home as long as you live here, but out in the rodeo you're on your own."
A year later Pete's younger brother Don was graduated from high school in June and by November had won enough money riding bulls so that he, too, qualified for the Finals. When Don went out, he was told just about the same thing Pete had heard. Neal has never given either of his older sons a nickel since they got out of high school, a good old American pull-yourself up-by-your-bull-rope story if there ever was one, and both boys are living the way they want to live. Don has two new cars paid for and $12,000 in the bank, and Pete has taken up golf.
The other day some of the Gays were driving along in Neal's car, and Pete told his 11-year-old brother Jim (named for Jim Shoulders) that he ought to learn golf. "Those professional golfers make $100,000 a year and don't have to work at all," Pete said. "I might do that when I'm not rodeoing," said Jim.
Marvin Paul Shoulders, 22, won the bull-riding event at the National Finals. Shoulders was assured of the title with a whole performance to go. In the Finals each contestant has to contend with 10 animals in his specialty, and Marvin Paul rode his first nine bulls without getting bucked off, which only one man has ever done before in this rodeo. But the bull-riding championship for the year was still in the balance.
In the tack room back of the rodeo arena in Oklahoma City, Marvin Paul and the rest of them were digging through their rigging bags and messing with their spurs and straps and chaps as the showdown approached, and over at one side of the room Larry Mahan was doing the same thing, except a camera was always on him. Mahan didn't come from any rodeo family. He came from two acres in western Oregon, and he had one horse as a kid, not a remuda. He married Darlene, a barrel racer, in high school and then moved on to Dallas. He hit the rodeos in 1964, won the bull riding in 1965, won his first all-around championship the next year. "These young dudes handle the pressure better than I did, I think," he said. Neal Gay had noted Pete and Don had never suffered stage fright since they had grown up around rodeo heroes. "I put Don Gay and Bobby Steiner on a couple of their first bucking animals, and now they're out to get me," said Mahan, the man in the middle. "Well, the bull riding has been fun all year, with the lead going back and forth. The young dudes come up to me now and tell me things to do like I used to tell them. I want to win the bull-riding championship this year because of the money. But to me it's really just another belt buckle. I think it's good for the young guys to move in."
"It's a young man's game," said Jim Shoulders. "I was 21 the first time I won the all-around. The big difference in the rodeo life between mine and what my son has is there's more rodeos, of course, and the transportation is so much better. They can go places in a day it would have taken us a week to get to."
The contestants in the Finals had been to an awful lot of rodeos in the past year—since the standings are based on money won, the more rodeos you can make, the more pudding you can dig at—and they had seen some astounding changes in the things that attend the performance, if not in the unchanging act of rodeo itself. A while back, if somebody had made a joke about the President of the United States at a rodeo, they would have sent his head to Tulsa. At the Finals the rodeo clowns and announcer Clem McSpadden, an Oklahoma congressman (and not coincidentally a Democrat), got together for a joke about finding Nixon a job on television. "He could be on The Price Is Right, Let's Make a Deal, I've Got a Secret and What's My Line?" was the way the joke went. Fathers and sons, indeed.
There were no easily recognizable advertisements in Oklahoma City for the National Finals—as opposed to, for example, Frontier Days in Cheyenne—and when McSpadden called for regional identification cries from the audience, there were as many yells for Texas and Canada as there were for Oklahoma.
Well, four of the top live bull riders—the Gays, Steiner and Mahan—going into the end were from Texas, the first time that ever happened, and one—Shoulders—was from Oklahoma. By Sunday afternoon all of them felt like they had been rode hard and put up wet. Mahan, for example, was up on 30 bucking horses and bulls in this one rodeo.
The Sunday bulls were the toughest of an exceptional lot. Marvin Paul Shoulders was finally thrown. A bull named Mr. Bubble dumped Don Gay in the dirt, making Bobby Steiner the 1973 champion. Steiner flung his hat in the air, hugged Gay and then rode his last bull to wind up an outstanding season in rodeo's most exciting event.