An old cowboy, Casey Tibbs has not always been the luckiest financially. A friend says Tibbs "is the only guy in the world who could go into Fort Knox with a grain scoop and a gunnysack and come out with his wallet missing."
Money aside, Casey went through a variety of stages in his life. One had him firing blanks from a pistol. It seems Tibbs was in California with another cowboy, Jim Shoulders. Understand, Casey long led the sport of rodeo in color, but Shoulders is the alltime and forevermore leader in achievement, with 16 world championships.
So...Shoulders is on the telephone. Tibbs slips up on him and, in the confines of the phone booth, squeezes off a blank. At which Shoulders erupts, saying something like, "Goodness gracious, Casey, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't frighten me like that." And Shoulders jabs Casey in the stomach with a knife.
Then suddenly commiserating with Tibbs, Shoulders rushes his colleague to a hospital. But moments later, as the story is retold, Shoulders looks at his watch and says, "My God, Casey, I'm up on a bull." And he bolts from the hospital to a rodeo arena, seldom to discuss the subject again. Tibbs, now retired in Southern California with nine world titles, refuses to discuss the episode at all.
October 3, 1976
In fact, this story generally has been kept within the rodeo fraternity. That's because Shoulders is a legend—seven times best in the world in bull riding, five times the all-round king, four times bareback bronc winner—and it wouldn't do for word to circulate that The Legend was wont to perform stomach surgery on split-second notice.
Shoulders' wife Sharron remembers when she was in the ninth grade in Tulsa, Okla. and met Jim. "He was supposed to be quite a rounder. You know, wicked and evil but"—we must pause here for her giggle—"I kind of liked it."
And he was wilder than mountain scenery. Says Sharron, "For our first date, he asked me to go horseback riding. When I got there, I found out he had arranged for only one horse. And at the end of the date, he tried to kiss me. I jumped off that horse and went runnin' in and told my grandmother that all those things I'd heard about Jim Shoulders were true." Says Shoulders, "She was the dumbest girl I ever met." Thus, true love was born.
These stories are, of course, the stuff of which legends are made. Shawn Davis, who has won the saddle bronc championship three times, says, "If there's a legend in rodeo, Jim's it." But such tales tend to make Shoulders look like a barroom brawler who should be kept 500 feet from all women and children and most men. Not true. What the stories really demonstrate is Shoulders' determination that things should go the way he wants them to.
Shoulders, who has been retired from rodeoing for more than a decade (his glory years were 1955-59, when he won 12 of his 16 titles), today presides over what nearly everyone agrees is The First Family of Rodeo. When you talk of rodeo families, you start and end with the Shoulderses of Henryetta, Okla.
Jim raises rodeo stock and puts on rodeos; Sharron and the girls (there are three) help at rodeos, doing everything from saddling horses to carrying flags to being rodeo secretaries to serving as mother confessors for troubled cowboys; son Marvin Paul rides bulls; a recently acquired son-in-law is a rodeo clown. Daughter Marcie, 15, says she knows why her parents stay together. "My dad's too messy and my mom's too dingy. They really need each other."
It's an Old West kind of family, a family with a lot of love in it. It's all too corny for a soap opera. Over yonder, one of the Shoulders' kids balks at the old man's instructions. He bellows, "Don't you doubt my word. If I tell you a chicken can pull a wagon, get a harness."
The Shoulders' family life is rodeo. And rodeo needs the family. For the sport is at an awkward point. In the public mind, it has no stars, except old guys like Tibbs and Freckles Brown. Bill Linderman is dead. Sure, there's Larry Mahan, but despite his six all-round world championships, he has more of a yearning to make it big in Hollywood and in the clothing business than in the arena. Two comers are Tom Ferguson, who has won a record $74,917 so far this year, and Leo Camarillo, who shared the all-round title with Ferguson last year. Says Camarillo, who has mixed blood, "When I mess up, it's the Mexican coming out in me. When I do good, it's the Indian." Camarillo has the oratorical flair; his talent flair awaits further evaluation. Ditto a flashy saddle bronc rider, Monty Henson.
Oh, yes, there's another possible for rodeo superstardom. His name: Shoulders. Only this time around the arena, it's not Jim, but son Marvin Paul.
Marvin Paul, there are people who say you ride those bulls as well as your dad did and that you could even be better. What do you think when you hear that? "I don't believe them."
At 25, Marvin Paul lives rather easily as the son of The Legend. "I'm not ashamed of being Jim Shoulders' son," he says. And he senses that his last name does open a few chutes for him with rodeo people.
There's a problem: Marvin Paul may not want to be a star. He says, "I'd like to win at least one world title." But Jim Shoulders isn't so sure. "It's not an obsession with Marvin Paul to be champion. I fuss at him, but sometimes I think he don't have enough ambition."
Marvin Paul's mother says, "I don't think Marvin Paul has any desire to break his dad's records. He takes time away from rodeo to do fun things, and that's good. Jim never did that." Predictably, it takes a sister—in this case, Jana, 19—to be roughest on Marvin Paul. "My dad is 10 times tougher than Marvin," she says. "Marvin is lazy. He doesn't get up and he doesn't help." Candor is a Shoulders family trait.
In discussions with scores of other rodeo people, the word "lazy" does keep cropping up in talks about Marvin Paul. "I don't give a flip what anybody says," insists Marvin Paul, who really said flip, "I'm not goin' to rodeos just to go to rodeos. [There are some 600 pro rodeos this year; Marvin Paul plans to make about 80.] Look, if you're cold and not winnin', that's spendin' money. If you're hot and winnin', that's called makin' money. Got it?" Yes, sir.
In the seven years Marvin Paul has been competing he has earned close to $100,000. His dad won $436,569 over 20 years. These sums are not as impressive as they sound; expenses reduce them some 50%.
Marvin Paul got married last year. His wife Liz, 20, says, "I always wanted to marry a cowboy. I always wanted to marry a bull rider. I always wanted to marry the best." Which means, she confesses, she had in mind Donnie Gay, currently the best bull rider in the country. When she met Marvin Paul, he didn't say anything, she recalls, until she sat on his hat. Then he said one word, with which this page will not be soiled.
"Marvin," she says, "is an upright, all-American guy. But I'm going to travel with him. I mean I'm not stupid." Of her husband's line of work, Liz says, "Bulls just flat scare me to death, but it doesn't bother me for Marvin to mess with them."
A bull-riding friend, John Davis, says of Marvin Paul, "He knows he'll never equal his dad." Several years ago Marvin Paul rode Mighty Mouse, a bull owned by his father and never before ridden. Those who witnessed the epic ride say it's hard to know whose side Jim Shoulders was on. Make no mistake, Jim does love to see the bulls—especially his bulls—smooth over the cowboys.
So the feeling lurks in many minds that should a spark of want-to ever be ignited in Marvin Paul's head, he has ample seat-of-the-pants ability to make it big. Really big.
This year's performances, however, illuminate Marvin Paul's problem: he has won only a shade over $12,000 and, depending on the day, is either just in or just out of the top 15 money-winners. Only the first 15 in each event qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City on Dec. 3-11. Nonetheless, Marvin Paul is still considered one of the best bull riders. So what happened? "He's ridin' fine," says his mother. "But we can't blast him out of the house to get him to rodeo. He likes to stay home and play with Elizabeth." Jim Shoulders didn't ever stay home to play.
Of the three Shoulders girls, Marcie is the free spirit. She says her dad never wears socks that match because he won $13 on the first bull he ever rode—and he was wearing unmatched socks when he did it. It's Marcie who tells the funny stories about the rats crawling in the Henryetta movie theater; it's Marcie who says the family moved from the ranch outside of Henryetta to a town home a few years ago "after the floor fell out of the bedroom." What about Marvin Paul? "I just hope he does good and doesn't do anything too drastic to himself."
Jana married Marvin Paul's best friend, rodeo clown Bobby McAfee. How does Jana feel when her brother is riding a bull owned by her father and her husband is the clown charged with keeping the critter from goring the rider? "I pray an awful lot."
Jamie, 28, is farthest removed from rodeos. She married a schoolteacher "because I like routine and you can't get more routine than a schoolteacher." At a rodeo the other day she admitted, "My stomach knots up when Marvin Paul is fixin' to be in a storm."
Since she's the oldest, Jamie perhaps has the best insights into her dad. "He was so good," she says, "because he had so many mouths to feed." Life at the Shoulderses is not always bliss. Says Jamie, "I remember hearing my folks having a fight and Mom said, 'I'm leaving.' And Dad said, 'Don't let the doorknob hit you in the butt.' "
Sharron Shoulders is everybody's all-conference sweetheart. A friend, Liz Kesler of Missoula, Mont., says, "She's sweet, smiling, perfectly groomed, sweet, congenial, helpful, understanding, sweet, vivacious and sweet." Sharron loves church suppers, tapes the kids' school paintings to the refrigerator door, copes with her husband and loves her role as a cheerleader for life.
Often when Jim was off rodeoing, she was home with the children, and wicked stories reached her ears. Casey Tibbs once told her a wild episode supposedly concerning Jim and concluded, "Do you believe me?" Said Sharron, "Sure, that sounds just like him." Soon, Sharron says, "the time came when I knew I had to build a foundation for our life or listen to the gossip. There are so many things I would do differently. But livin' with Jim Shoulders isn't one of them."
She hopes Marvin Paul "will do good so he'll feel good." But how about the years of quiet agony watching Jim ride bulls and other ornery animals, and now Marvin Paul, and with a grandson toddling and already loving the bulls? "Mostly I'm just surprised when one of them falls off." Jim was injured significantly x times. We will let you fill in the blank. Any number over 100 will do. Mrs. Ellen Shoulders of Tulsa says of her son's competitive days, "I just sort of trailed along to pick up the pieces." Harry Tompkins, seven times a world champ, says of Shoulders, "He was a hazard to himself when he started out." Jim has long since tired of talking about his wrecks and now says, "Only thing was, once I skinned my finger. This 'un right here." Then he takes special delight in showing which one.
Injury still dogs Jim Shoulders. This spring, while he was working his steers, his horse fell on him, breaking Jim's leg in five places. As with all the previous hurts, Shoulders gives it the macho dismiss. "You can't stop somethin' like this from hurtin' but you can damn well not let it bother you." Indeed, what is bothering Shoulders more now is his induction on Nov. 16 into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. The honor doesn't stir Jim much, and when he was told he'd have to wear a white tie and tails, he was even less impressed.
Marvin Paul already has spilled plenty of blood from coast to coast and broke a leg two years ago. If one of the Shoulderses ever looks—or looked—injured, daughter Jamie says her mother "stands there sort of numb going berserk."
Sharron is anxious to tell how Marvin Paul, before he was married, gave her a refrigerator, stove, dishwasher and microwave oven "because he loves me—and because he couldn't think of anything else to do with his money."
Jim Shoulders is hustling one of his trucks down the interstate toward Henryetta. He's quietly miffed because there are a lot of Them Old Bulls to be shoved around at the ranch and Marvin Paul decided it would be more to his advantage to stay in bed.
But son-in-law Bobby McAfee is there to help, and as the miles slip by, The Legend is talking. Not chattering, talking. He waves at the Oklahoma landscape and promises, "When it has got its Sunday clothes on, it's really somethin'." Then he tells a story we're not allowed to print here. He tells the punch line twice. When Shoulders is especially proud of a story, he tells the punch line twice. He's proud of most of his stories.
The Legend is still a hardscrabble kind of guy. He's not rich by any measure, although he owns some 4,000 acres of Oklahoma land. He sells and buys bulls and broncs, "Anything that has four legs and a tail," says Sharron. (On one occasion another cowboy, unable to find Sharron, said, "Jim's probably out sellin' her right now. She'll bring a good price.") Jim provides stock for rodeos, arranges to get Mexican steers across the border, hauls hay and pipe. Most lucrative of all are his summer rodeo schools.
Freckles Brown says, "Jim loves that dollar." Shoulders snorts that "money can't be everything. Health has to be somethin', maybe 2%."
Once at the ranch, Shoulders is a real cowboy. The old ranch house is vacant, but a sign remains, DON'T SPIT ON THE PORCH. WE AIN'T ALL THAT COUNTRY. Now Jim is a-hollerin' at the bulls. Later he pauses to wipe his shirt. "One of Them Old Bulls did somethin' on me. But that's okay. It's clean. It ain't never been on the ground. It ain't never been on the ground." He works on through the day, explaining, "I believe a man has got to work or steal to live and I'm too big a coward to steal."
By a recent count, Jim's ranch is populated by 47 Mexican steers, 26 saddle horses, 187 bucking horses and 97 bulls. There's also a key lying in the weeds to Room 61 of the Townsman Motel in Miami, Okla., a broken thermometer inscribed EX-LAX and enough empty beer cans to indicate folks often need a thirst quencher thereabouts to make it through both the hot and cold of this dusty land.
Shoulders is flat-out honest in his answers ("Frankly, I think Marvin always liked his horses better than his mama") until the talk turns to money. At which time Shoulders becomes so forgetful you'd think his mind, at age 48, had gone mushy.
Shoulders avoids sentiment, especially when it involves his family, always when it involves friends. For some time an Australian cowboy, Grahame Fenton, lived with the Shoulderses. Sharron loaned Fenton one of Jim's shirts to wear in a rodeo. Fenton fell off and limped over to Shoulders. "Jim," he said, "I think my arm's broke." Said Jim, "If you tore my shirt, I'll break your other damn arm." Says Fenton, "The man who waits for Jim Shoulders to praise him better not hold his breath or he'll suffocate."
With three of his four children married, Jim says he has learned something. "I thought the kids would leave home. Heck, every time I look up, they're all sittin' at my kitchen table eatin' my groceries."
Sometimes Jim will do little things to show Sharron he does love her. Like the time in New York when he locked her out of a hotel room. She had a difficult time retaining her dignity being as she was without benefit of clothes. "Sometimes," says Sharron, "you have a mental image of what you want your husband to be and sometimes you're disappointed. But I'll tell you the most important thing: there's a lot of love in our house."