A balmy spring breeze was stirring outside Fort Worth's Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum late last Saturday night, and rodeo's biggest star, 27-year-old Tom Ferguson, looked like a contented man. His black hat was tipped back and one foot was propped against a fence as he sipped an icy soft drink. Conversation flowed pleasantly. Indeed, there in the flickering shadows, Ferguson looked and acted precisely like what he is: king of the rodeo road. The first man to have won more than $100,000 in a year in a sport is which $30,000 is impressive, Ferguson has done it two years in a row. Before he started rolling, the $64,447 that Larry Mahan won in 1973 was tops. Now Ferguson is third on the all-time list, with more than $300,000 in five years, and unless the sky falls and the oceans cover the West, he will shortly leave dust all over No. 2 (Mahan, $515,000) and No. 1 (Dean Oliver, $527,000 in two decades).
In five years of full-time rodeo, Ferguson has taken the world all-around championship, for which a cowboy must win money in at least two events, four straight times and is odds-on for a fifth, sixth and seventh. In a sport with only three certified stars—Casey Tibbs, Jim Shoulders and Mahan—Ferguson should be the fourth.
Professional rodeo has been waiting for generations to be discovered. Indeed, so anxious is the sport to dance that it has long been prone to take up with any smooth-talking stranger who happens by with promises of network television, four-color photos and limousines for everyone. Thus, last week in Fort Worth, rodeo people were spittin' in the dirt with new vigor and proclaiming the Rodeo Superstars event wonderful, just wonderful. Could this, they mused, really be first light, signaling a bright new day for rodeo? The sponsoring U.S. Tobacco Co. had not let them down. The company that promised an innovative, first-class event spent $328,000 to make it so. It offered top prize money for calf roping, bull riding and girls' barrel racing and gave $50,000 to charity, to boot. The nation's 15 best bull riders and 15 best calf ropers said they would show up, and they did. Television syndication was arranged in 93 markets, as far east as Pittsburgh. A three-night sellout of 7,000 fans was delivered. All went so well that the U.S. Tobacco biggies even managed to laugh when singer Ronnie Milsap thanked the American Tobacco Co. for inviting him.
Of most potential long-range significance was the format: head-to-head competition, set up in brackets, just like the NCAA basketball championships. Lose and you're out. Normally in rodeo, competitors take their turns in an event, and the best score wins, but comparing performances is difficult. Furthermore, most rodeos have a lot of contestants, including a full load of those with no discernible ability. At Fort Worth, only the best were on hand and proceedings were streamlined to the extent possible when man and animal must cooperate. It was, most agreed, the best rodeo ever for fans.
And it looked as if it would be the best ever for Ferguson, who is used to some big days in the arena. In the semifinals of the calf roping, his opponent was Willard Moody, a sometimes erratic performer who once quit in frustration to return to teaching school. The two were to rope six calves alternately, lowest total time to win. On the third calf, Moody missed with his first loop, made his second throw and tied the calf in a poky 22.45 seconds. "That just killed us," said Moody's father. He had too little faith. His son slammed back and tied his next two in 8.51 and 9.57 seconds, to close within .43 second of Ferguson.
Despite his lead, Ferguson was not pleased with his prospects, for his final calf was a large one, and he figured he could do no better than 10 seconds on it. Moody's was a smaller animal that looked like a good nine-second candidate. Ferguson went out first, roped the calf and was running to him when the rope broke. A 24-foot rope that retails for $25. Ferguson had decided to switch to it only moments before, afraid that an older rope might break. Of the new one's 93 strands, several had given way, and Ferguson was out $15,000, the largest first prize ever offered in rodeo. To win, Willard Moody had only to avoid stopping for lunch, which he did.
The finals saw him head-to-head with Roy Cooper, a 21-year-old calf roper from Durant, Okla., who rodeoed hard throughout 1977 to win $46,000 and considers himself smarter than other ropers, "because I listened well when I was young." Fans were repeatedly jerked from their seats as the unexpected but talented pair roped and tied in textbook style. After five calves each and no misses, Cooper had a total time of 51.12, Moody 52.86. But on his sixth trip, Moody did miss and had to resort to a second rope. Miraculously, he got the job done in 13.33 seconds, but Cooper won with a 12.62. His margin of victory was 2.45 seconds.
Bull riding also offered semifinal and final rounds minus its premier performer, Don Gay, who has won the world title four years straight. He was defeated Friday evening because he had a bull that didn't buck enough to allow him to post a high score. Nothing irks Gay more; he went to 171 rodeos last year in search of ornery bulls. Years ago, after having been hurt, Gay asked the doctor when he could compete again. "When you think you're tough enough, kid," was the response, so Donnie promptly flew to El Paso and won $1,200.
Last week's bull-riding winner, Bobby Berger, understands this. In the 1971 National finals, Bobby jumped off a bull, fell and broke a bone in his left hand. He broke his right wrist in a saddle-bronc accident just before he broke his toe getting off another bronc, and then he chipped his elbow in a bareback bronc wreck. Berger remembers asking himself at this point, "I wonder if I can take all this at one rodeo?" He did.
Last week the 32-year-old from Norman, Okla. was afraid he might be over the competitive hill. He said, "I know I should be thinking about stopping all this," and he was as surprised as anyone to find himself in the finals in Fort Worth. Asked if he didn't think he was as good as Gay, he said, "No, not really." Which he isn't. "But I do know Donnie has been hot, and he has been lucky," Berger added. "I figured he just can't come through every time."
Berger whipped Gay by successfully handling a bull that had dumped him four times previously. An innovation for this rodeo had made the bull riding even more exciting by allowing riders to score, and often score well, even though they failed to stay aboard for the required eight seconds. In conventional rodeo, anything other than a full ride means no score. So even though Berger's opponent in the finals, Doug Shipe, rode Flying High—a rambunctious critter that bucked off 33 of the 36 cowboys who got on his back last year—for only 1.96 seconds, he still got 30.38 points out of a possible 160.
But when Berger got a chance on Flying High, he stayed with it for 5.03 seconds for a score of 90.54. The bull stuck a horn in Berger's scalp during the rough trip, which dazed Bobby. "The whole thing is a blur," he said later. "I'm trying to remember jump for jump, but I can't." Shipe said he was delighted to have the $6,000 in runner-up money, and Berger, still shaken, stood with blood running down his face. "I can't believe a rodeo when Bobby Berger can win this much money," he said. "Isn't it great? I mean, I'm a gambler, and I'm used to chickens today and feathers tomorrow." Hello, chickens.
On Friday, Collette Graves, 23, of Hartner, Kans. had led off the weekend's upsets when she won the barrel racing by defeating the people's choice, 14-year-old Jackie Jo Perrin, in a time of 32.99. She took home $5,000, and if $15,000 is chicken to Bobby Berger, $5,000 is caviar to any barrel racer.
And all the while, plans were being talked up at U.S. Tobacco. Network television, maybe. First prize of $35,000 for a full seven-event rodeo instead of one of three events, maybe. Madison Square Garden, maybe.
If it all comes off, champion Tom Ferguson, for one, will be there.
How does it feel to have lost $15,000, he was asked Saturday night.
"I didn't lose it. I never had it."
But isn't it tough to miss out on that money?
"Money don't make me good or bad. I do my best for $2, and I do my best for $20,000."
Aren't you even depressed?
"No. The best thing about rodeo—or maybe it's the worst—is that there's always another one." And Ferguson was off for Tulsa.
His personal business manager, Lee Fregeau, was not as philosophical. "Wanna see a $15,000 rope?" he asked.