It was a waiting game that would last, at most, eight seconds. Donnie Gay had just scored 80 points on a light tan bull named Kung Fu at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City last Saturday night, surviving a humpy-backed, gut-wrenching whirl that would have spun the juice from a lemon. Now the only man standing between Gay and an unprecedented eighth World Bull Riding Championship, rodeo's most resounding title, was Charlie Sampson.
Sampson was second in the overall standings in the next-to-last performance of the NFR, exactly $7,737.27 behind Gay, and he needed 85 points or better to win the go-round and knock Gay out of the money. He'd drawn a brown bull called Hesston, with horns as big as antlers—just one of what another rider had called "some of the rankest bulls ever assembled on the face of the earth." These critters were not content merely to buck a cowboy off but would also try to hook him in the ribs on his way down to earth and stomp him into the arena floor like so many clumps of sod. As the spectators in the sold-out Myriad arena quieted, Sampson took his wrap, tucked in his chin and nodded for the gate to be opened. Turn me loose, boys, I can't ride him in here....
Welcome, pardners, to the NFR at OKC, otherwise known as the cowboy Super Bowl, an annual rite of December in which the top 15 money-winners in bareback riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, team roping, barrel racing, single steer roping and bull riding descend on Oklahoma City to compete for more than $900,000 in prize money and to determine who will be the world champion in each event. After a year of hopscotching among the 650 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned rodeos across North America, the best cowboys and toughest livestock finally mosey into OK City at the same time for 10 performances spread over nine days. It's without question the top rodeo in the world. And more. It's a slice of Americana as tasty as the pickled pigs' feet that one can purchase in the lobby of the Sheraton Century Center hotel across the street from the arena. At the hotel last week, dime-store cowboys, Okie plowboys and tight-jeaned cowgirls rubbed elbows with the genuine article, the calf ropers and bull riders.
As usual, all NFR performances were sold out this year—its 20th in Oklahoma City. There was a folksy, friendly atmosphere to the proceedings, typified by one of the many hand-scrawled banners hanging inside the Myriad center. This one read GO UNCLE KENT. It was directed at Kent Cooper, a saddle bronc rider from Declo, Idaho, who would finish second in his event with $77,610.03. The name Cooper is to rodeo what the name Johnson is to the NBA. In addition to Uncle Kent, this year's NFR featured Coopers named Roy, Jimmie, Clay Tom and Clay O'Brien. Clay Tom and Clay O'Brien are unrelated; Roy and Clay Tom are brothers; Jimmie and Roy are cousins; Uncle Kent isn't related to any of...oh, forget it. Just believe it when you hear that rodeo folk are one big happy family.
Roy Cooper, 29, came into the NFR with his sixth calf-roping title pretty much assured; he led his nearest rival, Dee Pickett, by $26,376. Cooper and Pickett are—what else?—best of friends who spent the week before the competition practicing together at Cooper's home in Durant, Okla. They were also one-two in the all-around competition, rodeo's most prestigious buckle and one that Cooper had walked away with last year, having gotten a record $153,391 in earnings. This year Pickett got the title, not to mention $122,618.18.
But who the heck invited all those terrible bulls to this party? Animals so ornery that no less an authority than 63-year-old Freckles Brown, a rodeo legend in Oklahoma, exclaimed, "You ain't woofin' they're rank. I believe as rank a bunch of bulls as I've seen in the National Finals." Brown should know. He rode bulls for 37 years, retiring at the advanced age of 53. At 46, Brown made the most famous ride ever seen at the NFR when he conquered Tornado, a bull that in six years of competition had never been ridden.
On Tuesday night only three of the top 15 bull riders in the world rode their animals the required eight seconds—a record of futility rarely matched in the NFR's 26 years. "We're going to let the bulls decide who wins," said PRCA director of bull riding Bryan McDonald, who saw to it that, for the first time at the NFR, the bulls were exercised a half mile every other day between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. so they'd be juiced up to buck their worst that night. "In the past we haven't brought in all these really rank bulls that make a guy look bad on television," says McDonald, "so a lot of it came down to judging. This year there was too much at stake with Donnie going for his eighth championship and all."
Gay had won his seventh World Bull Riding Championship in '81, which had tied him for the record with Jim Shoulders, his boyhood idol and a longtime family friend. He wanted to ride long enough to break Shoulders's record. In the 1982 NFR, however, Gay reruptured a groin that had "exploded" during a ride that August, forcing him to retire. "The scar tissue from all the years of riding made my groin muscles just like rotten rubber bands," the 31-year-old Gay says.
Gay, who had averaged more than 150 rodeos a year for the previous nine years, went to work for his father, Neal, a stock contractor in Mesquite, Texas. "Donnie was lost," says McDonald, a bull rider himself. "The rush of adrenaline you get from bull riding can be addictive."
For the first three months of his retirement Gay couldn't so much as sit on a horse. "So I started doing that Jane Fonda workout to get so I could at least stand with my legs apart," he says. "Then that invitation came from the President, and I got to thinking a man can stand anything for eight seconds."
President Reagan, a rodeo buff, hosted the PRCA in Landover, Md., where it put on an exhibition on Sept. 24, 1983, a gesture that had a double-edged effect on the bull riding picture. First, it brought Gay out of retirement. He worked himself into shape, got the O.K. from his physician, taped himself up and began practicing on some of his father's bulls.
But the Landover exhibition had another, terrifying, ramification. During the performance, Sampson, a black cowboy from Los Angeles and then the reigning World Bull Riding Champion, was jerked face-first into the back of the bull's head, shattering every bone in his face. "I knew he was hurt bad before he hit the ground," recalls Gay. Sampson, unconscious, was rushed to a hospital, where he was operated on for six hours. No one was concerned whether he would ride again—the hope was that he'd live.
Sampson was in the hospital three weeks. Then, less than two months later, he donned a lacrosse helmet and rode seven out of 10 bulls in the 1983 NFR. He won more than $15,000. "He set new parameters for pain tolerance in our sport," says McDonald.
Sampson, who shed his helmet last March, arrived in Oklahoma City trailing Gay by $10,288, with the possibility of winning almost $50,000 at the NFR. After a fast start, Gay had slowed down late in the year, the victim, he felt, of a new PRCA rule that limits competitors to 100 rodeos a year. "The real reason they put that 100-rodeo rule in was that people were tired of seeing Roy Cooper and me win," Gay, no shrinking violet, says. But Dr. Evans saw the 100-rodeo limit as a blessing in disguise for Gay. "If Donnie had tried to rodeo like he did before, I don't believe his groin would have held up," Evans says. (The rule has been changed again, however, to allow 125 rodeos for rough-stock competition, so Gay will still have a chance to overdo it.)
So there it was. Two little guys, Nos. 1 and 2 in the bull riding standings, who'd battled back from injuries—one life-threatening, one merely career-threatening. Everyone was pulling for both of them. Everyone, that is, except the bulls. Rodeo isn't man against man; it's man against animal, and man against himself, which may be why all these guys are such great pals.
And in this particular rodeo, the bulls were having the better of it. In his first eight rides, Gay was bucked off twice, tied once for first and scored one third. Sampson, meanwhile, had been slam-dunked to the turf six times, but he'd won the go-round on both bulls he'd ridden. With two bulls left he was behind Gay by less than $8,000. As Sampson sat on Hesston, staring down at those big widow-making horns, he knew that 85 points then and a win again on Sunday might possibly wrest the title from Gay.
As the gate swung open Hesston made one great leap into the arena and began spinning to the right, slinging his head back in an effort to hook Sampson off his back. "He made a little fake move to the left," Sampson said later, "and then went back right." The move caught Sampson leaning, and he was slingshotted to the ground three seconds before the whistle. The clowns moved in, and Sampson scrambled to safety. Gay, too far ahead now for anyone to catch, had won his eighth world title. He ended up with $77,326.68 for the year.
Gay's father, Neal, ran over and hugged him; it was the fastest anyone had seen Neal move in years. Next came Shoulders, grinning and shaking Gay's hand. Gay had been to Shoulders's bull riding school when he was a kid. What the hay, it was just like keeping the record in the family.
Later, in the bull riders' dressing room, Bobby Del Vecchio, the Bronx-born bull rider, came up to Gay and grabbed him. "I didn't think I'd ever hear myself say it," Del Vecchio said, "but you're the best-bleeping-bull rider ever."