It was nine down and one to go for Jim Sharp of Kermit, Texas. The night before, he had clinched his first world bullriding championship—the title is determined by season earnings, and Sharp would finish the year with $102,588—but as he eased himself onto the big brindled Brahma on Sunday afternoon, he had a chance to make history, to become the first cowboy to successfully ride all 10 of his bulls in the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). No one in the 30-year-history of this rodeo—not Jim Shoulders, not Don Gay, not Larry Mahan, legendary champions all—had ever gone 10 for 10.
The sold-out crowd of 16,672 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas fell into a nervous hush as Sharp took his wrap. Many of them remembered the terrible moment 24 hours earlier when another bullrider, Cody Custer, had gotten hung up on his rigging as he was thrown from his bull's back and was kicked for a few long seconds by the wildly spinning animal. When Custer finally hit the dirt, he was as limp as a rag doll and had to be carried from the arena on a stretcher.
Seven hours later, relief greeted the news that Custer, who was in fourth place in the rodeo at the time of his accident, had suffered "only" fractured ribs, a concussion and a punctured lung. Serious injuries like these come with the turf, so it was with a mixture of excitement and dread that rodeo fans watched the 23-year-old Sharp tuck in his chin and nod for the gate to be opened for the start of his big ride.
Forget the Fourth of July, which is traditionally known as Cowboys' Christmas. The NFR is the genuine article, a nine-day showdown in which the season's top 15 money winners in calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding, team roping, saddle bronc riding, barrel racing and bullriding gather each December to compete for the year's biggest prize money and to determine the world champion in each event.
December 19, 1988
This year was the NFR's fourth in Las Vegas, after it had spent 20 years in Oklahoma City. And Las Vegas isn't about to let the rodeo slip away. A new agreement was reached between the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and the city last week, guaranteeing that the NFR will remain there through 1994. The main reason the city loves the rodeo is that it brought some $70 million to the local economy last year, according to an estimate by Las Vegas Events, Inc., and it should generate even more this time around. The cowboys, in turn, have developed a fondness for Las Vegas because the prize money has steadily climbed, from $901,550 in 1984 to $2.07 million this year; next December $2.2 million will be put on the table. The event has even won over long-time rodeo fans whose loyalty to Oklahoma City had led them to vow never to attend an NFR anywhere else. Last week the rodeo drew a total of more than 144,897 spectators, and eight of the 10 performances were sold out.
No wonder Las Vegas adopted the character of a neon cow town. A cowgirl bikini contest was held at the Sands Hotel. The Las Vegas district of the Bureau of Land Management put 115 wild horses and 25 wild burros up for adoption, corralling the critters next to the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. Staples of the Strip like Wayne Newton and Diana Ross vacated the premises in favor of such country and western performers as Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys and George Strait. Even one of the rodeo cowboys got into the act: Three-time world champion saddle bronc rider Monty (Hawkeye) Henson—who would finish 10th in his event with season earnings of $50,458—sang and played guitar with his band at the Fremont Hotel into the early hours of the morning, sometimes until 7 a.m. "It kind of cuts into your breakfast time," said Henson of his gigs. "But there's nothing like a rodeo steak [a hot dog] at the arena for a man's first meal of the day."
The most pressing question of the week was whether Lewis Feild of Elk Ridge, Utah, would win his fourth consecutive all-around title. The only cowboy to qualify for the finals in two events, the bareback and the saddle bronc, Feild, 32, came into Las Vegas with $73,396 in earnings—some $16,000 behind Clay O'Brien Cooper, a team roper from Gilbert, Ariz., and $4,000 behind Dave Appleton, an Australian bareback rider now living in Arlington, Texas. It was a position Feild had been in before: In 1987, he arrived at the NFR in third and then blew away the competition with a record $75,219 in NFR earnings to win his third all-around title by a whopping $30,129.
History seemed to be repeating itself this year. In the first three go-rounds in each of his two events, Feild placed in the money on five of his six horses to win $29,835 and put himself comfortably into the all-around lead. (Fortunately for Feild, 18-year-old barrel racer Charmayne James Rodman, the top money winner on the rodeo circuit this year with $130,540 in earnings, wasn't eligible for the all-around buckle, because she had competed in only one event.)
But then Feild stalled. In the next six rounds he placed only one more horse in the money, and he was disqualified on his ninth bareback horse because of improper spurring. That effectively eliminated him from any hope of winning money in the bareback "average"—as rodeo folks call the bonus pool that's divided among the top six finishers in each event after the 10th go-round, which takes place on the final day. Appleton, in the meantime, had added $14,917.50 to his totals and stood to take home another $19,966.50 if he maintained his lead in the average. "The whole season comes down to tomorrow," Appleton said after sharing first in the ninth go-round on Saturday. "I'm in position to win the big one, which is what I've been shooting for all year."
For some of the fans, though, the big one was the finals of the bullfighting competition, which were held last Thursday night. Bullfighting, you should understand, isn't an official PRCA event, but a competition sponsored by Wrangler Jeans for rodeo clowns. During bullriding performances, the clowns—or bullfighters, as they prefer to be called—use comical antics to distract the bull and keep it away from a fallen rider. Those same tactics come into play in bullfighting—plus a few corkers called barrel hops and kamikaze leaps—to score points with the panel of judges.
The competition goes something like this: A clown takes his position 30 feet in front of the bullpen. Pen flies open and bull charges out. Clown runs. Bull hooks clown. Bull stomps on clown. Other clowns run out to distract bull from their buddy. Clown gets up, clutching his belly, shoulder, groin. Clown taunts bull from behind barrel. Then, while standing in front of the barrel, he turns his back on bull. Bull charges. Clown leaps on top of the barrel an instant before he would be pulverized (this is called the barrel hop), doesn't quite get high enough to avoid being flipped by the bull and runs for his life. This goes on for 70 seconds, or until the clown cries uncle.
Last week three-time world bullfighting champion Rob Smets, a.k.a. the Kamikaze Kid, whose only protective piece of equipment was a pair of football hip pads, sprinted head-on toward his bull and tried to dive over its head. Incredulous, the bull stood its ground and hooked Smets in the thigh as he soared by and then, after Smets hit the ground, stomped him once or twice before he could scramble away. "I hit a deep pocket of dirt and couldn't get enough height," said Smets, 29, of his leap. He wasn't severely injured by the mishap and ended up sharing his fourth championship with Miles Hare, with winnings of $45,250.
The day of decision for the all-around title was Sunday. Appleton, 28, a part-time model and actor, was bidding to become the first world champion from Australia. He was born in Clermont, Queensland, grew up on a ranch and became enchanted with American rodeo, reading about it in a magazine called Hoof & Horns. When he was 20, he moved to Texas, and in eight years, he has picked up a convincing Texas drawl, which he whimsically mixes with his Australian accent to create what he calls Texalian. Appleton made use of his drawl playing a Texas cowboy in a recently filmed episode of Dallas. "It's easy as hell to talk with a Texas accent," he says. "All you have to do is get lazy."
But Appleton isn't putting on an act when he says, "The tremendous thing about America is, if you're willing to try something, people are willing to help you. Anybody who says this isn't the land of opportunity, isn't looking."
Seeing opportunity is one thing; seizing it is another. And that's what Appleton did on Sunday when he drew a big bay named Kingsway Skoal, a wild, exotic bucker who was the 1988 bareback horse of the year. As Appleton dug his spurs into the bronco's shoulders it leaped high out of the chute, snaking first right, then back to the left, straightening Appleton out like a silk scarf in the wind. After the eight-second horn sounded, Appleton lunged into the dirt and signaled "safe" with his hands, like an umpire. Then his score was announced—81 points, the best of the day—and he flung his black hat into the stands, silver kangaroo pin and all. The win gave him $9,180 for the go-round, which, added to his bonus money for winning the bareback average, pushed him past Feild for the all-around lead.
To catch Appleton, Feild needed a third-place or better in the saddle bronc event. He scored 78 points to move into a tie for second, but the third-to-last rider, Clint Johnson, who won his second straight saddle bronc world championship, nudged Feild back to a third-place tie by scoring a 79. Feild's paycheck of $3,442.50 for the event left him an agonizing $643.64 short of Appleton's season winnings of $121,546.
"You're the best, Lewie," Appleton said when Feild congratulated him. Then he launched into some vintage Texalian: "If nobody ever believed in dreams, there's an Australian right here that'll tell you differently. I'm the happiest Josè alive. Shoot, I might just call Qantas and fly home for Christmas."
About that time the bull competition was beginning, and Sharp was readying his rigging. All the hoopla about the 10 bulls in 10 rides, which the arena announcers had been building up since the fifth go-round, hadn't fazed him in the least. Out of some 120 bulls he had drawn in 1988 before the NFR, Sharp estimated that he had been bucked off only 15, which meant he had ridden an average of almost nine out of 10. Sharp slept like a baby all week, mainly because he had been hitting the sack at dawn after staying up all night in the casinos, taking in the shows and dropping $50-$100 at the gaming tables. "I've been riding bulls a lot better than I've been gambling," he said.
For the historic attempt, Sharp, who was the last contestant of the night, drew a big circling bull called Skoal Cyclone. When the gate swung open, Skoal Cyclone spun to the right, humped its back high and then, jerking its head down to within inches of the dirt, nearly pitched Sharp over its shoulder. But Sharp straightened himself, and the crowd roared as he regained control. When the horn blew to signal the end of the ride, Sharp leaped off and pitched his hat high into the air. His score of 79 gave him a record 771 points for 10 bulls.
As for history-well, Sharp is the kind of taciturn cowboy who would just as soon leave history to others. He seemed like the least surprised person in Las Vegas. "You don't really come here expecting to fall off," he said.
"Luckily, Custer suffered 'only' fractured ribs, a concussion and a punctured lung."