The legend and the kid finally crossed paths in a half-lit hallway beneath the concourse of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Legend, 47-year-old Larry Mahan, winner of six Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) all-around titles in the 1960s and '70s, was staying at the Sahara. The Kid, 21-year-old Ty Murray, had a room at the Tropicana. It had been eight days since the $2.3 million National Finals Rodeo (NFR) had begun, and they hadn't run into each other once.
Which was odd, because these two, in addition to being friends, are members of rodeo's smallest fraternity. They are the last two cowboys to qualify for the NFR in all three rough-stock events: bareback, saddle bronc and bullriding. Only the top 15 money winners in each event are invited to the NFR, the Super Bowl of rodeos, and to qualify in even two events is rare. To qualify in three—well, it just doesn't happen very often. Tom Ferguson had qualified in calf roping, steer wrestling and steer roping in 1979, but no one had qualified in all three of rodeo's glamour competitions, the rough-stock events, since Mahan in 1973—until the Kid did so this year.
The Legend grinned at his protègè. "Fun, isn't it?" said Mahan.
Murray's eyes came aglow. Already he had won more money at this year's NFR than any other cowboy—$62,598 and counting. His performance at the NFR had also made him the first rodeo cowboy to win more than $200,000 in a single year and the youngest ever to win the PRCA's all-around title twice. He had been interviewed and photographed and compared with the greatest cowboys in the history of the sport—with Jim Shoulders, with Casey Tibbs and with Mahan. Now the Legend, the man Murray had considered a god when he was a boy growing up outside Phoenix, had put his finger on what the Kid was feeling. "Nobody's asked me that all week," said Murray, "but it sure is fun, you're right about that. I'd do this for free."
Fun? Twenty-four hours later, on Saturday, Dec. 8, no one was talking about fun. Same two cowboys, same hallway, only this time the faces were tense, and no words were exchanged. Earlier that evening Murray had pocketed another $10,220 by winning the ninth of the 10 go-rounds in the bareback. However, his luck took a turn for the worse in the saddle bronc, when the black devil named Bo Skoal that Murray had drawn bucked over backward as he was leaving the chute with Murray in the saddle. If Murray hadn't been able to squirm off to the side as the horse toppled, he might have broken his back. As it was, the 1,200-pound gelding landed on Murray's right knee, and then mashed it a few times while thrashing to get up. "Just some freak deal," said Mahan of the accident, "which is the way it usually happens. That's really the blues for Ty."
Murray, ashen cheeked, with purple pockets beneath his pale blue eyes, was wheeled on a stretcher past Mahan and down the hallway to an ambulance that took him to Desert Springs Hospital for X-rays. The X-rays were negative, and the injury was diagnosed as a severe bone bruise. But it remained doubtful whether Murray, who still had a chance to win the world saddle-bronc title, could ride on Sunday, the final day of the NFR. "He'll ride," said one rodeo announcer. "If it ain't broke, he'll ride. You don't know how tough that kid is."
In an age when rodeo, like other sports, has moved toward specialization, the 5'8", 145-pound Murray is a throwback. He's of that breed of cowboy who, once he takes the time to go to a rodeo, is going to climb onto anything that bucks. Similar as the three rough-stock events may appear to casual fans, each requires not only distinct physical skills but a distinct temperament as well. "They're as different as night and day," says Murray. "The guy who wins the bareback is the guy who has the most gas. He's got to expose himself the most." Translation: A bareback rider must ride as theatrically as possible, giving the judges the impression of both flamboyance and control.
The saddle bronc is nearly the opposite. "It's a technique event," says Murray. "A perfection event. You're trying to make the rankest horse look easy."
And the bulls? "The whole thing there is not getting bucked off," says Murray. "You've got to be able to think ahead and react."
Mahan has a simpler view of competing in all three events. "I never thought of it as being hard," he says. "To me, it meant three chances to win instead of one, and I always liked those odds. But there's not many that can do it. The three-event cowboy was a thing of the past before Ty came along.
"I can't see any flaws in his style. He knows how to use his feet—turn those toes out—and he holds his upper body just right. He rides with a lot of class. That's what I see—class. I'm glad I didn't have to compete against that little rascal."
Murray, who lives in Stephenville, Texas, refuses to say which of the three events he thinks is his best, or which one he prefers. "Other guys take bullriding seriously, and kind of like riding broncs," he says. "Soon as you hear that, you know which one they're going to excel at. Jim Sharp, who's the world champion bull rider, says there's two reasons he doesn't ride broncs: He's scared of 'em, and the saddle's too heavy to carry around.
"It ain't easy to get to this point in all three, I can tell you that. There are a lot of times after I've been slammed and could barely get out of bed, I'd think, Is this worth it? The bottom line is, you've got to love it. And I love all three events. I've worked hard at 'em my whole life. I never wanted to be a bull rider or a bronc rider. I wanted to be a cowboy."
Murray's stats this year are just about the same for each of the rough-stock events. He finished fourth in the saddle bronc standings, with $74,486 in earnings; seventh in the bareback, with $68,450; and seventh in bullriding, with $70,836. With $213,772 in total earnings for the year, he wound up an unheard-of $95,458 ahead of his closest pursuer, Lewis Feild of Elk Ridge, Utah, for the all-around buckle, the most prestigious title in rodeo. "In this sport, Ty Murray is just it" says two-time world bullriding champion Tuff Hedeman. "He's the Bo Jackson of rodeo, the greatest cowboy I've ever seen perform."
Murray has wanted to be a world champion cowboy for so long that he can't remember a time when he wanted to be anything else. His mother, Joy, was a bullriding champion in the National Little Britches rodeo when she was a girl. His father, Butch, who is now the starter at The Downs, in Albuquerque, tried the rodeo circuit for a spell. Then, for the next 30 years, he made a living breaking colts. Butch used to put Ty on calves when Ty was just two years old, running alongside and holding on to him by his belt loops. "When Ty started walking, we got him a pair of spurs," says Butch. "He plumb wore his mom's sewing-machine case out from sitting on that sucker and spurring it."
By the time Ty was eight, he was helping Butch with the colts. At nine he rode his first bull, an 1,800-pound brindle that sort of loped across the arena at a Little Britches rodeo. "I thought I could ride anything," says Ty. "My dad warned me they wouldn't all be like that one." His second bull bucked him off and then stepped on his jaw and broke it. "If I didn't really love it," says Ty, "I'd have gotten out of it right then."
Nine years old seems a dangerously young age to be climbing on an animal weighing close to a ton, but Ty had been around the sport so long he simply had no fear in him. And his father wasn't going to be the one to persuade him to back off. "If your kid was nine and he broke his leg skiing, would you make him give it up?" says Butch. "To me, it was something we could all do together, a family deal, a real positive thing. You don't see many bad kids leading a horse around."
Rodeo prodded Ty's dreams and helped him establish goals. In 1980, when Ty was 11, his uncle, Butch Myers, became the PRCA's world champion steer wrestler. The first time Ty saw Myers's championship belt buckle, he said, "I can't wait to get me one of those."
Murray was 12 when he rode his first bareback horse in a rodeo. "I can't remember ever being scared of a calf or a steer or a bull, I'd been riding them so long," he says. "But bareback was kind of spooky. To me, that's the spookiest event. But it was a thrill."
Mahan first took note of Murray when the Kid was about 13. "He was doing all these exercises behind the chutes at a Little Britches rodeo, practicing some moves," says Mahan. "Then he got on his bull and did the exact same things he'd been practicing. I thought, My god, he's riding bulls better than I did as a world champion. When I heard he was going to compete in all three riding events, that was intriguing. I wanted to meet someone who was as out of his mind as I'd been."
Mahan, who had a place outside Colorado Springs, called Murray after his freshman year in high school to invite him to spend the summer. "I barely knew Larry Mahan," says Murray. "I thought he was a god. I didn't have any idea what he was going to do with me. I thought maybe he was going to work me."
"Work him?" says Mahan with a laugh. "I knew enough about rodeo cowboys than to think I could have gotten any decent work out of him."
That summer the Legend and the Kid flew all over the West in Mahan's Cessna. They traveled to a few rodeos and gave motivational talks at a summer camp for Indians. They went fishing. They team-roped steers together. Like many 14-year-olds, Murray had trouble getting up in the morning, so Mahan used to roust him early and make him do 50 push-ups right there by the side of the bed.
"Larry's got a lot of energy," says Murray. "He always told me he'd just been out jogging for miles, though I wondered, because I never actually saw him jog. I didn't learn hardly anything from him about riding that summer, but I learned a lot about people, and I think that's helping me now. Larry can get along with anybody. He can meet a guy in an airport with purple hair and a ring in his nose, and before long it's like they're best buddies."
Whatever Mahan saw in his charge, the Kid didn't disappoint. To build up his upper body, Murray began a weightlifting program—two hours every other day—that he still follows. He took up gymnastics because he thought it would help him in rodeo. "It did, too," says Murray. "Hell, I loved it. If I didn't know what rodeo was, I'd probably be a gymnast."
In 1987 he won the National High School Rodeo all-around title. That fall he enrolled in a two-year school, Odessa (Texas) College, mainly because of its proximity to a number of PRCA rodeos. "The friends I had rodeoed with in Arizona didn't have the same ideas I had," says Murray. "I wanted to get my pro card the day I turned 18 and try to win a world championship. Rodeo's a sport that you can compete in professionally and collegiately at the same time. My friends all wanted to stay amateur."
The first year he was eligible to turn pro, in 1988, he was the PRCA Rookie of the Year, winning a total of $45,977 in the three rough-stock events. However, he failed to make enough in any one event to qualify for the NFR. In '89, Murray won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association's all-around, saddle-bronc and bullriding titles. Professionally, he qualified for the NFR in both the bareback and the saddle bronc—one of just two cowboys who were eligible that year in more than one event. The other was his Uncle Butch, who had qualified in the steer wrestling and calf roping.
Myers had a $2,786 lead over Murray in what became a friendly family competition for the 1989 all-around title. Inspired by the huge poster of the all-around buckle hanging in the entrance to the arena, Murray placed in the money on seven of his 20 horses and won $58,031 at his first NFR, $21,202 more than Myers. He became the youngest all-around champion ever—surpassing Shoulders, who had gained that distinction at 21 in 1949—and the first cowboy to win the national intercollegiate championship and the PRCA all-around crown in the same year.
Murray's goal this year was to qualify in all three NFR rough-stock events, which he accomplished easily, despite suffering a broken right elbow—that's his riding arm—in May and missing five weeks of competition. The accident occurred in the saddle bronc, when Murray's toe got hung up in the stirrup for an instant as he bucked off. The horse's hind leg clipped Murray on the elbow as he fell. "Everyone says the bulls are the most dangerous event and the saddle bronc's the safest," says Murray, "but—knock on wood—I probably got on 200 bulls this year without a scratch. It's not like any of the events are safe. But you can stay out of a lot of wrecks by having a little horse-sense, knowing what a horse or a bull is thinking. I learned that from my dad."
No amount of horse sense could have saved Murray from his saddle-bronc wreck that final Saturday of the NFR. When a sky-pawing, out-of-control bronc gets it into his head that he's going to buck himself onto his back, there's not a lot anybody can do about it. "I don't care how long you've been around rodeo," says Butch Murray, "it scares you when you see something like that."
The next day, with only two hours remaining before the start of the bareback competition, the first of the day's rough-stock events, Murray still hadn't announced whether he would ride. He was in the training room at the arena, lying on a cot, his leg hooked up to a muscle stimulator and ice packs taped to his knee. If he rode, he might win another $50,000 in go-round money and perhaps $25,000 from the so-called average pools that are divvied up among the top riders in each NFR event. And he still had an outside chance of winning the saddle bronc. But Murray couldn't bend his knee to spur, and if the doctors shot his knee up with enough painkillers, he wouldn't be able to feel his leg to walk.
Colin Murnion, a bareback rider who was sitting on the next cot, icing down his wrist, asked Murray if he could ride. "Nope. Doesn't look like it," said the Kid.
"Nope. I guess you gotta feel it to know why. It's sore as a mother and about that big."
Murray made a shape above his knee the size of a football. He turned away from Murnion and blinked several times. Then he turned back and said, "You know what, though? I'll bet they have one of these things next year."
Outside the training room, Butch Murray got the news that Ty would not be riding. One cowboy after another came past to ask how Ty was doing. Butch told them Ty was all right, nothing was broken, but no, he couldn't get on his horses or his bulls. "He's doing the right thing," said Duane Howard, one of the PRCA judges.
"Sure he is," replied Butch. "He's blue as hell, but there'll be more rodeos to go to."
A crowd walked past just then, so that Howard had to raise his voice to be heard. "There'll always be more rodeos to go to," he yelled, "but there won't be no more Tys."