Rodeo cowboys plenty tough but gracious too

I remember driving around Chicago late one winter night with a buddy when that “Amie” song by Pure Prairie League came on the radio. There was steam coming from the manhole covers. And then my friend asked about the rodeo, as in the National Finals Rodeo, because A) for some reason he associated Pure Prairie League with the rodeo and B) because he had heard that Las Vegas had the biggest rodeo, and that maybe I had seen it.

I told him I had seen it. That when I first started out, the low man on the totem pole got “stuck” with covering the NFR. This was because most of the other sports writers came from the city, too, or were from college towns back East. Nobody seemed to know much about the rodeo, so the newest guy was assigned to go and try to figure it out.

The sports editor said it was easy; the rodeo people would even send in the agate.

My pal looked at me as if I were from Pluto – this was when Pluto still was a planet. Oh, I said. Agate is the small print on the scoreboard page. You know, like in a baseball box score, except in rodeo there usually aren’t any guys named “Grabarkewitz,” so there’s no need for apostrophes to abbreviate their names.

Then my buddy asked about the ringmaster and the lion tamers.

Yes, this was his first rodeo. Or at least the first time asking about one. So I had to try to explain it in such a way that a Chicagoan would understand.

“Remember that guy Jim Shoulders?” I asked.

“From the Miller Lite commercial?”

We had found common ground. It always comes back to beer for guys from Chicago.

I told my buddy that Jim Shoulders was a rodeo cowboy. Yes, almost all of ’em wear hats. No, they don’t wear ponchos like Clint Eastwood in the movies.

Most come from small towns, places called Spanish Fork and Cut Bank and Pinon and Blue Mound and Ponoka. Places where they have both kinds of music, country and western.

(When in doubt when trying to explain something to a guy from Chicago, you can always fall back on a “Blues Brothers” reference.)

Sometimes, I told my friend, rodeo cowboys are from Great Falls or Billings or one of those larger towns in Montana.

“Like Amarillo?”

“No, Amarillo is in Texas,” I said. “There really aren’t that many cowboys from Amarillo. But I think a lot of them stop there on the way to somewhere else.”

I told my friend that almost all of the cowboys had interesting stories to tell, about diggin’ fence posts and keepin’ doggies movin’ like on “Rawhide.” That diggin’ fence posts and keepin’ doggies movin’ was a way of life for them, like pourin’ slag and bettin’ the ponies was a way of life for us.

I told him rodeo cowboys had cool names, like Alabama football players. Lots of Billy Joes and Jim Bobs. Ote Berry was this champion steer wrestler from Nebraska. And that there was a bull rider named “Tuff.”

But the coolest thing about the cowboys, almost every one of them, is that after you would ask about ridin’ and ropin’ and diggin’ fence posts, they would say “thanks.”

You don’t get that with a lot of baseball players once they make the majors, I said. A lot of ballplayers just spit sunflower seeds on your shoes.

Then I tried to explain the rodeo. I said it was sort of like hockey with horses.

There are seven events, I said. Each one lasts about as long as a baseball inning when Hershiser and Doc Gooden are pitching (we must have been having this discussion in 1987).

There are riding events and roping events, I said. The roping events are easier to understand because they are determined by a clock. But that I liked the riding events better, even if they are determined by judges, like in figure skating or in boxing, when good welterweights fought.

I told my friend I didn’t know much about barrel racing, only that it was for cowgirls, not cowboys. And that almost everybody in the arena went to the concession stand for a beer during barrel racing.

So I told him barrel racing must not be all that exciting. Or that bull riding, the last event of the rodeo, is so awesome that you need another beer before it starts.

By then, I said, the arena sort of smells like old Comiskey Park. But you don’t mind because bull riding is so awesome.

It’s sort of like Butkus trying to tackle Ditka, if they had played on different teams, I explained. Lots of violence. Lots of flying snot.

I told him I had interviewed a bull rider named Charlie Sampson, and when I asked about the violence and the flying snot, Charlie took off his prosthetic ear and placed it in my hand.

And that when I handed it back, he said “thanks.”

My buddy could relate. We were driving around the South Side, where a lot of guys have prosthetic ears.

Steam still was rising from the manhole covers. Then that Pure Prairie League song was over and “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper came on.

My buddy asked if I thought the rodeo cowboys ever got tired of listening to country and western music. If I thought they might pop “Billion Dollar Babies” or “Welcome to My Nightmare” into the cassette deck of the F-150 on the way to Amarillo.

I doubt it, I said. Maybe the bull riders.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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