Last weekend, when he was driving toned-down NASCAR stock cars at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was hard to discern the perennial all-around world champion cowboy Trevor Brazile from the racing machines.
Both were well festooned with sponsor logos.
AT&T. Wrangler. Twister Trailer. MGM Grand. Outlaw custom interiors. Platinum Performance. Power Service Diesel Additives. James Woods Motors. Brazile’s roping shirt looked like Jimmie Johnson’s driving coveralls.
He owes it all to Dave Appleton.
Well, maybe he doesn’t owe it all to Appleton, because the rodeo cowboys probably would have explored sponsor patches as a way to supplement their incomes even had Appleton, the 1988 all-around champion, not broken the seal 25 years ago when it took vision and … um, moxie.
“The Lone Roo” is what they called Appleton, and still do. He grew up in the central highlands of Australia, in the mining and agricultural town of Clermont, Queensland, before moving to Texas to become a horse racing jockey. A growth spurt changed his plans. There aren’t many 160-pound jockeys.
So The Lone Roo started riding broncs, and he got real good at it, and he got pretty good in golf, too. That led to him playing in the pro-am at Colonial Country Club. It was Ben Crenshaw, Appleton and a guy named Phil, a big shot from American Airlines.
Anyway, Phil was a lousy golfer. He dribbled the ball up and down the fairways for 17 holes. At the 18th, Appleton encouraged him: Don’t worry about all those people around the green, just grip it and rip it. Or something similar. And Phil did; he hit a beauty of a shot, and the people around the green cheered, and so Phil gave Dave Appleton his business card and said to call him.
A few weeks later, The Lone Roo showed up on the rodeo circuit with “American Airlines” stitched onto his chaps in gigantic letters.
Then, instead of The Lone Roo, the pro rodeo people called Dave Appleton something else, something a little more blasphemous.
Stitching the name of a corporate sponsor onto chaps was pretty much taboo in those days. Rodeo cowboys were not supposed to wear allegiance on their sleeves. Or their chaps. Not even the Marlboro man, who sported an unadorned flannel shirt and vest when diggin’ fence posts.
So they gave Appleton a ration of you know what, and then they compromised: The Lone Roo rode at the National Finals Rodeo with smaller, less obtrusive American Airlines patches on his chaps, and he rode like the dickens, and he won the whole damn shootin’ match.
Cody Lambert, the bull rider, said he still didn’t like the festooning of chaps with little corporate eagles. But then one day, Appleton, Lambert and the great Ty Murray got stuck at the Stampede in Calgary when they had to get down the road in a hurry to another rodeo that paid well. Probably in Pecos, Texas.
And so The Lone Roo ponied up with three complimentary flights on American. Because that’s how rodeo is, when your buddy needs a hand, you give him one when you can.
Now Cody Lambert says Dave Appleton was ahead of his time when he brought corporate assistance into rodeo. I’m sure Trevor Brazile is down with it, too.
Today, even the shirts of the clowns are festooned with patches.
They call the clowns bull fighters now, because that’s what they do — and also because anybody who can talk a CEO out of corporate dollars with an option in this day and age can hardly be considered a clown.
“At the time, the rodeo sponsorship was a foreign concept,” Appleton, now 50, said as a crowd of felt hats gathered Thursday at the South Point for one of the many NFR ancillary events. “The PRCA initially, we had some issues, but it was not a case of trying to upstage the existing sponsors or the foundation of the sport.
“Honestly, if you were to talk to Trevor Brazile and some of the guys, they would tell you point blank they can’t do what they do without the sponsorships. That’s great. You hope the relationships you build with sponsors can give you the opportunity to take it to the next level.”
Dave Appleton was able to take it to the next level (with the help of a Los Angeles public relations firm). He beat Bobby Ewing in pool on “Dallas.” He bowled Christmas cakes on “Letterman.” He started a clothing line, got into the horse racing business at Lone Star Park, became a director for the legendary Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. He married a former beauty pageant contestant; Dave and Keely Appleton have a daughter, Fallon, a sophomore at Texas A&M.
Last year, The Lone Roo met Johnny Football. He was impressed with Johnny Manziel’s moxie, and by the size of his hands.
Life’s good, Dave Appleton says, or at least it was until Keely suffered a stroke. But the feeling in her right side is coming back, and slowly but surely so is her speech. She has one of those long rows to hoe, but her husband says she’s gonna do it, and that life still is good.
As we walked the long hallway from the South Point arena to the Coronado Cafe, rodeo fans who remembered the way he rode broncs nodded and said hello to The Lone Roo as we came upon the big statue of Benny Binion. One rodeo pioneer was cast in bronze; the other was wearing a dark hat and a dark jacket and a blue shirt with an open collar.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.