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Original Issue


Bull riding is the roughest, toughest rodeo event. Ask Don Gay, who's going for a record eighth title


The short, well-built cowboy with the Howdy Doody smile is doing the talking, words pouring out like milk from an overturned pail. Don Gay, 28, could have been a teacher, a preacher or a salesman had he not become the bull rider who has won seven world championships in the past eight years, and the image of the cowboy as a taciturn loner is only one of many stereotypes he destroys. He is teaching now at his two-day bull-riding school in Mesquite, Texas, his hometown, and 20 students shyly edge closer so as not to miss a word.

"Jim Shoulders used to say that all there is to bull riding is to put one leg on each side of the bull and make an ugly face for eight seconds," Gay tells them. "It's no more complicated than that. All you want to think about is squeeze and pull, squeeze and pull. Squeeze with your legs and pull on that rope."

Some of the words that follow are lost in the racket of the bulls, waiting, angry, in their chutes. The bells suspended from the bull ropes around their girths clang ominously. One bull kicks the wooden gate behind it with awful power; another slams its horns against the iron pipes of the chute as it tries to turn around. These are, primarily, young bulls, unaccustomed to being run in and out of the bucking chutes, and their nervousness is contagious.

It's shared by many of the young cowboys, who've never been on a full-grown bull before; their faces are taut with a combination of fear and transparent bravado. One face, only 17 years old, is freckled; one is hard; one is pockmarked: one is not taut, but jowly and loose with nothing but fear. The cowboys have come from as far away as Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. Some are high school champions; some are just starting out and have been told by their parents that if they're going to be so god-awful stupid as to ride bulls, they're damn well going to learn how to ride from the very best; at least one is here because he's not making any money rodeoing back home, and if there is one man who can teach him how to make some money riding bulls, it's Donnie Gay.

Gay climbs into one of the chutes and gently kneels on a black bull's back, supporting himself with a hand on either side. "Let him know you're coming first, then raise your butt up and ease yourself on him," he says. "They're real nervous. They're as scared as you are. If you accidentally spur him inside the chute, he'll jump and kick inside." For a moment the group hopes that Gay will go ahead and ride this one, but Gay, who rides more than 200 bulls a year at rodeos, makes it a rule not to put on any exhibitions, not even for his own school.

Gay hoists himself out of the chute and selects a student with some riding experience to go first. This rider, the one with the hard face, gets on a black bull as Gay has shown him, sitting far back toward the rump so that he has room to work with his rigging. He heats up the rosin on the bull rope by running his hand up and down the braided hemp, then lays his left hand against the bull's broad back, palm up. He's wearing a leather glove tied at the wrist with a thong, the palm caked with rosin, and the bull rope is tightened around his hand by one of the cowboys standing above the chute. When the rope is nearly as tight as the rider can bear, he makes a fist around the wrap, tucking his fingertips into the fist with his free hand, and pounds the fist closed.

"After you get your wrap, hold on to that chute gate with your free hand; that's your escape," Gay tells him. The cowboy doesn't need to be told. Escape is very much on everyone's mind, including the bull's; the animal is furiously slamming its weight against the side of the chute. His breathing sounds like a working bellows.

Everything is set, and the cowboy moves up over the bull so he's nearly sitting on his hand. He pulls his hat down. "O.K.!" he yells. The bull, startled by the sound of the cowboy's voice, looks back. As a result, when the gate on one side of the bull swings open, the bull sort of backs out, nearly scraping the rider off against the gatepost. The cowboy stays with it until Gay yells at him to bail out, which he does properly by jumping off "into" his hand—to the left for a rider holding the rope with his left hand. This prevents the hand from getting hung up in the bull rope—the greatest fear for a bull rider, because unlike a bucking horse, a bull will attack a man if given a chance. The cowboy returns to the group, hoping for praise, but Gay merely tells him, "Don't say 'O.K.' in there. Just nod when you're ready to ride."

Much of what Gay tells the students this first morning is concerned with safety, tricks to stay out of trouble and tricks to escape when, inevitably, you have to. That in itself is worth 10 times the $200 the students have paid to be here. For example: Never jump off a bull that has come to a halt; he'll turn around and gore you before you hit the ground. If you do hang up in the bull rope, stay on your feet and as close to the bull as you can get; if you try to pull away, the bull will jerk you off your feet and try to trample you.

The second rider is bucked onto his back and lies in the center of the arena with the wind knocked out of him. "Get up!" Gay shouts. "Get the hell out of there!" The young man is on his feet in an instant and sprinting, which merely fuels Gay's rage. "If you lie there going, 'Oh, oh, that hurt,' the bull's going to turn around and tap-dance on your chest, 1,500 pounds of him, and that might hurt a little bit more! I don't care if you don't have one ounce of air in you, you get up and hit the nearest gate. I don't want any theatrics out there. Of course, if you really want to get hurt, that's fine. It'll be a good lesson to the rest of these fellas what not to do."

A third cowboy, the jowly one, gets on his first bull. He isn't thinking about "squeeze and pull." Most likely he's wondering what he'll do with his life now that he's decided not to become a bull rider. Two jumps into his ride he half leaps, half falls from his bull and sprawls in the dirt, then scrambles on all fours out of the arena, nearly diving over the fence. "You oughta try hurryin'," Gay calls after him with a smile. "I got you spotted, buddy. There's a fine line between being in trouble and chickenin' out, pardner."

The next cowboy up is the freckled one, all the way down in chute No. 6. He's on a big red bull that has an unreassuring five inches of dried blood on its right horn. As the 17-year-old takes his wrap, the bull humps up in the chute, trying to clamber over the iron pipes. Ricky Bolin, another professional bull rider, who's helping Gay with the school, has hold of the freckled cowboy's arm as the bull thrashes from side to side. The boy looks up to Bolin for a sign to evacuate.

"Cowboy up," Bolin tells him, the rodeo version of "hunker down." The bull stands still for an instant, and the freckled cowboy moves up over his bull rope, tucks his chin in, and nods, his eyes full of fear. The chute opens and the bull turns out, exploding four, five feet high, twisting toward the fence. The young man has a chance to bail out there, but he stays with the bull as it turns back, until Gay yells for him to jump off. He falls as he hits the ground, and the bull turns and charges. The boy gets to his feet and makes it to the fence a stride ahead of the bull. He tries to vault the fence, but the bull's head butts his foot on the way up. It's the same leg he'd broken last summer bull riding, but this time he's only bruised. He limps back to the chutes.

"That kid's got a little pride," Bolin says to no one in particular. It's as great a compliment as any of these students can hope for.

By the morning of Day Two, six of the 20 students have gone home. The rest are stiff and sore. Nearly everyone's limping. Asked why they chose bull riding, nearly all of them say because of the thrill, the element of danger, but some say, naively, it's because of the money. With only a high school education, where else can you earn as much as $1,700 for eight seconds of work? One says it's because horses scare him. Gay will tell you that most of them start bull riding because they figure it's a good way to pick up girls. "And they're right," he adds. But there are no girls or prize money waiting for them at Mesquite, and on the second day enthusiasm for bull riding has noticeably ebbed. This is practice like no other in sport because of one thing: the bull. He isn't practicing. The only way to learn to ride bulls is to get on as many as you can, and each time, it hurts.

Gay has told the students that they can ride as many bulls as they want today. "I can load them a lot longer than you'll want to keep riding them," he promises. The first two riders bail out early, and Don's father, Neal Gay, figures that he's seen enough. A former steer wrestler and saddle-bronc rider, Neal rides in front of the chutes and calls for everyone's attention. He owns the stock they're riding, and is the producer of 26 weekly two-day Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo Fairgrounds, where the school is being held. He doesn't feel his bulls need the exercise. "About 50 percent of bull riding is try," Neal tells the students gruffly. "And I'm not seeing much try out here today. Either get your motor running before you get on one of them things, or you don't get on. This here's an ee-vent."

By early afternoon, only four or five students still have their motors running. The most bulls any of them has been on is five, and by three o'clock the last bull is turned out, unclaimed. School's over.

"When I was 14 I rode 36 bulls for my dad in 2½ hours," Gay says. "I rode them all but one, and he was Bull of the Year in 1968. A shipment of stock would come in, and my brother and I would get on them so Dad could find out if they were any good before putting them into his rodeos. That's how you learn to ride. Out of the 20 students here, maybe one, two will break into the professional ranks in the next five years. But a lot of them find out here what they don't want to do, and that's good, too."

The oldest of the students, 25-year-old Danny Young, comes into the office to thank Gay and say goodby. Gay gives him an autographed poster and wishes him luck. Young will drive all night with a friend, back to Nashville, where they are entered in the bull riding the next day. Young seldom makes expenses, but he talks about one day being the All-Around Cowboy Champion. "It's the thrill of it, I guess," he says. "I've been hurt and knocked around, had a collapsed lung, but it only makes me want to do it that much more."

A folk singer named Bill Staines wrote a song about it:

Headed down the road last summer
With a few old friends of mine,
They all hit the money, Lord, I didn't make a dime.
The entrance fees they took my dough,
The travelin' took my time,
Now I'm headed home....

The rounders they all wish you luck when they know you 're in a jam,

But your money's ridin' on the bull, and he don't give a damn....*


Don Gay remembers well when he first headed down the road with a few friends. It was the day he graduated from high school in Mesquite, in 1972. "I stepped off that graduation stage on a Saturday night and gave my mother a kiss and the diploma, and me and six other guys got in a station wagon and drove all night to a rodeo in Illinois. I had $400 in my pocket. Next day I won two events and $422.50, and that night I bought the other six guys steaks at the local cafeteria and called my father on the phone and told him not to worry about me, that I'd see him in Oklahoma City in December for the National Finals. And that's what I did. Proudest thing of my life is never having to borrow a nickel from my daddy. He told me, 'Don't you call if you're broke. If you're hurt or in trouble, I'll come. But you go broke, you get yourself a job!'

"It was a month and a half before I placed again. But there are lots of ways to make money around a rodeo. You get 10 dollars for untying the calves and working the gates during the rodeo, 10 dollars for being on the feed crew. A man could make anywhere from 10 to 50 dollars a night, and if a cowboy didn't show up to claim his draw, I'd ride his stock for him. That was a lot of money for an 18-year-old kid, enough so I could afford my own hotel room. And when I did win something—800, 900 dollars—that money was just burning a hole in my pocket. Every night was Saturday night as far as I was concerned. It was the most fun I've had in my life."

He won $14,637 that first year, which put him eighth in the bull-riding standings, a grand start for a rookie who had made it to only 92 rodeos. Gay had wanted to be a professional bull rider since he was five years old, the year he rode his first calf. His hero was Shoulders, the Babe Ruth of rodeo and a family friend, who used to baby-sit for Don occasionally when he stopped by Mesquite going to or coming from his ranch in Henryetta, Okla. Shoulders was one of Neal Gay's original partners when Neal started the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in 1959, and it was to Shoulders' bull-riding school in Henryetta that Don went when he was 13, 14 and 15. "There was nothing technical in his instructions," Gay recalls. "Jim'd say, 'Stick your hand in there, hold on with your legs, pull up with your arm and try, goddammit.' He used to advertise his school: 'No films. No machines. Lots of stock.' I started out just like these students of mine did, and in that very same arena."

As a youth, Gay kept a picture on his wall of a ride Shoulders made in Burwell, Neb. The bull, a coal-black animal with its eyes rolled back, is in midair, nose held high. Shoulders has both legs extended straight out, chaps flying, toes pointed up, and he has been spurring the bull with all the leverage he can muster. At first glance he appears to be grimacing, but a closer look reveals it to be more of a scowl, an expression of disdain and utter mastery of the furious animal beneath him. It's a remarkable photograph. "To me," says Gay, "watching that picture when I was growing up was like that scene in Rocky III when Rocky stands in front of that guy and says, 'Go for it.' It used to give me chills and make me want to go right out and get on a bull. It still does."

Shoulders won 16 PRCA world championships altogether—five All-Around titles, four bareback titles and another seven in the bull riding. The bull-riding record is the one that Gay would like to break this year, and Shoulders wishes his protégé well. "Records wouldn't mean nothing if they were impossible to break," Shoulders says. "And Don Gay's just like one of my kids, as far as that goes. He was always an outgoing boy, never did meet a stranger that I knew of. Most guys today are in rodeo for the money—it's a sign of the times. But Don Gay's one of the few guys left who really likes to ride bulls. Always did like to ride. Always wanted to learn."

Gay won his first world championship in 1974, his third year on the circuit, after losing out the year before on his very last bull. He and Bobby Steiner were in a virtual tie in the 1973 National Finals at Oklahoma City after nine bulls, when Gay drew that year's Bull of the Year, Mr. Bubble, for his final ride. For six seconds the bull spun to the left, "then he cut back to the right and slam-dunked me," Gay recalls. "I thought I'd choked under pressure until I had a chance to ride that bull again the next year in Fort Madison, Iowa. So I chartered a plane just to have another crack at him, and that time he Hula-Hooped me in about two seconds. But getting so close in 1973 made me tougher mentally than anything else that has ever happened to me."

In 1974 Gay broke Shoulders' record of $28,700 earned in a single year of bull riding, which, astonishingly, had stood since 1954. Gay's total was $32,917, a record he has broken every year since, culminating with his $63,908 for 1981. Usually, world championships are determined by the total earnings for a single year, but between 1976 and 1978 the PRCA awarded the titles to competitors who won at the National Finals. The top 15 money-winners in each event qualified for the tournament, and then everyone started from zero; in bull riding that amounted to a 10-bull ride-off for the championship. Gay continued to dominate the field under the new format, winning in both '76 and '77, but in 1978 he lost his crown when he finished second to Butch Kirby at Oklahoma City, despite setting another earnings record of $48,275. The PRCA reverted to the old system in 1979, and Gay has won the bull-riding title for the last three years—in 1980 by a scant $188 when he had to turn out his last four bulls in the National Finals after breaking several ribs and tearing the surrounding cartilage.

"I'd have won eight championships by now if they hadn't changed to that sudden-death format those three years," Gay says. "But no sense crying over spilt milk. It only cost me one championship, and it cost Joe Alexander [a bareback rider] three. I figure I'll just go out and win another one, since I still like to ride bulls. I'm tied with my hero, and I've gone too far to back out now. I've told everyone I'm going to win eight, and I don't care what it costs me."

Gay has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to making predictions or blowing his own horn. Now that he's 28 and a seven-time champion, people are used to it, but in his early years—well, let's just say that, historically, cowboys have always leaned toward understatement. The damndest, rankest bull that ever walked into a rodeo arena might be described by one cowboy to another as "a pretty fair money-bull." But not by Gay. "I always liked Muhammad Ali," he says. "Instead of waiting for everybody to tell him how tough he was, he told them. I'm more or less the same way. It's all right to talk like that if you can back it up, but a lot of people have said, That little loudmouth, who's he think he is?' I've been called the John McEnroe of rodeo a time or two."

Gay has a film of himself on a bull called Red One on which he scored 95 out of a possible 100 points, the most awarded any ride in the 1976 National Finals. It's a spectacular performance, the bull spinning and twisting and bucking under him with incredible speed. "I don't know how I stayed on him," Gay says as he watches the movie. "Of course, I'm probably prejudiced, but I'd say that ride there is the greatest bull ride that's ever been made."

So much for the old days when men were men and bulls could buck. Gay says that the '76 National Finals ride on Red One was a far better ride, for instance, than the one that he later made on the famed bull Oscar, in San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1977, in which he scored 97 points. On that occasion, Gay took off his hat and fanned Oscar after the eight-second whistle (signifying an official ride) had blown, to the utter delight of the Cow Palace audience. Buck, you Oscar! This here's fun! It was a page right out of Ali's book—Ali, standing over a stricken Sonny Liston, screaming at Liston to get up and fight, get up so Ali could show the folks how great he really was. Buck, you bull!

"Rodeo has always had one envoy at a time," Gay says. "First it was Shoulders, then it was Larry Mahan. About the time Mahan was getting ready to retire, I won my first title, 1974. Since I'm pretty much a hot dog, I started to gather some ink. By the time I'd won my fifth title—well, I'm pretty much it, as far as envoys go." Now when Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett want to talk with a rodeo cowboy, Gay's their man.

"I learned how to ride under Shoulders," Gay says, "but I learned how to go out of my way to talk to people and the press under Larry Mahan. That Mahan was an animal, a physical and mental animal. He could ride an All-American bronc, then a bareback, and then he'd get on a bull. I'm not that tough. And anyway, the days of guys like Shoulders and Mahan being able to win consistently in three events are pretty much over. I traveled with Mahan a lot my first year; he kinda took me under his wing. Before him it was considered non-macho to talk to the press, probably because Shoulders never did. The feeling was, 'This is interrupting my drinking time, just one more thing I don't get paid for.' That's all changed. Now you get guys like Bobby DelVecchio, a bull rider who grew up in the Bronx, blowing kisses to the crowd. That's how rodeo's different now. The events haven't changed."

Actually, even Shoulders has come around. The legend who never gave the press the time of day now grants interviews and makes promotional appearances on behalf of Lite beer from Miller in small towns throughout the country. He travels with his pet Brahma bull, Bufford-T-Lite, which he leads into cow-town bars to liven up the evenings. Gay, ever the Shoulders protégé, is sponsored by Miller High Life, and there is a shade of irony here, because alcohol wasn't allowed in the Gay house when Don was growing up. It wasn't that Neal Gay didn't enjoy drinking beer, he was simply keeping his end of a deal. After a rodeo, years ago, an off-duty policeman shot Neal in the belly with a .45 during a bar fight. Neal had to walk up four flights of stairs to wake a doctor. He was told he wasn't going to live. "My dad asked the Man Upstairs to get him out of that one, and he'd take care of the rest of it," Don Gay says. "Hasn't touched a drop since."


Luck plays a part in all sports and lives, but it's as elemental in bull riding as the dirt in the arena. Two judges score the event, and both the cowboy and the bull are graded: zero to 25 points for the cowboy; zero to 25 for the bull. No rider has a chance to win on a bull that bucks poorly, not even a Don Gay. Every time, he has a partner. "Chicken one day, feathers the next," is the way Gay puts it.

"I'll enter 250 to 300 rodeos this year," says Gay, "and compete in maybe two-thirds of them. That's about $20,000 in entry fees just chucked out the window, but it's what you have to do to win a world championship." If Gay draws a money bull, one he can win on, he will fly up to 2,000 miles for one eight-second ride. If he gets a bad draw, he'll go elsewhere, or will take the day off, sacrificing his entry fee. Gay knows most of the bulls by name, and the ones he doesn't he can check out with a phone call. Over the course of a year, he figures, the good and bad draws even out. "What goes around, comes around," he says. "You just have to be ready."

On this day in June of this year, Gay has drawn two money bulls—one in a 4 p.m. rodeo in Dallas, another in a rodeo in Gladewater, Texas, 115 miles away, that starts at 7:30. His father is the producer of the rodeo in Dallas, which is being put on for some 6,000 conventioneers of the Rotary International, and Gay's wife, Terri, has been up since 6:30 a.m. to help time "the slack." The slack is another example of the luck of the draw: If too many competitors enter an event, the overflow is put in the slack, the competition held in the morning before the paying customers arrive. That prevents rodeo fans from having to sit through, say, four straight hours of barrel racing. Who competes in the slack and who competes in the actual performance is determined by the draw. It's possible to win an event from the slack, but stock contractors generally hold back their best bucking stock for the paying customers. Being the reigning world champion gives Don Gay no more rights than the other 8,500 card-carrying members of the PRCA. It's roughly the equivalent of giving club pros and journeymen the same rights on the golf tour as a Jack Nicklaus, and Gay estimates that in the first 60 rodeos in which he's participated this year he has drawn the slack 40 times.

The system is fair to the riders in that it inconveniences all of them equally, but it's a little unfair to the spectators, who might come to see Donnie Gay compete, only to discover he has ridden that morning in the slack. Of these 8,500 PRCA members—probably the largest group of professional athletes anywhere—Gay estimates that only 300 rodeo for a living full time. Those 300 would like to see rodeo run more like the pro golf tour: exemptions for the top money-winners, qualifying for the others; one major rodeo a week with big money at stake, instead of 643 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos a year; a commissioner; a television contract; and prize money more nearly equivalent to what other sports stars bring home. "I've made more money net in 15 minutes doing a television commercial than I did rodeoing a whole year," says Gay. "The problem is, if you put it to a vote, 3,700 guys are going to say to keep it the way it is, and 300 are going to vote to change it. The only way it'll change is if somebody organized the real true professionals into their own tour, and nobody wants to be the bad guy if that fails. Rodeo has held together for as long as it has because it's such a good product—man versus animal, which is about as basic as you can get—and it's been run by a bunch of cowboys with nothing more than common sense. They've done a good job. But the only truly professional rodeo we have each year is the National Finals in Oklahoma City."

Last year Gay put on a two-day rodeo of his own (non-PRCA-sanctioned), which was called Don Gay's Bronc and Bull Classic. It was held in the Reunion Arena in Dallas, and the top 20 money-winners from the previous year's saddle-bronc and bull-riding standings were invited to compete for $35,000 per event in prize money. As far as the riding went, the event was a success for Gay—he won the bull riding—but the promoters lost about $200,000 when attendance averaged only 5,000 in the 19,000-seat arena. Still, Gay is convinced a similar concept could work in the future, especially if television got behind it. "We made some mistakes with that first one," he says, "but now I know how to do it. Once I win that eighth world championship, I'm going to sit down and think long and hard about retiring. And once I do, I want to get into rodeo production. I'm excited about it, but I want to be damn sure I'm through riding first."


It's 20 miles from Mesquite to Dallas, and Gay leaves his house an hour before the rodeo is to begin. One of his father's best bulls, Joe Kool, part Brahma, part Charolais, is in the backyard. Joe Kool once killed another bull in a pasture and is considered too ornery to be around others of his kind. Yet he is so gentle with people that Terri Gay can feed him by hand. Gentle, that is, away from the chutes. In nine tries Don Gay has ridden Joe Kool once.

"Bull riding is a reaction event," Gay says. "I try to watch the bull's head to find out where he's going. You pick a spot, maybe right behind his horns, and fix your eyes on that. Or if he really throws his head around, maybe you watch the hump, like in football they say for a defensive back to watch the receiver's belly. The one thing you can't let the bull do is throw your head back, because you get vertigo. You tuck your chin in and pick a spot.

"There are four types of bulls. Spinners are the ones you want to draw, your basic money bulls. Then there are the ones that buck hard but just go straight ahead; you have to ask the clowns to turn them back for you, and that's where a good clown can win you some money. Eliminators are the toughest to ride. They don't show very well, but they'll somehow or other get you on the ground. The fourth kind are canners, the ones that should be sent to Wendy's.

"I love the bulls. They've been part of my life for my whole life, and they're a part of my financial lifeblood, too. We relate to one another. When I'm talking to someone who thinks that rodeo's cruel, it floors me. I'm not physically capable of abusing a bull unless I use a .44 Magnum. They're incredibly tough animals. You could hit one with a lead pipe and it wouldn't feel it.

"One time I was talking to a lady from the Humane Society. She thought we were electrocuting the bulls with those cattle prods. I told her they were just a means to get them to move through the gates, because you could hit a bull with a board and it wouldn't budge. She didn't believe me, so I took a cattle prod and prodded my hand with it. I really bore down and barely flinched, even though it hurt like hell. 'There, see?' I says. 'You didn't do anything,' the lady says. 'There's no batteries in that thing.' Well, I didn't know what to do then, so I asked the lady to give me her hand. I prodded her with that cattle prod, and she jumped about a foot. I says to her, 'See? Now if there'd been a gate in here, you'd have gone out it, wouldn't you?' "

Gay arrives at the arena in Dallas in time for the grand entry. He's introduced to the cheering Rotarians beforehand—they are of all nationalities and have been given red hats and bandannas for the occasion—and he rides out to take a bow, still wearing his Adidas running shoes. Away from the arena, Gay also prefers wearing knit golf shirts to the Western-style cowboy shirts, and, heresy of heresies, likes rock-'n'-roll better than country and western. Gay once sang Chuck Berry's Reelin' and Rockin' in front of 800 people during Cheyenne's Frontier Days. "Water level in town went down a foot during that song," says a friend.

About 45 minutes before the bull riding, Gay changes into his boots and puts on his spurs and bootstraps, which keep his boots from flying off during a ride. A subtle tension is building. The other contestants talk together in small groups behind the bucking chutes, exchanging information about their bulls, rosining gloves and bull ropes, drinking Dr Pepper. Some are going through elaborate stretching exercises. The adrenaline has really started to flow. This is obviously a young man's game, and many of the riders are similarly built. "Bull riders can all wear each other's clothes," says Gay. "They're all five-foot-eight, 150 pounds, give or take 10 pounds and two inches." Gay himself is 5'6", 150. Charlie Sampson, the black cowboy from Los Angeles who's currently leading the bull-riding standings, says hello to Gay, and Gay asks him about his bull. "G20? Throws a lot of guys, don't know how," says Sampson. An eliminator. Gay's bull, named Charlie Brown, has a high kick and is supposed to spin to the left.

The bull riding is the last event. To help ease the tension of waiting, Gay has been helping with the saddle-bronc event, calling the judges' scores up to the public address announcer. Now he puts on his lime-green chaps with gold shamrocks and gold fringe—"kinda reminds me of money"—and puts his rigging around the big black bull he has drawn. Other cowboys are leaning over their bulls with a similar sense of urgency. The first bull rider out rides a tough spinner and scores a 71—good, but not likely to be in the money. "If that's a 71, I'd like to see what you call an 80!" Neal Gay yells at the judges angrily. "Get with it!" Neal owns the stock; the higher the scores, the more valuable the stock.

Gay is on his bull in the chute. "Pull! Pull!" he says to the cowboy tightening his bull rope. "O.K., I got it." He pounds his fist closed around his wrap. It's the first time this particular bull has been ridden away from Mesquite, and it tries to sit down in the chute. "Get that hotshot, get him up," Gay says, and somebody grabs the cattle prod from the man loading the bulls and gives Charlie Brown a shot in the belly. The bull stands up, and Gay takes his wrap again. When the bull's head is turned toward the arena, Gay nods and the gate swings open. The bull explodes. He's spinning left, bucking high. Gay is jerking like a rag doll, throwing the right side of his body forward to stay centered on the bull. Suddenly the bull plants both front feet and throws its head back. Gay is jolted forward. One of the bull's horns strikes him in the collarbone, straightening him right up, and the bull reverses direction, sling-shotting Gay into the dirt headfirst. Stunned, Gay lies still, then tries to get up. Another cowboy reaches him and helps him out of the arena as the clowns distract the bull. There is some applause.

It is several minutes before Gay can talk without pain. An older cowboy, a friend of his father's, is rubbing the back of his neck, and Gay is massaging his chest where the bull hit him. Nothing is broken. "When he hit me in the collarbone, it did get my attention," says Gay. "Then he slam-dunked me like Darryl Dawkins. It's been a long time since I've hit the ground that hard." He's dripping with sweat. "Call my pilot for me, will you? See if the weather's O.K. to fly to Gladewater."

Another bell is clanging in the arena, signifying another ride. The buzzer sounds, and there is more applause from the Rotarians. Sampson waves to the crowd. He scores a 76, which will hold up to win the event. His share of the purse will be $627.

Forty-five minutes after being dumped on his head. Gay is airborne in his twin-engine Piper Comanche. He has had his pilot's license for seven years, and estimates he has logged 3,000 hours' flying time, but he lets his pilot, Dutch Daugherty, do the flying this trip. Gay washes down four aspirin with a Dr Pepper, then turns and smiles. "Damn, I love rodeo," he says.

They're flying below cloud level. There's little wind, and the rolling land between Mesquite and Gladewater is green from spring flooding. "I flew in here last year," Gay says, "and there wasn't anyone at the airport; no taxi, no rental car, no nothing. Couldn't get to the rodeo. Finally, I called the police and asked them if they could send somebody out to give me a ride. They said they didn't do that sort of thing. So I said, 'Well, there's a burglary in progress out here.' The cop said, 'What the hell, I'm going to the rodeo anyway.' Came out and got me."

The plane touches down at 6:30, and this time the local Miller distributor is there to meet him. There is time to stop at the Shamrock Drive-In Cafe for a beer before the rodeo. Shoulders' trailer is parked outside, carrying Bufford-T-Lite. Shoulders and Bufford have already been featured celebrities at a parade earlier in the day, and before the night is out, Bufford will carry Gay and a waitress through one of the local watering holes—band playing, dancers dancing, bar owners smiling nervously. Gladewater has a population of 6,728, but when you're talking about places to eat, the Shamrock Cafe is Gladewater, Texas.

"Reminds me of Hugo, Oklahoma," Gay says. "Rented a car there and the fella told me to pump the gas a few times 'cause it hadn't been started in about three weeks. I told him that the tire needed some air, and he said, 'Well, drive it down to that service station and give it some air.' A lady came out at the service station and I said, 'Where's a good place to eat in this town?' She said, 'Sonny, I don't think there is a good place to eat in this town, but I'd take you home and cook you up a meal if I wasn't working.' " Gay laughs at the memory. "Good rodeo, though. This here's a good rodeo, too."

In what other sport do world champions compete in towns like Hugo and Gladewater, tiny, out-of-the-way places in which rodeo is more than a sport; it's a link between past and present, between "them" and "us," just as the circus used to be. It's the peculiar charm of rodeo, still very much a sport of the people, un-corrupted by TV starting times, never-ending playoffs, megabucks. For four days the 6,000-seat Gladewater Roundup Rodeo will be packed, and who knows where the spectators come from? Different counties. Different states, even. There are world champions out there in the same arena with the local Shriners, the high school queen—Gladewater's own. It's a great time of year.

Inside the Shamrock Drive-in Cafe, Shoulders—still a commanding presence at 54, fit and good-looking—hears about Gay's fall. "Hula-Hooped you, eh?" he says. "I thought you went to rodeo school last week, Donnie." Shoulders exudes effortless humor, and he's still very much a hero to Gay, who accepts his barbs like small gems. At the rodeo Shoulders will say, "Used to be 12 to 15 bull riders entered in Gladewater. This year there's 90. It's the economics that have attracted so many more boys to it. Everyone's a specialist, same as in all sports. They got little books on all the bulls, want to know everything about 'em. Want to know where they crapped last. They get themselves all psyched up. A while back one bull out of five had never been out of the chute before. Hell, you got on 'em and rode. Always had good hookin' bulls here in Gladewater, bulls that'd beat you to the fence."

Later, as one of the bareback horses is being chased out of the arena, a cowboy forgets to open up a gate and the horse turns back. Shoulders gives the gatekeeper a withering look. "All it takes to be a cowboy," he tells the man, "is to be just a little bit smarter than a cow."

It's a steamy night, and Gay begins to feel sick to his stomach from the heat and the aspirin. Just before the bull riding, there's a trick riding act, complete with ponies and chimpanzees and Indian maidens. Gay has a chance to collect himself. Many of the bull riders who were in Dallas a few hours earlier are now in Gladewater, and the same rituals—stretching, rosining, exchanging information—are again being performed. "There's always the fear factor," Gay will say later. "You have to deal with that every ride. Those bastards can kill you. But you don't worry about it; you face it and control it, and the fear gives you that extra bit of adrenaline. You let it work for you."

He has drawn a gray bull whose horns have been blunted. (For safety the horns have to be as thick around as a quarter at the point.) As Gay sets his rigging, Sampson scores an 80 on a hard-bucking bull to take the lead. Gay shakes his head admiringly. He knows Sampson will be difficult to catch this year. "With his body English, that Charlie can make it look like he's being jerked all over the lot, and it adds five points to every ride," Gay says. "That's the difference between the champions and the also-rans. Lot of guys can ride bulls, but the guys who win can put on a little bit extra."

Gay slaps himself in the face twice, then eases himself onto his bull exactly as he showed his students three days earlier. He's the last rider of the night. He takes his wrap, tucks his chin in and waits for the bull to look out toward the arena. The bull seems relaxed. Suddenly Gay nods, and the gate swings open. The flank strap is pulled and the bull explodes to the right, spinning and bucking to a great height. The bell on the bull rope is clanging. Gay works his left leg ahead in a pedaling motion, spurring the bull in the shoulder. The bull twists back and spins to the left, jerking Gay badly. He pedals, now spurring with the right leg. His chin is still against his chest, his face set in a grimace. He and the bull are a whirl of gray and dust and noise. Finally, the eight-second buzzer sounds.