Putting a rodeo in Greeley, Colo., is adding insult to olfactory
injury. This burg, 45 miles north of Denver, is a meatpacking
mecca and one of the worst-smelling cities in America. Late in
the afternoon of July 2 Chad Klein pulled his 36-foot freight
liner into the parking lot of the Greeley Independence Stampede.
(Despite a lack of directions from Highway 85, Klein unerringly
found the arena, then shared this rodeo navigation tip: "Always
look for the Ferris wheel.")
Klein and Jared Lavergne bought the used rig, which had
originally been owned by FedEx, last spring. When Klein killed
the engine and opened his door in Greeley, a wave of funk
crashed into the cab. Rather than wince, Klein shouted to his
buddy, "Smells like money, don't it?"
You smell ordure, they smell opportunity. Klein and Lavergne are
Louisiana natives, traveling partners, best friends and fellow
members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
Klein, 28, is a member of a shrinking fraternity--guys who ride
both bareback broncs and bulls. Lavergne, 27, is an
up-and-coming bareback bronc rider who has no interest in ever
mounting a bull. "They're for eating, not riding," he says.
Tough and talented, they were also courteous enough to allow SI
to tag along during the first week of July, which is known in
bath-mat-sized-belt-buckle circles as Cowboy Christmas. It is a
rodeo-intensive time of year when people in this line of work
can find lots of it--provided they're willing to shower in truck
stops, dine on beef jerky, and drive all night and half the next
day to do a job that lasts, if everything goes right, eight
Between June 30 and July 6 Klein and Lavergne traveled nearly
5,000 miles--from Reno to Prescott, Ariz., to Greeley to Cody,
Wyo., to Springdale, Ark., to Calgary--to compete in six rodeos in
seven days. It was around 5:30 p.m. when they spilled from the
cab of their truck in Greeley, about two hours before they were
scheduled to ride. Behind the chutes from which the broncos and
bulls would be released into the ring, the men quickly began
taping themselves, a ritual prelude to violence not unlike the
Hanson brothers' "puttin' on the foil" in Slap Shot. Lavergne
taped a pad to his right forearm, a common practice among bull
and bronc riders. "As you grip your rigging," he said, "the
[forearm] muscle kinda mashes against bone. The pad keeps you
from getting splints--like having a shin splint in your forearm."
Other riders tape other areas: elbows, wrists, fingers. Klein
drops trou long enough to slide a kind of cushion between his
legs (it calls to mind a giant maxipad) and tapes it in place.
They pulled on fringed chaps and protective flak jackets with a
Western flair. (Some, like Lavergne's, have antiwhiplash neck
rolls.) Many riders fell into brooding silences. It was time to
dwell on a few thinking points, time to clutch whatever talisman
gave them courage. Lavergne keeps a Rosary in the left pocket of
his riding jeans, a prayer to St. Michael in his right. After the
short walk to the chute, after cinching his rigging under the
bronc's belly, he lowered himself onto the horse ever so
gingerly, as one would descend into a Japanese bath. Lavergne was
dimly aware of the announcer's introduction--Here's Jared
Lavergne, who continues to work his way up in the rankings. Right
now he's the No. 4 rider in the world--before the gate on his
chute was yanked open and the game was on.
Rough-stock riders often enter a rodeo, then blow it off (eating
the $200 to $250 registration fee) upon learning that they've not
drawn a good horse--good, in this case, meaning ornery and
difficult. Rides are graded by two judges. Half the score is
based on the rider's style and spurring action. The other half is
based on the size of the fight in the horse. "What you want is a
buckin' son of a gun you can make a good ride on," says Lavergne.
A mediocre, disinterested animal, known in the sport as a dink,
guarantees a mediocre score. If these guys don't score well,
they're not getting paid.
Lavergne's horse came out with a fury, kicking hard and high...
for four seconds, then phoned in the rest of ride. Lavergne
scored a 76 out of a possible 100. Klein's horse did plenty of
spinning but not much kicking. Klein settled for a 74. Neither
man earned a dollar in Greeley.
With its higher potential for mayhem, bull riding is the crowd
favorite and so was saved for last. It was preceded by steer
wrestling, mutton bustin' (helmeted kids trying to ride baffled
and alarmed sheep) and saddle-bronc riding, a more stylish
version of the bareback event. Then came calf roping, team
roping, barrel racing and, finally, the bulls.
Klein liked the bull he'd drawn. Nasty Norman is a 7-year-old red
brindle in the habit of going hard to his left the millisecond
he's out of the gate. He's a guaranteed 85-point ride--minimum--if
you can stay on him. "You fall off in front of him," says Rhett
Beutler, the stock contractor who raised him, "and he'll knock
you around a little." Nasty Norman spun to his left before Klein,
as he later put it, "got sucked down the whirlpool."
"Chad Klein without a score--now that's a rare occurrence," said
the P.A. announcer.
Klein was on his feet in a heartbeat, but the bull had already
lost interest in him, raking his horns at a clown named Loyd
Ketchum. At least I had assumed Ketchum was a clown when I'd
spoken to him behind the chutes: His face was painted, his nose
red. He wore a silly hat and an oversized pair of baggies. But
Ketchum was not a regular rodeo clown. He was one of the two
bullfighters, guys whose job it was to distract the bull once the
rider was off. Ketchum and his ilk dart and lunge in front of the
bull, like men playing on a busy train track. "They're
lifesavers," says Klein.
Two years ago a bull caught Ketchum at a rodeo in Phillipsburg,
Kans. "Broke my hip in two places," he says. "The doc who
operated on me knew me. He said, 'I'll wire it so it doesn't come
undone.' I was out 30 days."
To a sportswriter accustomed to athletes less hardy, the rodeo
guys were an alien breed--outrageously, comically tough. To follow
Lavergne into a bar and past a clutch of buckle bunnies is to be
reminded that he is easy on the eyes. That's no thanks to the
horse hoof planted in his face almost nine years ago at a rodeo
in Sherman-Denison, Texas. "My hand came out of my rigging," he
says. "I went over backward and got kicked. Chad ran out while I
was lying there and said, 'Stay still, your face is broken.'"
The surgeons later told him they could have fit half a softball
in the cheekbone-to-temple indentation on the right side of his
face. "They reconstructed it, put three plates in," Lavergne
says. "I missed four months."
Four years ago in Kissimmee, Fla., a horse called Sugar Cat got
spooked in the chute and reared up on his hind legs four
times--each time banging Lavergne's forehead against a rectangular
metal plate on the back of the chute. "He had a big flap of skin
hanging down," says Klein, "and he spurred that horse out
The rides may last only eight seconds, but the cowboys remain
wired for hours after the show. It's a good time to draw them
out. Driving north out of Greeley en route to Cody, Klein spoke
of his upbringing in St. Francisville, La. He is a
third-generation rodeo cowboy whose grandfather Dan Klein
competed against the famed Casey Tibbs. Errol Klein, Chad's
father, made a living in this racket for more than three decades.
Chad started competing in rodeos as a high school senior in 1991
and turned pro two years later.
In 1996 he won the Houston Rodeo, earning $43,000. Only the top
15 cowboys in each event make the PRCA's year-end world
championships in Las Vegas, which offer first-place prizes of up
to around $100,000. Klein, who was a shoo-in for the
championships in '96 until he broke his pelvis, qualified in '98,
'99 and 2000 and barely missed the cut last year. "They take 15,
I was 16th," he says.
He'll need to finish strong to make it this year. While he won a
couple of checks during Cowboy Christmas, it was an off week by
his standards. When he wasn't drawing dink stock, it seemed,
Klein was getting his ass launched like an Apollo rocket before
eight seconds were up. ("I looked down," he said after a bull in
Prescott propelled him skyward, "and the arena was gettin'
smaller and smaller.")
But there was not a single disappointment that Klein didn't
vaporize later in the night with his optimism. "Tell you what,"
he'd say, expelling a cataract of tobacco juice into one of the
spit cups that multiplied like rabbits in the truck's cab. "I'm
gon' win tomorrow."
More than half the money he does win is devoured by travel
expenses and registration fees. Every year that he's made the
world championships, Klein has cleared six figures. "But if you
don't make the world championships," he said, "you're pretty much
spinning your wheels."
In December 2000 he married Tricia Smith, a nurse anesthetist who
served as a Navy Corpsman in the Gulf War. She is an independent
woman with an adventurous streak of her own, as evidenced by her
passion for skydiving. "She understands the feeling I get when I
ride," Klein said. "She knows what it means to me, and she's all
right with that."
Lavergne, very much a bachelor, grew up in Ville Platte, La.,
where he was active in the 4-H Club. When he was in the eighth
grade, he asked his father, Sylvan, if he could ride in a nearby
rodeo. It was Sylvan's secret hope that his son would be bucked
off and his interest in this brutal game extinguished. Instead,
Jared won. For his prize he was led to the trunk of a car and
invited to pick out a hatband. "I've still got that hatband at my
house," he says.
He received a partial rodeo scholarship at McNeese State but
dropped out after two semesters. Back home he ran a used-car lot,
selling jalopies Monday through Friday and driving to rodeos on
the weekend. While Lavergne has had his pro card since 1995 and
won many rodeos, he has never qualified for the world
championships. That will end this year. In his seventh season the
light has gone on for him.
"He was always consistent, never great," says Connie Klassen, a
longtime rodeo reporter, "but ever since he won at Fort Worth in
February, he's been golden. He's drawn like a bandit. He's done
nothing but go up and stay up."
While Klein has had more success in his career, Lavergne is
having the better year. Their bond is far too stout to be
threatened by this turn of fortune. Klein is thrilled with his
buddy's success and confident that he himself is about to get on
a roll. "I'm gonna start my hot streak tonight," he said during
the drive to Cody.
That turned out not to be true, but don't blame Klein. Blame,
instead, his highly regarded horse, which, for some reason, took
the night off. "I wish he'd have done more kicking," said Klein
after pulling a 79.
Lavergne, who'd spent the afternoon on the verge of throwing
up--something from a Red Lobster did not sit well with him--rose
from his sickbed in time to put in an 83-point ride on War Wagon,
a horse who's worked the national finals the last three years.
Lavergne tied for second and took away $5,897 in prize money.
This was an optimal pairing, a top rider on a superb horse. What
happens too often at PRCA events is that lesser riders end up on
the best horses, while elite riders draw dinks. The PRCA is
trying to fix this. Starting next year rough-stock riders will be
limited to 75 rodeos per year. (The limit now is 125.) Forced to
be more selective, the weekend guys will gravitate toward "the
smaller rodeos, where they can grow and develop," says Steven
Hatchell, the PRCA's commissioner. "Hopefully there will be some
order to it. Because right now there's no order."
Under the new system the top riders hope, they will be able to
spend more time with their families and less time on long road
trips. But as we were on one of those long trips, it seemed a
shame not to drop into Cassie's tavern after the Cody Stampede.
True, we had a 5:30 a.m. flight in a kite-sized Cessna the next
morning. But as one cowboy pointed out, "If you can't work
hungover, you can't be in rodeo."
We crashed at the Big Bear Motel at 2:30 a.m. There was no
discussion: The Cajuns flopped on opposite sides of the same
double bed and were out immediately. That's rodeo. "Whenever we
stay in a motel, it's four guys to a room," Lavergne said the
next day. "There's an imaginary line down the middle of the bed,
and you stay on your side of it."
Once in a while, when a rookie is in the room, they'll pull a
prank, said Lavergne. "We'll say, 'If you want to sleep in this
bed, you need to put your boxers on backward.'"
The charter to Denver was uneventful, unless you consider
clearing a series of 14,000-foot peaks by the length of a rope
ladder an event. While passing through security at the Denver
International Airport, where we connected to a flight to Kansas
City, Mo., Klein and Lavergne ended up in the line for wanding.
"We always get frisked," said Klein. "I've got a bunch of metal
in my leg; he's got a bunch of metal in his face."
We rented a car in Kansas City and drove south on I-71, through
thunderstorms in Nevada, Mo., past silos, rolled hay, red barns
and the XXX Arcade outside Pineville, Mo., until finally we hit
the Arkansas border. An hour later Klein spotted the Ferris
It was a happy Fourth of July for the Cajuns at the Rodeo of the
Ozarks. Klein had his best performance since Reno, making a
78-point ride; Lavergne stayed hot and beat him by a point. Both
finished in the money (Klein won $698; Lavergne $978), which made
the night drive back to K.C. go that much quicker.
With Lavergne at the wheel, Klein worked the phone. He called
Tricia, then called a buddy, whose girlfriend picked up. They
chatted, then she passed the phone to Klein's friend.
"She sounds sexy," Klein said. "Is she fat?"
Over the next hour the riders' phones rang a half-dozen times.
Their buddies, done for the night and en route to their next
rodeos, were checking in. This is the PRCA's unofficial support
network. "How'd ya draw?" they asked each other. "How'd ya do?"
"That's great, man."
"That sucks, man."
They rely on cellphones not only to do their jobs--entering events
from the highway, for instance--but also to fight off the
loneliness that comes with the profession.
The following day, July 5, was a travel day. Two flights got us
back to Cody, where the rig awaited. After lunch at Cassie's, the
Cajuns paid $100 for two Southwestern style rugs from a woman
running a roadside stand. Remodeling the trailer is a job they
take seriously. The rugs are a fine complement to the
1970s-rumpus-room-style wood paneling which sets the tone in this
space. To fend off claustrophobia, they cut squares in the walls,
then installed a pair of Plexiglas windows. Visitors can take a
load off on the vintage La-Z-Boy or the secondhand sofa
(Lavergne's dad sells furniture) and help themselves to a cold
one from the fridge under the bar.
Yes, it saves them money on motels. But their decision to go in
on the rig had more to do with hospitality than economy. This
pair of Southerners likes visitors. "One thing about
rodeo--everybody's friends," says Lavergne. "We help each other
out. It's us against the animals."
A frequent passenger in the truck is Chip Dees, a lanky
Mississippian who rides bareback broncs and carries around in his
face six plates, souvenirs from a stomping he received in Fort
Worth last February. Dees was in the truck the night of July 5,
as it pulled up to the border crossing station between Montana
"Do you have any alcohol on board?" asked the border guard.
"No," said Klein. This was news to a passenger in the backseat
whose feet rested on a 12-pack of Bud.
"We've got a couple tins of Copenhagen."
The cowboys conferred briefly, then Klein answered. "Nine."
The guard asked him to park the truck. The interrogation
"You told 'em you'd never been arrested?" Klein asked Dees later,
after they'd been cleared to proceed.
"Well, it's true I've been arrested," Dees allowed, "but I ain't
never been charged. It was my hometown."
The next day Klein was thrown from his bull at the Calgary
Stampede. The announcer rubbed salt in the wound, explaining to
the crowd of 45,000, "Folks, he's a much better cowboy than
Afterward, Klein was as dejected as I'd seen him. As he left the
arena, an attractive paramedic said hello and asked if he
He did. When they finished chatting, he was smiling. Earlier this
year in Cloverdale, B.C., he was struck under the chin by the
bull's head as he fell off. "He split me open and knocked me out
on my feet," recalled Klein. "I was walking around, pouring
blood, and she kind of grabbed me and took care of me. She could
tell I wasn't right."
"Angels," he concluded. "You never know what they look like."
We knew what one of them looked like. Al Sewall is a 71-year-old
former bronc rider. In the space of just a few years some two
decades ago he lost an 18-year-old son and a 21-year-old
daughter. Ever since then he has opened his home every summer to
Stampede contestants. "These guys have been my salvation," he
says. "They're like my kids." In addition to feeding them and
putting them up, Sewall is their designated driver. He has sworn
off the sauce ever since the night he shot up his ex-wife's house
with a rifle, then went inside and passed out.
After a superb dinner at Al's, the Cajuns and a dozen other
cowboys--plus Alexandra, a 30-year-old artist from Germany who'd
been sketching them at the stampede--migrated to a saloon called
Ranchman's. A reporter's sketchy notes from those blurred hours
chronicle a debate about the merits of surgically augmented
breasts. One rider's verdict: "What's real? You ask me, if she
doesn't take 'em off and put 'em on the nightstand when she goes
to bed, they're real."
Also noted: Alexandra's postmidnight observation, "When guys
spend this much time talking about sex, it usually means they're
not having enough of it."
"That's not necessarily their fault," I felt qualified to tell
her. "That's just rodeo."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB SEASON'S BEATINGS In Calgary, the week's low point, this bull was about to send Klein flying--and his spirits plummeting.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB ROADIES Klein (dark hair) and Lavergne endured all-night drives, truck-stop meals and kite-sized Cessnas, all for an eight-second job.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB BRONCO BUSTIN' A rising bareback bronc star, Lavergne is headed for his first world championship.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB O.K., CORRAL After being shown the rope during the Wild Horse Race competition in Calgary, this steed was saddled and mounted.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB FAST AND LOOSE During a stretch in Wyoming, Lavergne leaned on Klein and later partied with him until the wee hours at Cassie's.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB ENGAGIN' CAJUNS Even as Klein (right) scuffled, he never allowed his struggles to affect his bond with his buddy and fellow Louisianan.
When he wasn't drawing dink stock, it seemed, Klein was getting
his ass launched like an Apollo rocket before his eight seconds
To a sportswriter accustomed to athletes less hardy, the rodeo
guys were an alien breed--outrageously, comically tough.
As one cowboy pointed out after the Cody Stampede, "If you can't
work hungover, you can't be in rodeo."