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Presumably, Larry Mahan was taken from the delivery room in Salem, Oregon, where he was born, put on a horse, and pointed in the direction of home. At least, his first time in a saddle took place in one of those early infant years that is beyond recall. By the time he was 10, Mahan was spending most of his time at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, breaking every colt he could find. Two years later, Mahan entered his first junior rodeo, roping and riding calves, for which he won six dollars and a belt buckle. If there was ever any question about his going into teaching or driving a truck, that was the end of it.
Not that there weren't moments of reflection. Before he was graduated from high school, Mahan entered a rodeo in Stockton, California, where he got on a bull named Rattler. A few seconds out of the chute, off flew Larry, which is nothing unusual in a cowboy's life. But it was then that Mahan learned firsthand the peculiar characteristics of a Brahma bull. Rattler looked around for his ex-rider, found him and tromped on his jaw, breaking it in five places. For two months Mahan took his nourishment through a straw. "I've got to admit." he said, "I had a few chickens in my gas tank after that."
Whatever misgivings Mahan had about boarding bull or bronc, they did not last much beyond the time he could again open his mouth fully. Within four months he had married a willowy dark-haired beauty named Darlene and had moved to Arizona, ostensibly to enter Arizona State University. ASU, it happened, had an excellent rodeo team.
As a newlywed Larry found that money was short, so he postponed his education for a year and tried the rodeo circuit full time to collect tuition. He was just one of many young men in a crowd, all struggling to pick up entry money for the next rodeo. In Mahan's case, however, a difference was quickly apparent, and Mel Lambert, who was announcing at the Oregon State Fair that year, spotted it. "Folks," he boomed out over the public address system, "that cowboy who just finished his ride is Larry Mahan. Now don't you forget that name, because someday he is going to be the All-Around Champion."
Lambert recalled recently, "You could just see it—the way he sat on a horse and spurred, he was all business and he had the try [a cowboy's term for never-say-die] to get him wherever he wanted to go."
A rodeo—any rodeo, in any town, at any time—was where Mahan wanted to be and he would drive thousands of miles to get there. Such minor happenings as being jerked down on the back of a bull's head—that was in Helena, Montana—and having the bone between his nose and upper teeth cracked, did not constitute sufficient cause to miss a turn. On another occasion, Mahan did take the time to be X-rayed after a bull had kicked him in the neck. The doctor, looking at a wet negative, found nothing wrong, so off Larry went, taking on any animal he could get in the next rodeo. His neck did bother him from time to time, but not enough to keep him out of action. A month later, a friend asked Mahan if the doctor had ever reached him. "No," said Larry, "why?" No reason, really, it turned out. When the doctor got a look at the dry X-ray he found three cracked vertebrae in the backbone near the neck. What's a broken neck between rodeos? It did not even slow Mahan down. "I guess it just healed by itself," he said. "At least it stopped bothering me."
The urge to get on bucking animals went beyond a means of just fattening the kitty. "If you're having troubles with a type of bronc or bull," Mahan says, "the best way I know to lick them is getting on as many of them as you can." For that reason, he entered a riding school run by Canadian All-Around Champion Kenny McLean in British Columbia. "He was having trouble with horses cutting to his right," said McLean, "so in seven days, he got on 49 of 'em."
"I was so sore I could hardly leave Canada," said Mahan. But horses cutting to the right no longer posed a particular problem.
This time last year Mahan came to Oklahoma City for the NFR firmly established as All-Around Champion, a man of stature, admired by all cowboys, sought after by commercial enterprises for endorsements, hounded by autograph seekers, adored by his public. And the first three bulls Larry Mahan got on at the NFR deposited him on the arena floor. In such ignominious positions are lives changed. For Mahan, it was indeed a turning point. "I had ridden a lot of bulls by then," Larry said, "but never with much thought. I used the same tricks on every bull no matter what his style and, while I was placing fairly often, it was obvious what I was doing wasn't enough. So for that fourth bull, I did some thinking."
That fourth bull also happened to be one that, following his recent form, Mahan should not have been able to stay on. It was a big brown brute that hopped out of the chute and immediately swirled in a tight circle to the left. Whether it was pure luck or just the end of his slump, Mahan stuck on and placed in the go-round, and when he left Oklahoma City after the nine-day event, it was with the idea that the year 1967 was going to be one of contemplation, study and just as many rodeos as he could get to in his brown and white Comanche.