The buckle that the best cowboy in the world wins each year after the National Finals Rodeo is as big as a small dish, gold-plated and jewel-studded, and it is a great way to hold your pants up. The fact that it is worth $200 in a shaky market is just part of the appeal. Make it low-grade tin and it would still represent a year's worth of sudden starts, jarring stops, ungentle descents from high places and a forlorn effort to build rapport with an animal that wants absolutely nothing to do with you—all in the face of the keenest kind of competition. Wearing the buckle also means you have won more money on the rodeo circuit than any other cowboy and, in the year 1967, that comes to $50,000. The man who will be taking up a notch with the buckle this year is Larry Mahan, age 24, a cowboy who smiles a lot, talks with the rarest hint of a drawl, has a firm grip on his investment portfolio and, during those few instances when he has both boots on the ground, comes on with the assurance of a bright young whippersnapper whose future is at somebody's board of directors' table.
But do not be deceived. In two short years, Mahan has not only moved to the top of his profession, he has turned it inside out with a rush that still has old hands standing around with mouths agape. In 1966 Larry won $40,358 which, for reference, puts him in the same tax bracket with those cowboys who are mentioned in reverent whispers—Buck Rutherford, Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders. Until this year, Shoulders was the top money winner, with $43,381, but last September Mahan, in a flurry of whirling bulls, collected $2,600 for a week's work in Albuquerque and Memphis and passed Shoulders as the world's richest cowboy.
Since then, Mahan had become richer by $5,000 and last week as he drove into Oklahoma City to do battle with the cream of this year's crop of riders and the most vicious stock money could buy, he needed just $2,000 more to reach rodeo's version of a magic figure—$50,000. It is a figure that has the same meaning around the old corral as the four-minute mile did 15 years ago in track.
Although rodeo people are blinking over the dollars in Mahan's bank balance, his earnings represent only a part of what he has done to old standards. An invitation to compete in the NFR means a cowboy has been one of the top 15 competitors in one of the six standard rodeo events—bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding, calf roping, team roping and steer wrestling. (There is a seventh, added recently, for the girls, who race quarter horses around three barrels and down a short straightaway to the crashing accompaniment of Camp Town Races; a very demanding bit of horsemanship.) When you consider there are 2,700 people who go at this business seriously each year, the honor of an invitation becomes obvious.
Until two years ago, the Ail-Around Championship was awarded to the cowboy who was the tops in two of these events. Then along came Larry Mahan. He arrived in Oklahoma City last year qualified in three events, and that is something no cowboy ever dreamed of before. Mahan was fourth in the country among bareback riders, sixth on saddle broncs and fifth aboard the awful, awful bulls. It was, at the time, the ultimate in rodeoing.
This year, Mahan hit the ultimate again and then some: going into the finals he hit the top five in three events—he was fifth in bareback, third on saddle broncs and first with the bulls. To compare what Mahan did with winning baseball's Triple Crown would be understating the case. If you can conceive of, say, Jim Lonborg winning more than 20 games, pressing Harmon Killebrew for the home run title and stealing 50 bases, then you have the picture.
To discover why Larry Mahan should sit so tall in the saddle, or sit tall without a saddle for that matter, is to delve into the never-never land of star quality. Jim Shoulders, who won a staggering 16 National Championships including five Ail-Around titles himself before he retired in 1965, talks of the obvious when he says: "Larry does have great coordination and he does work hard at his trade. But so do a lot of other cowboys. You can look at them and tell right off they have it and that they are dedicated to rodeoing. And yet they don't make it. Larry's different. Why? I don't know."
The new breed of young go-getters is popping up in every sport and Mahan is everything that a cowboy, or a ball player, was not a few generations ago. Said Skipper Lofting, who did his rodeoing in the mid-30s: "The cowboys then were a cliquey lot. They would just as soon talk to a rattlesnake as to a newcomer. Many of them fitted the old mold as hard-drinking, hard-swearing brawlers. They were starving to death, but they distrusted anyone who used the word 'organize.' The early ones were mostly open-air delinquents, Civil War draft dodgers and out-and-out renegades."
Later, when there were no more Indians to shoot up, rodeo cowboys would arrive at a slumbering town, check in at the local saloon, wreck it, stagger off to the rodeo, ride their broncs, collect their winnings and head right back to the saloon—and wreck the wreckage. Those old cowboys spent what they had when they had it, and wahoo. There was color there, and it is disappearing.
Larry Mahan goes about it differently. He does not smoke, he drinks moderately—"I've seen those old drunks," he says, "and that's not going to be me 20 years from now"—and as a participant in an act that rates up there with bullfighting and linebacking for longevity, Mahan is using every modern device he can. That includes flying his own plane to get to as many rodeos as he can squeeze into a year, usually around 90. What he does with his winnings is invest them, in real estate, the market and business ventures.