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A folk singer named Bill Staines wrote a song about it:
Headed down the road last summer
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."