- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"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.