The one certainty was that rodeo would be getting a champion, whether it turned out to be Lyne or Berger, from the ranks of cowboys' new breed. Both men attended college on rodeo scholarships, Berger graduating from Cal Poly and Lyne lacking just six credits for a degree from Sam Houston State. Berger pilots his own single-engine Comanche painted in bumblebee yellow and black, while Lyne is now taking flying lessons. Each is following the lead of Mahan, who has been traveling to rodeos for years in his own plane. As the sport's glamour boy, Mahan supplements his prize winnings by endorsing products as disparate as saddles and swimwear; it provides substantial income and Berger and Lyne have lately been coming in for similar fringe benefits.
A few grizzled, rough-and-tumble boys are still around but the world of tax consultants and business deals is closing in. With the sport's annual attendance at 25 million, the Denver-based Rodeo Cowboys Association, representing 3,000 professionals, has just negotiated a promotional tie-in with Winston cigarettes, and there has been talk of trying to corral some of that good network TV money. Concerned with rodeo's image, association officials spent part of their time at the finals grumbling about the salty language and nudity in J. W. Coop, a new Cliff Robertson movie featuring real-life cowboy Dennis Reiners. The world premi�re, held in Oklahoma City during the rodeo, was marred when Reiners, who also recently appeared on television's Dating Game ("Do you like to horse around?" he inquired of one bachelorette), was banged up in an auto accident on his way to the theater. The injury caused him to miss two days of competition at the rodeo, a case of poor timing roughly equivalent to contracting laryngitis at La Scala.
Certainly traffic accidents were superfluous; there was enough mayhem in the ring, where bucking stock bearing suitably menacing names like Widow Maker and Crazy One were exacting a nightly toll of casualties. The roughest, rankest bull at the finals was generally conceded to be a 7-year-old Charolais named 00, an animal that had taken on some 200 cowboys in its rodeo career and thrown them all. In the daily matchups of man and beast, three contestants wound up drawing 00, and Bobby Berger was naturally one of them. It was not to be his lucky week.
The other two cowboys were bucked off; Berger's turn came Thursday, the day before he broke his hand. When he recovered from the shock of drawing the dreaded animal, Berger said gamely, "Well, if I ride that bull, the judges ought to give me a good score." He then went out and became the first man to do so, stubbornly withstanding 00's violent lurches before finally eating dirt at the very instant the eight-second buzzer sounded. It was a grand moment, yet not so grand. Contending that the bull had not bucked with its usual vigor, the judges gave Berger a so-so score that put him out of the money for the night.
But Berger received better marks on other bulls, grittily staying aboard nine of his 10 mounts, being bucked painfully off only on his final animal Sunday. Besides winning $2,981 in daily prize money in his three specialties, he was the most consistent bull rider throughout the rodeo, which brought an additional payoff of $1,037. The total would have been enough to take the championship had Phil Lyne simply remained in the barns squirting tobacco juice on the ground. A versatile athlete who won money at one time or another this year in every event—something few cowboys have ever done—Lyne picked up $4,340 in his two specialties, finally clinching the all-around cowboy title with a second place Sunday in calf roping. He also wound up as the biggest winner in that category on the 1971 rodeo circuit.
Unlike most of his rivals, Lyne generally competes in calf roping on borrowed horses, and it was on one of them that he provided probably the most dramatic moment of the week. Anybody who can chase down a calf on horseback and then rope and bind it in less than 12 or 13 seconds is generally considered to have excelled. As Lyne waited his turn during one performance, two of his competitors achieved successive times of nine seconds and 8.9 seconds, the latter the fastest clocking in the 13-year history of the National Finals rodeo. With third place seemingly the best he could hope for, Lyne calmly settled into his saddle and, rope coiled and ready in his hand, nodded to attendants for the chute to be opened.
The calf rushed onto the arena floor with Lyne in close pursuit. The cowboy carved the air overhead with his spiraling rope, then lowered the loop cleanly over the calf's head, bringing the animal to an abrupt, neck-jerking halt. He leapt down and gift wrapped it in a single motion. It had taken all of 8.5 seconds. Amazingly, the mark was equalled by another contestant, Oklahoman Barry Burk, two days later. As Lyne returned to his horse, richer by $477 in first-place money for the night, the excited announcer asked him to take a triumphal ride around the ring. He doffed his $100 beaver hat and rode instead for the exit. Asked later if he had declined to circle the ring out of shyness, he reflected a moment. "Sometimes I'm shy, and sometimes I'm not," he said.
Once all hands finished tucking the last cent of prize money into their Wranglers or Levi's or Lee Riders, depending on which brand a fellow had endorsed, Lyne's total for the year stood at $49,245, Berger's at $46,746. The very thought of such riches stirred pangs of anxiety in the man Lyne had succeeded as best all-around cowboy. Pausing on his way to a luncheon at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City's biggest tourist attraction, Larry Mahan leaned on his cane and confided, "Just sitting around here like this can make you a little depressed." Aiming for next year's championship, Mahan expects to test his injured leg in a rodeo Jan. 1 in Odessa, Texas. Well, Phil Lyne is fixing to be there and Bobby Berger will probably drag his broken body to Odessa, too. It should be a good test.