In their travels from one dusty Western town to the next, rodeo cowboys provide high entertainment for uncertain return. They routinely endure trials of the kind that Larry Mahan, the sport's premier performer, suffered last September in Ellensburg, Wash. Riding a bareback bronc, Mahan was bucked rudely into the air, his hand catching in the horse's rawhide rigging as he came down. Outsiders sometimes protest that rodeo is cruel to animals, which must have struck Mahan as ironic once the horse stopped dragging him like a rag doll along the hard ground.
The accident left Mahan with a broken leg, ending at least momentarily his remarkable domination of competitive rodeo. Not only had he won the all-around cowboy championship an unprecedented five straight years, but he had pretty well wrapped up the title on each occasion even before arriving in Oklahoma City for cowpunching's traditional windup, the National Finals Rodeo. With Mahan hobbling on a cane as this season ended, the outcome was necessarily different. Flocking to the Oklahoma Fairgrounds Arena for 10 performances in nine days, rodeogoers chomped on their caramel apples, politely applauded oratory to the effect that cowboys never burn their draft cards—"the last of the rugged individualists" one speaker called them—and scarcely gave Mahan a second thought as a couple of young hands named Phil Lyne and Bob Berger staged a guns-blazing showdown for all-around cowboy of 1971.
The idea being that this was more sport than Wild West show, the rodeo had no trick roping and the like, hardly a casual omission in a city that has named all sorts of things, from its airport to a barbershop, after Will Rogers. Cowgirls, done up in sequins and crushed velvet, competed on horseback for the women's barrel racing championship while the band played De Camptown Races, but the boys generally shunned fancy duds in favor of workaday denim. This helped make for a businesslike atmosphere, as befits a sport that determines its champions on the cold-eyed basis of who wins the most cash.
The one who led coining into Oklahoma City, with $44,905 in winnings, was the 24-year-old Lyne, a pale, sturdy Texan whose command in the ring belied the fact that he was only in his third year on the professional trail. A fellow who learned to rope and ride on his family's 2,000-acre cattle ranch south of San Antonio, Lyne regards his nomadic life in rodeo as temporary. "All this travel poops a boy out," he says, his voice edged with appropriate weariness. "But the good thing is, you're your own boss. Being a cowboy beats being a welder or a cook; for me, it does, anyway. I figure I'll maybe stick with this a couple, three years and then go back to ranching."
Like others trying to make it on the cowboy circuit, Lyne competes in 100 or more rodeos a year, receiving no guarantees or salary and paying all expenses, including entry fees, out of his pocket. The National Finals, open to the 15 biggest winners in each of rodeo's six standard events, gives the leaders one last opportunity to flesh out their earnings for the year. Lyne qualified in calf roping and bull riding, and he needed to pick up additional prize money to avoid being cut down by Berger, whose $42,728 in winnings put him uncomfortably close. Berger had the benefit of being on familiar sod for the finals. He lives 18 miles down the road in Norman, where his wife Darann is studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma while trying to crack the pulp-Western market by writing stories with titles like Indian Em'ly and John Smith, Town Tamer.
More seasoned than Lyne, having placed third in the all-around cowboy race in 1970, the 26-year-old Berger did well enough this year to become the only cowboy other than Mahan ever to qualify for the finals in three events. That gave him one more crack at the week's loot than Lyne, but the fact that it was the three riding events in which he qualified—bull, bareback and saddle bronc—assured him of a rough week. Mahan had competed in the same combination of events but he is of sterner stuff than Berger—a slight 135-pound fellow with choirboy features who does a creditable imitation atop a high bucking bull of a twig in a tornado.
Berger's punishment began on opening night when he came out of the gate astride a bareback bronc whose antisocial tendencies were immediately apparent. The horse swerved in one direction and Berger, hat flying and chaps flopping, went hurtling in another, wrenching his left elbow in the spill. The next day he suffered a bruised foot when a saddle bronc toppled onto him, and on Friday, as the rodeo neared its climax, he very ably rode a bull—its name was Sue—only to fracture his left hand while tumbling off at the end after the buzzer. "Do you want to ride tomorrow, Bobby?" the doctor asked while examining the X rays that night. Berger, holding an ice pack to his swollen hand in the emergency room of the Baptist Memorial Hospital, looked up with wide eyes and nodded.
With his hand in a cast, Berger continued to spur on ornery animals on Saturday afternoon, the cheers of his fellow Oklahomans urging him to stick with it. But the little man's medical problems became ridiculous when he was thrown again in that session, spraining his right wrist and suffering a possible fractured toe. After that he was so lame and halt—he could hardly get his boot on—that he passed up three rides. Still the battered cowboy returned, competing in three events in the final performances despite bruises and bandages on literally every limb.
"I'm just trying to keep myself together," Berger said, his agonies written on his boyish face. Remarkably, though, he still had a mathematical chance of overtaking Lyne going into that final day.
For all his ailments throughout the rodeo, Berger had lasted the prescribed length of time—eight seconds in bull and bareback riding and nine in saddle broncs—often enough to keep the pressure on Lyne. He won $477 with a first in bull riding one night, pocketed $298 for a second-place tie in saddle bronc another, added $119 here and $59 there. But Lyne, relaxing between rounds with a chaw in his cheek, was coolly going about the business of adding to his own dollar total, his strongest bull rides or fastest calf-roping clockings always seeming to occur whenever Berger began edging close. "The only way Bobby is frail is his looks and that's deceivin'," Lyne said of his rival. "He could get hot and win this whole thing." In contrast to Berger, the Texan's most serious complaint was a mild cold.