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Mahan, who had a place outside Colorado Springs, called Murray after his freshman year in high school to invite him to spend the summer. "I barely knew Larry Mahan," says Murray. "I thought he was a god. I didn't have any idea what he was going to do with me. I thought maybe he was going to work me."
"Work him?" says Mahan with a laugh. "I knew enough about rodeo cowboys than to think I could have gotten any decent work out of him."
That summer the Legend and the Kid flew all over the West in Mahan's Cessna. They traveled to a few rodeos and gave motivational talks at a summer camp for Indians. They went fishing. They team-roped steers together. Like many 14-year-olds, Murray had trouble getting up in the morning, so Mahan used to roust him early and make him do 50 push-ups right there by the side of the bed.
"Larry's got a lot of energy," says Murray. "He always told me he'd just been out jogging for miles, though I wondered, because I never actually saw him jog. I didn't learn hardly anything from him about riding that summer, but I learned a lot about people, and I think that's helping me now. Larry can get along with anybody. He can meet a guy in an airport with purple hair and a ring in his nose, and before long it's like they're best buddies."
Whatever Mahan saw in his charge, the Kid didn't disappoint. To build up his upper body, Murray began a weightlifting program—two hours every other day—that he still follows. He took up gymnastics because he thought it would help him in rodeo. "It did, too," says Murray. "Hell, I loved it. If I didn't know what rodeo was, I'd probably be a gymnast."
In 1987 he won the National High School Rodeo all-around title. That fall he enrolled in a two-year school, Odessa (Texas) College, mainly because of its proximity to a number of PRCA rodeos. "The friends I had rodeoed with in Arizona didn't have the same ideas I had," says Murray. "I wanted to get my pro card the day I turned 18 and try to win a world championship. Rodeo's a sport that you can compete in professionally and collegiately at the same time. My friends all wanted to stay amateur."
The first year he was eligible to turn pro, in 1988, he was the PRCA Rookie of the Year, winning a total of $45,977 in the three rough-stock events. However, he failed to make enough in any one event to qualify for the NFR. In '89, Murray won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association's all-around, saddle-bronc and bullriding titles. Professionally, he qualified for the NFR in both the bareback and the saddle bronc—one of just two cowboys who were eligible that year in more than one event. The other was his Uncle Butch, who had qualified in the steer wrestling and calf roping.
Myers had a $2,786 lead over Murray in what became a friendly family competition for the 1989 all-around title. Inspired by the huge poster of the all-around buckle hanging in the entrance to the arena, Murray placed in the money on seven of his 20 horses and won $58,031 at his first NFR, $21,202 more than Myers. He became the youngest all-around champion ever—surpassing Shoulders, who had gained that distinction at 21 in 1949—and the first cowboy to win the national intercollegiate championship and the PRCA all-around crown in the same year.
Murray's goal this year was to qualify in all three NFR rough-stock events, which he accomplished easily, despite suffering a broken right elbow—that's his riding arm—in May and missing five weeks of competition. The accident occurred in the saddle bronc, when Murray's toe got hung up in the stirrup for an instant as he bucked off. The horse's hind leg clipped Murray on the elbow as he fell. "Everyone says the bulls are the most dangerous event and the saddle bronc's the safest," says Murray, "but—knock on wood—I probably got on 200 bulls this year without a scratch. It's not like any of the events are safe. But you can stay out of a lot of wrecks by having a little horse-sense, knowing what a horse or a bull is thinking. I learned that from my dad."
No amount of horse sense could have saved Murray from his saddle-bronc wreck that final Saturday of the NFR. When a sky-pawing, out-of-control bronc gets it into his head that he's going to buck himself onto his back, there's not a lot anybody can do about it. "I don't care how long you've been around rodeo," says Butch Murray, "it scares you when you see something like that."