The legend and the kid finally crossed paths in a half-lit hallway beneath the concourse of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Legend, 47-year-old Larry Mahan, winner of six Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) all-around titles in the 1960s and '70s, was staying at the Sahara. The Kid, 21-year-old Ty Murray, had a room at the Tropicana. It had been eight days since the $2.3 million National Finals Rodeo (NFR) had begun, and they hadn't run into each other once.
Which was odd, because these two, in addition to being friends, are members of rodeo's smallest fraternity. They are the last two cowboys to qualify for the NFR in all three rough-stock events: bareback, saddle bronc and bullriding. Only the top 15 money winners in each event are invited to the NFR, the Super Bowl of rodeos, and to qualify in even two events is rare. To qualify in three—well, it just doesn't happen very often. Tom Ferguson had qualified in calf roping, steer wrestling and steer roping in 1979, but no one had qualified in all three of rodeo's glamour competitions, the rough-stock events, since Mahan in 1973—until the Kid did so this year.
The Legend grinned at his prot�g�. "Fun, isn't it?" said Mahan.
Murray's eyes came aglow. Already he had won more money at this year's NFR than any other cowboy—$62,598 and counting. His performance at the NFR had also made him the first rodeo cowboy to win more than $200,000 in a single year and the youngest ever to win the PRCA's all-around title twice. He had been interviewed and photographed and compared with the greatest cowboys in the history of the sport—with Jim Shoulders, with Casey Tibbs and with Mahan. Now the Legend, the man Murray had considered a god when he was a boy growing up outside Phoenix, had put his finger on what the Kid was feeling. "Nobody's asked me that all week," said Murray, "but it sure is fun, you're right about that. I'd do this for free."
Fun? Twenty-four hours later, on Saturday, Dec. 8, no one was talking about fun. Same two cowboys, same hallway, only this time the faces were tense, and no words were exchanged. Earlier that evening Murray had pocketed another $10,220 by winning the ninth of the 10 go-rounds in the bareback. However, his luck took a turn for the worse in the saddle bronc, when the black devil named Bo Skoal that Murray had drawn bucked over backward as he was leaving the chute with Murray in the saddle. If Murray hadn't been able to squirm off to the side as the horse toppled, he might have broken his back. As it was, the 1,200-pound gelding landed on Murray's right knee, and then mashed it a few times while thrashing to get up. "Just some freak deal," said Mahan of the accident, "which is the way it usually happens. That's really the blues for Ty."
Murray, ashen cheeked, with purple pockets beneath his pale blue eyes, was wheeled on a stretcher past Mahan and down the hallway to an ambulance that took him to Desert Springs Hospital for X-rays. The X-rays were negative, and the injury was diagnosed as a severe bone bruise. But it remained doubtful whether Murray, who still had a chance to win the world saddle-bronc title, could ride on Sunday, the final day of the NFR. "He'll ride," said one rodeo announcer. "If it ain't broke, he'll ride. You don't know how tough that kid is."
In an age when rodeo, like other sports, has moved toward specialization, the 5'8", 145-pound Murray is a throwback. He's of that breed of cowboy who, once he takes the time to go to a rodeo, is going to climb onto anything that bucks. Similar as the three rough-stock events may appear to casual fans, each requires not only distinct physical skills but a distinct temperament as well. "They're as different as night and day," says Murray. "The guy who wins the bareback is the guy who has the most gas. He's got to expose himself the most." Translation: A bareback rider must ride as theatrically as possible, giving the judges the impression of both flamboyance and control.
The saddle bronc is nearly the opposite. "It's a technique event," says Murray. "A perfection event. You're trying to make the rankest horse look easy."
And the bulls? "The whole thing there is not getting bucked off," says Murray. "You've got to be able to think ahead and react."
Mahan has a simpler view of competing in all three events. "I never thought of it as being hard," he says. "To me, it meant three chances to win instead of one, and I always liked those odds. But there's not many that can do it. The three-event cowboy was a thing of the past before Ty came along.