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Bucking For Big Bucks
E.M. Swift
December 20, 1993
Cowboys risked their hides for cash and glory at the National Finals Rodeo
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December 20, 1993

Bucking For Big Bucks

Cowboys risked their hides for cash and glory at the National Finals Rodeo

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Cowboys don't cry. It's, like, this rule. Baseball players didn't cry, either, until they became multimillionaires and began to remove themselves from the lineup every time they felt a little stiffness in a shoulder. To a rodeo cowboy a little stiffness means he's wearing a cast. We mention this as a sort of history lesson. What baseball was in the days of train travel, skinflint owners, winter jobs, Gehrig, Musial and Campanella, rodeo is now.

Let an 1,800-pound bull smash a rodeo cowboy's face in the dirt, tap-dance on his rib cage and rearrange his teeth, and he still won't cry. He won't even complain, unless he can't ride his next bull or bronc. A rodeo cowboy doesn't get paid unless he's in the lineup.

Which is why all those fellas with the oversized buckles on their belts and the bandages on their chins were limping around Las Vegas last week, yanking on slot machines with whichever arm wasn't in a sling. The National Finals Rodeo was in town again, so it was time to call the paramedics. The NFR in Vegas is the Super Bowl of rodeos, a 10-day cowboy mashing in which every performance is sold out. The top 15 money-winners in each event over the regular season compete at the NFR for a total of $2.7 million and the world championship buckle, which is awarded to the year's cumulative leader in each event. Honorable mention goes to the guy who does the deepest face plant.

Who turfed the worst this year? Tough call. Was it three-time world bull-riding champ Tuff Hedeman, who was in fourth place and in good position to win another title until Friday night's eighth round (out of 10), when a Brahma named Dodge Magnum Power dumped the cowboy from Bowie, Texas, in the dirt? Hedeman was taken from the arena on a stretcher, suffering from temporary paralysis. He was found to have a herniated disk in his neck and a bruised spinal cord, and on Sunday he underwent surgery to remove the disk. He's expected to recover, but it's almost certain he has ridden his last bull.

Or could it have been Ted Nuce of Escalon, Calif., the 1985 world bull-riding champion who, moments after Hedeman was hauled off, suffered a terrifying fall off the appropriately named Slam Dunk? As the bucking bull whipped its head back, one of its horns smashed into Nuce's face, knocking him unconscious. Nuce then flew high in the air, flipped over and landed like a sack of dog bones. Nuce was also carted off on a stretcher and whisked by ambulance to University Medical Center. It turned out that Nuce had suffered only a cut lip and a concussion. Nonetheless, he stayed in the hospital overnight for observation, and he withdrew from the competition.

Those two falls paved the way for Ty Murray of Stephenville, Texas—who this year waltzed to his fifth straight world all-around title, with record earnings of $297,896—to take his first bull-riding championship, the first single-event title of his great career. ( Murray also finished seventh in the saddle bronc and fifth in the bareback.) Was he shaken when he saw Nuce and Hedeman dragged out of the arena? "It's not like it's a shock to the rest of us when something like that happens," Murray said. "The danger's there every time you get on. People have no idea what we do just to get to the NFR."

But people might have started to get the idea on the very first ride the next night, when Rocky Steagall of Clovis, Calif., was dumped by a horse named Crow Fairskoal. Writhing in pain, Steagall signaled for help. He, too, was removed on a stretcher, and Dr. J. Pat Evans, the attending physician at the NFR, said that Steagall had suffered a separated shoulder and reinjured his neck.

But the most dramatic fall of the week might have been the swan dive by 1992 world saddle-bronc-riding champion Billy Etbauer in the fourth round. It knocked him clean out. Etbauer recovered to win $106,193 during the finals, but he had too much ground to make up to defend his championship successfully, having missed 12 weeks of rodeos after undergoing back surgery in May to remove a ruptured disk. "After being crippled up all that time, I'm just tickled to be here," said the irrepressibly upbeat 30-year-old cowboy.

This year was the first since 1990 that an Etbauer did not win the saddle-bronc title. Billy's older brother, Robert, 32, who missed the entire year after undergoing two knee surgeries, won in '90 and '91. And the youngest Etbauer brother, 28-year-old Danny, was also in contention, finishing fifth this year. The Etbauers' unofficial fourth brother, Craig Latham of Texhoma, Texas—who logs some 120,000 miles a year with the Etbauers while hitting 100 to 125 rodeos—did his level best to keep the title in the van, but he was nosed out of the saddle-bronc championship buckle by Dan Mortensen of Manhattan, Mont., who won $150,062 to Latham's $142,814. The Etbauers are the genuine article—described by one rodeo insider as being "about as ranchy as you can get"—and they should have known it wasn't going to be their week when a carload of women pulled up beside them on their way to Wednesday's performance. Ogling their cowboy hats, one pretty woman signaled for them to roll down a window. Autograph request? A kiss for luck? "Hey, do you guys know Garth Brooks?" the young woman shouted.

"No, ma'am, we don't," Dan Etbauer replied. "But you have a nice night, O.K.?" He cranked up the window, rolled his eyes and muttered, "Holy buckets."

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