HOLY COWBOY

IN THE WIDE-OPEN WORLD OF BULL RIDING, CODY CUSTER WALKS THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW.

Cody Custer groaned and removed an ice pack from his aching back. Clad only in his underwear, he began the laborious process of taping a brace to his right knee. He had a trainer tape his right ankle, then wrap a huge Ace bandage around his thigh, waist and groin. He donned a truss before the trainer wrapped more Ace bandage around his waist and lower back.

Cody tugged his blue jeans over all the elastic and tape, pulled on his boots, buttoned his shirt and limped off to ride a cream-colored Charolais bull named Mighty Whitey. It was the second round of the National Finals Rodeo, and Las Vegas' Thomas and Mack Arena was full to the rafters, 17,000 strong. The Wickenburg cowboy was the favorite to win the world title. The leading money winner for the year, he would ride last, the premier rider in the premier event.

Bull riding is the last event in rodeo because it's what people wait to see. It's the only spectator sport in which a man faces an adversary so capable of inflicting mortal wounds.

In a few minutes, the bull in the bucking chute would rise up angrily, tossing hooves over the rim and rolling his eyes wildly. Cody would lower himself, half-kneeling and half-straddling, into the shallow swale behind his bull's shoulders.

He would bind his gloved left hand into his taut bull rope. The viselike grip tethers him to the bull for the required eight seconds--but also could hinder his escape from the 2,000-pound beast.

Cody would take a deep breath, push his black hat down on his head, raise his right hand and jerk a nod to the gate man.

A paroxysm of bull and man and dirt and sputum would issue from the chute. Mighty Whitey would kick with astonishing speed and agility, then spin in an amber blur. Cody would list for an instant, then whip the air hard with his free arm, spur the animal and right himself. Face set in a grimace, he would hoist himself up over his straining left arm, over the bull's reeling shoulders, chin down hard on his chest, right arm lashing, back straight. Cody's spine would be the very axis of the bull's gyrations. That's how Cody Custer of Wickenburg, Arizona, would win the first $11,367 of the record $68,825 he would earn at the finals. Rides like this one would help him earn nearly $200,000 during 1992. They would make him world champion, the best bull rider on Earth.

But on this night, before he would do any of those things, Cody would venture beneath the grandstand, where Mighty Whitey stood in a small stall. He would place his hands on the quivering creature and utter a fervent prayer:

"Lord, send Your angels to watch over me, to protect everyone here and protect the animals. Don't let me ride halfhearted. Help me go at it with everything that's in me, with all the talent You've given me, and I'll give You all the glory. Amen."
@rule:
@body:The room filled up with smiling people in cowboy hats and boots. Some herded little children along in front. Others carried dog-eared Bibles.

One of the last arrivals was Cody Custer. People nudged and nodded toward him as he walked in and found a seat. A man from the crowd was called on to give the invocation, and closed with the line, "We praise You for what's fixin' to happen."

Religion is a cottage industry in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Those so inclined can almost always scare up a prayer meeting or Bible study. There is an abundance of inspirational tapes of music, lectures and literature; books; pamphlets; even a newspaper called The Christian Cowboy.

Coy Huffman, a lanky man with a handlebar mustache and a minister of the Chandler-based Cowboy Church International, preached a message about Noah. There was a relaxed air as his congregation sang songs and raised their hands in supplication, murmuring "Praise God," "Amen" and "Hallelujah."

The worshipers were oblivious to the jangling slot machines and clattering cocktail bar just 30 yards outside the door. Not much farther down the hall was the site of the "Hanky Panky Revue."

This Sunday-morning revival was unfolding in the San Remo Hotel and Casino, which hunkers amid the glitter, greed and lust of the Las Vegas Strip.

Cody Custer steadfastly witnesses for Christ. When he rides bulls, his chaps proclaim, "Glory to God." When he hosts rodeo schools, the souvenir sweat shirts bear Scripture: "I can do all things through Christ." When he signs an autograph, he always writes, "Jesus loves you."

He "accepted Christ" in 1984, but didn't begin to live his beliefs until 1988. While recovering from surgery to repair a damaged ligament in his right knee, Cody read the Bible.

"Right then I started seeing the way God wanted me to be. I knew at the time some of the things I was doing wasn't right," Cody says.

Cody says he's sowed his last oat, quaffed his last brew, smoked his last joint and punched his last jerk. Still, Cody doesn't harshly condemn his colleagues who booze and womanize. "Everybody's got to come to a point for themselves where they see life isn't one big yahoo," he says. "But I don't rodeo with guys who drink and party. I don't feel like I should have the burden of going to drag them out of the bar."

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