HOLY COWBOY

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

"I just couldn't quit thinking about Stacey," Cody says. "I introduced this girl to another guy and went and called Stacey."
As soon as he could, he rushed back to see her. "During that week, he asked me to marry him. It was pouring rain and we had just returned from getting ice cream at the Dairy Queen," says Stacey.

Stacey's father did some rodeoing. That helped her settle into the life of a bull rider's wife. Death is no stranger to the sport. The rodeo world was stunned in 1989, when Lane Frost, the 1987 World Champion, died after being hooked and trampled by a bull in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cody has lost two other friends to bulls. "God's given me a peace about what Cody does," Stacey says. "I pray a hedge of protection around him. I have a fear of having to live without him, but I don't have a fear of him dying."

@rule:
@body:Cody's father, Jim Custer, is a heavy hitter on pro rodeo's God squad, and always eager to sing praises--literally. Before the assembled faithful said their benediction at the San Remo casino, Jim Custer rose to sing two songs, "Mendin' Fences" and "Champion of Champions," the chorus for which begins: "Take off your hat to the Champion of Champions/He doesn't care which end of the arena you come from. . . ."

The family's spiritual commitment was forged in tragedy. When Cody was 5, a younger brother, Brett, and sister, Connie, died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Flagstaff.

After many moves around the West, the family settled in Wickenburg, where Jim Custer founded Championship Buckles, an enterprise that produces the ornate golden belt buckles no true cowboy can live without.

In 1980, Jim was in a roping contest. His horse bucked him off and he landed on his head, rupturing six vertebrae, including the so-called "hangman's vertebra."

"I was the first one to him," says Cody, who was 14. "He was panicking because he couldn't feel himself breathing. I remember after they got him to the hospital, they said if he lived, he'd be paralyzed, a quadriplegic."
After two months of total paralysis, Jim moved the index finger on his left hand. Then he moved the big toe on his left foot. Gradually, sensation returned to his atrophied body. He was fitted with a halo brace and allowed into a wheelchair. He began physical therapy, and miraculously, Jim Custer began to fight back.

"I remember many times, watching him struggle and trying to walk, and he'd be crying like a baby," Cody says. Cody's mother, Dixie, took over the family business. "She held this family together," her husband says.

Cody pitched in, too, attempting to serve as a father figure to younger brothers Jim Bob and Danny. Jim Bob recalls, "The things you want your dad to be there for--like when you get down on your first bull--instead of my dad being there, Cody was there."

Jim Bob and Danny repaid Cody shortly after he got his PRCA card. He was broke and marooned in Wickenburg after being shut out at too many rodeos. The two younger boys took money they were saving for a go-cart and gave it to Cody so he could go ride more bulls.

Today, Jim Custer is officially disabled. But he walks confidently, covering a lot of ground. He rides horses and lives robustly. He hasn't regained all the feeling on his right side--probably never will--and he's developed the playful habit of grabbing casseroles barehanded from the oven and setting them on the table. During Jim's rehabilitation, therapists encouraged him to bolster his lungs by singing. He had been a honky-tonk singer in his younger days, and he found renewed fulfillment in song. Back on his feet, he continued singing. Last year he traveled to Nashville, where he made a ten-song album, Champion of Champions. He seems too soft-spoken to be much of a performer, but when the spirit moves him in song, the baritone strains are strong and clear and soothing.

The story of his recovery was broadcast on the religious program The 700 Club last spring.

"We really did get to see a miracle in our lives," Jim says, adding that the accident "was the best thing that ever happened to me--I began to learn patience."
But even while paralyzed, he retained an ornery streak. A psychologist kept coming round to ask Jim who he was angry at because of the accident. Who did he hate?

"I finally said, 'I don't hate anyone, but I'm sure tired of you.'" @rule:
@body:Despite its brutality and grit, bull riding is a sport of surprising nuance. The outcome is largely based on the performance of the animal, not the rider. Above all else, a rider wants his bull to spin and kick hard.

"If a bull runs or doesn't spin, you're not going to win. It's as simple as that," Cody explains. "You want him to turn back pretty quick out of the chute, hopefully into your hand"--the hand the cowboy grips the rope with.

Bulls are assigned to riders by lottery. Cody attributes much of his 1992 success to the fact that he consistently drew stellar bulls at high-stakes rodeos. And then he rode them.

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