HOLY COWBOY

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

Sometimes he would learn days in advance of a rodeo that he had drawn a lackluster bull, one he wasn't capable of scoring on; instead of throwing away his travel costs and entry fees, he simply skipped the rodeo.

The National Finals bulls were well-conditioned athletes, bristling with muscle and confidence and heart. Some were acrobatic, some were like armored personnel carriers. All were menacing.

In an attempt to give every rider an equal opportunity to score, the bulls were grouped according to their technique. Each night, each rider was assigned a bull from the same group, or "pen."

There were "spinners," high scorers with predictable bucking patterns. "Semi-eliminators" were erratic bulls, difficult to read but ridable. "Eliminators" were the rankest bulls, downright mean and willing to dispatch a rider by any means necessary. They don't buck or spin so much as they convulse and spasm. Bull riders deride eliminators as "queers" and "fags." Cody says of them, "Some of these bulls will get you if they have a chance." He adds, "Some will get you even if they don't have a chance."

The National Finals culminated with the Cadillac bulls, beasts that buck hard but true. They might discard 90 percent of their riders, but a cowboy lasting the full eight seconds can count on a high score.

Of the 100 bulls at the National Finals, Cody estimated that he had ridden 20 before and had seen another 60 or so buck. Bull riders keep a catalogue of bulls in their heads. At the National Finals, as they waited in a cramped locker room, spitting and watching the preliminary events unfold on a TV monitor, they talked about bulls--or "bools" and "bowls"--in a lexicon to bewilder the uninitiated:

"When I covered him in Salinas, he went hard to the right." Translation: The rider made the whistle on a bull that spun right immediately out of the chute.

"Oh, he turned into my hand and rocked hard and he felt so good." The bull spun into his riding hand and, to the rider's elation, bucked hard for points.

"He's catty. That sumbitch'll jerk you down and bust your face." An erratic eliminator with a penchant for bringing riders over his head and into his path. "That's a cheatin' fag bool." An eliminator with no consistent bucking pattern.

"He's a nice, honest bool." He bucks consistently throughout the ride.
The rodeo cowboys converged on Las Vegas from real cowboy places like Porcupine, South Dakota; Checotah, Oklahoma; Hackberry, Louisiana; and Minatare, Texas. Real cowboys with names like Joe Beaver, Jake Barnes, Kyle Wemple, Tee Woolman, Tuff Hedeman, Dee Pickett. They would ride animals with names like Dog Face, Red Heat, Megabucks, Wolf Man, Badlands, Dark Alley, Thunderhead.

Like Herefords to a salt lick, the cowboys were lured by a $2.6 million purse. Thomas and Mack Arena sold out every night for ten performances. The Strip was awash in a sea of Resistol hats, snuff-stained sidewalks and this year's cowboy fashions--brilliantly colored shirts with Indian designs. This is the kind of penny-pinching crowd that waiters complain about.

It's a milieu where people respect the America embodied by the Old West, where a rodeo announcer can get a laugh by introducing the new Miss Rodeo America and bellowing, "We're gonna put some blisters on her bottom." It's a place where 17,000 people spontaneously stand up and remove their hats at the appearance of the Stars and Stripes, even if the National Anthem isn't playing and even if the man carrying the flag is on the back of a galloping buffalo.

Rodeo, baseball and basketball--all trueblue American sports. But if competitors from 100 years ago were summoned to watch now, only rodeo cowboys would recognize much of their sport. Rodeo is one of the few sports that grew up from vocational roots. Cowboys originally roped cattle and broke horses because they had to. But that doesn't explain bull riding. No wrangler ever had to get on a bull to survive.

Despite their glamour-boy status, bull riders retain a refreshing air of humility. They are courteous and accessible and are convinced that it is the height of privilege to tie themselves to wild horned beasts. "I love it. This is the only true sport left among professional athletics," says J. Pat Evans, the head trainer at the National Finals. He should know. Evans served as team doctor for the Dallas Cowboys for 20 years and for the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA for 12. "These guys are so unspoiled," Evans says. "They compete at their own expense. They have no guaranteed contracts, no fringe benefits.

"If you told a pro basketball player to pay his own way to a game, then told him he had to pay an entry fee and then told him he might or might not get a check for it, how far do you think he would go?"
Some bull riders rely on sheer strength--sticking fast to the animal like a slug on a leaf in a high wind.

Cody isn't that way. He rides with finesse, smoothly flowing in response to the animal's movements, an extension of the bull itself. Assessing his riding style, his peers often employ the word "natural." And they say he's got "a lot of try."

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