By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
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."
@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."
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."
At the same time, he's impatient with born-again friends who frown on his embrace of a sometimes savage institution. "A lot of Christian people try to separate themselves from the world," he says, "but you just can't do it."
Cody recently rejected a lucrative endorsement offer from Anheuser-Busch--$10,000 a year, plus expenses, to wear a small beer logo while riding bulls. Similarly, he abstains from drinking, primarily because he fears some youngster might see him.
PRCA rodeo fans like the clean-cut image. They selected Cody as their favorite cowboy for 1992. He won over cowboys much more in demand with advertisers.
"He's not flashy, but he's so sincere, he just draws people to him. Maybe it's that religion he's got," explains one woman who waited to get an autograph from Cody.
His born-again little brother, Jim Bob, a rising star in saddle broncs and bull riding on the PRCA circuit, says, "For the most part, you don't hear the snickers. Every now and again, a friend who knows better asks me out for a beer. 'Just checking,' they'll say."
Anyway, there are no atheists in a bucking chute. "Sometimes you'll see the wildest guys stop and pray before they ride," Jim Bob says.
@body:Cody Custer--it sounds like a stage name for a matinee cowpoke, but it's his own. He was born to ride bulls.
A month before she gave birth, his mother rode in a cattle roundup. His father is a former bull rider and steer roper. Cody's formative years were spent on or near ranches in Arizona, around livestock. His earliest recollection is of swinging a rope. His father had 30 steers. For fun, Cody rode every steer, every day. When he was 8, he won $20 in a calf-riding competition. He rode his first bull when he was 13 at a junior rodeo in Payson.
"After that I just craved to ride bulls. I'd get on purt-near anything," he says. "It's hard to explain, but any athlete can understand the drive when you get something in your system. You just want more and more."
He's been on plenty of bulls--2,000 and counting.
Cody lives in the rolling-hill town of Wickenburg and talks with a soft twang. Family legend says his great-great-grandfather was a cousin of General George Custer. A maternal great-grandmother was a full-blooded Choctaw.
Cody played baseball as a youngster and wrestled in high school, but rodeo was all he cared about. He went to junior college on a rodeo scholarship, but spent most of his time partying and roping. He quit and got his Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association card, got religion, got disciplined, got a world title.
He's not a flamboyant or self-absorbed champion. He's frequently tardy for appointments because he likes to linger and chat with well-wishers. He's serious much of the time, yet a grin occasionally steals over his face, betraying a fondness for mischief. Gary Cooper would play the lead role in the Cody Custer Story.
Cody has dark, coarse hair, dark eyebrows and a ubiquitous five-o'clock shadow. His wire-rim glasses ride low on his nose, concealing rugged features. Like most good bull riders, he is not big. At five feet nine inches and 145 pounds, he's wiry all over with sharp corners--sharp chin, sharp nose, sharp elbows, sharp knees. At the same time, like all good bull riders, he has well-developed biceps, shoulders and thighs. And forearms by Rodin.
He walks slowly, tending to drag a leg. His hitched gait might be periodically aggravated by scrapes with bulls, but it's perpetual. One of the few places Cody looks graceful is on the back of a bull.
Cody married Stacey Dupuis, a striking Cajun brunette, two years ago. They are expecting their first child this spring.
They live in a small wood-frame house, not far from the highway through town, or their church, or the school where Stacey substitutes, or from Cody's parents' little eight-acre spread on the bank of Hassayampa Creek.
"In Wickenburg, everything's nearby," Cody says.
The house of the world-champion bull rider has no lawn. The only memorable decor in the tidy interior is a collection of belt buckles and trophies Cody has won riding bulls. The couple has neither the time nor the inclination for decorating. Cody travels incessantly--to 89 different PRCA rodeos alone in 1992. He puts 100,000 miles a year on his automobile, and probably flies a third again that far.
Cody and Stacey are a match made in heaven. She entered his life after he'd been rodeoing professionally for four years. He was weary of the nomadic and sometimes seedy lifestyle--the inexorable progression of rowdy towns, smoky bars, friendly girls. Cody stopped carousing in 1988, dedicating his life to Christ and beginning an earnest search for . . . well, for Stacey.
He found her living with friends, a married couple in Louisiana. The man of the house was a rodeo buddy of Cody's, but when Cody called, he got Stacey on the line instead. They hit it off. The calls became frequent. They discussed everything--rodeo, life, their faith in God--for a month before they met.
"It was really weird," Stacey says. "I knew when I met the plane, I was probably fixing to lay my eyes on the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with. We had both been praying for the type of person that the other person was."
Cody had to leave Stacey to go ride bulls. On the first night out, a friend set him up with a date.
"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."
@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.
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."
For Cody, bull riding is not complicated. He endeavors to apply the same basic principles each time: Keep the arm in the bull rope cocked to absorb the whip and control the torque; keep his free arm in front of the brim of his hat; stay off the seat of his pants, with his shoulders over the bull's shoulders; dismount to the left whenever possible to reduce the chances of getting his left hand hung up in the bull rope. Pray.
"I try to get into my little bull-riding mode or zone," he says. "You've got to try to block out the distractions. If a friend rides ahead of you and he gets hurt, you've got to just block that out and take care of business. If you don't, that's when you get hurt."
Pain is an occupational hazard. While a bull's horns can be lethal, hooves inflict most injuries. So do the fences the bulls ram riders into.
"I don't know how many calls I've gotten over the years at three in the morning from some cowboy somewhere on the road," Evans says. "They say, 'Doc, I've had two six-packs and it still hurts.' So they call me."
Cody's had surgery to repair a damaged ligament in his right knee and to repair a shoulder prone to dislocating. He's had numerous concussions. When he gets knocked out, he generally thinks he's in Oklahoma City when he comes to. That's where he had his first bad concussion.
The wrist bones of rough-stock riders actually increase in size; nerve problems develop. They often have arthritic elbows that can't be straightened out. Carpal tunnel syndrome, the scourge of computer jockeys, is not uncommon in bull riders.
Cody lives with it. "Bull riding is a second-nature deal for me. It's a high-risk occupation and things can happen. I understand the risks."
His powers of concentration crystallize on the back of a bull. "When I get bucked off, 90 percent of the time I know the exact reason why."
And when he does, he has learned to put it behind him and look forward to another ride. But there are also times, especially for new pro cowboys, when the pressure weighs heavily. Sometimes, a rider has to win to finance travel and entry fees for the next rodeo. The alternative is to go home and fix fence.
"I've written hot checks to pay my entry fees before," Cody says. "I think we all have."
@body:Cody Custer's face clouds up when he talks about the financial side of bull riding. He ponders the dangers, compensation and wealth of his sport compared with other professional sports. And he seethes.
Good Christians don't like to rock the boat, but when it comes to bull riders' rights--or some of the more rapacious promoters--Cody will admit he has a chip on his shoulder. He doesn't see any inconsistency being a religious man and fighting for his safety, or his pocketbook.
Bull riding's popularity is growing so rapidly, it's beginning to exceed the bounds of traditional PRCA rodeo.
Mr. Lucky's, the cowboy saloon on Grand Avenue, built an arena for bull-riding competitions Friday and Saturday nights. Business is booming.
And more substantial promoters are organizing events for professional cowboys that feature bull riding only. They are attracting the demographer's dream animal--the yuppie. A bull-riding event at America West Arena last Saturday drew 18,000 people--a sellout.
Cody and other top competitors, cognizant that their careers are finite, have formed a union, Professional Bull Riders, Inc. Cody sits on the board of directors.
Some of their demands have to do with safety. They want qualified bullfighters to protect them and approved stock that know how to buck, are "chute-broke" and whose horns have been tipped.
Some of their demands have to do with pay.
Although gross prize winnings of some cowboys look impressive, expenses are staggering. "I can count on it costing me $1,000 a week when I'm on the road," Cody says.
"Everybody's trying to get on the bandwagon where bull-riding events are concerned, and unless we stick together, the promoters are going to make the high dollar and we'll be prostituted like we have been the past ten years," he says.
Professional Bull Riders has also set up a profit-sharing plan and hired Pro Serve--a sports consulting company that represents the likes of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and Boomer Esiason--to inject some corporate dollars into its sport.
"We're trying to get this sport into the 20th century, marketingwise," explains Jeff Slack, a Pro Serve representative. "These guys are generally marketable, but nobody's tried to make personalities and stars out of these guys."
Not surprisingly, rodeo's old-timers are uneasy.
"I don't like unions. I'm sorry," says Cotton Rosser, a California stock contractor who sits on the PRCA board. He adds ominously, "There's a lot of bull riders in the country. I don't think we'll ever run out of bull riders."
And Evans, the doctor who's seen professional sports from all angles, warns, "I think it's got to be handled very diplomatically, so it doesn't go the way of baseball, football and hockey, where the players' salary demands get out of hand. I think that would harm the sport."
Cody and his fellow riders say they have no intention of abandoning the PRCA circuit. They say the exposure Professional Bull Riders gets for bull riding will benefit rodeo across the board.
But the fledgling organization made its point at the National Finals. The PRCA has an exclusive contract with a company called Rodeo America, which creates and sells PRCA-approved shirts, hats, jackets, trading cards and so forth. Rodeo America makes the official jacket given to all National Finals contestants, and it bears the Rodeo America insignia.
But PBR members refused to wear the maroon jacket during this year's event. Instead, they showed up with their own red PBR jackets, making a subtle but significant statement: If Rodeo America profits because pro cowboys wear their jackets, the bull riders want a cut.
Cody speaks with urgency about PBR's mission. "I'm closer to the end than the beginning," he says of his career. "I've been rodeoing full-time for a third of my life, and I want to get something more out of it than saying I've seen a lot of country or met a lot of people. "Heck, I know former world champions who are mucking stalls," he says.
@body:Cody Custer limped down the hallway of Humana Sunset Hospital in Las Vegas. He was on his way to fulfill a request from a patient, a rodeo fan named Valerie Wright-Giddings, 22, gravely ill with complications from a kidney transplant.
When she caught sight of Cody, her face lighted up perceptibly. "Oh, my gosh. Oh, my word," she gasped.
For the next hour, Cody and two fellow bull riders stood in the stifling hospital room, talking and joking easily with Valerie. Word of their presence spread, and curious nurses and patients strolled past the room and peered in.
Cody says he fears speaking in front of strangers more than riding bulls, but as he prepared to leave, he asked, "Do you mind if we have a prayer? We're Christians."
He removed his black hat and spoke without hesitation. "Lord, we pray for Valerie and ask You to send Your healing power. We know that all things are possible through You. We thank You for Valerie and we'll keep her in our prayers. Amen."
Then Cody put on his hat and limped off to ride a bull named Hurricane Hank.