Portrait of a Rodeo Cowboy: David Bothum, Who Won the 1977 Calgary Stampede

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“Let ’er buck.”

Those three words may mean nothing to you or me, but they mean everything to a rodeo cowboy. They don’t give meaning to his existence; they are the meaning of his existence.

In those three little words float all the hopes and dreams, pain and strife, blood, sweat and tears of every man who ever dared try to make a living in the dusty arenas from sun-kissed Wauchula to icy Calgary.

Those words mean something else, too. They speak a special message, in the language known only by a few: “Hey, cowboy. Those 20 hours you just spent in the back of a borrowed station wagon? That last home-cooked meal you had three weeks back? That little ache that you ignored until it was too late? And every other sacrifice you made and step you took to get here tonight?

“Well, they don’t mean a damn thing. Now. Now, is when you work.”

David Bothum knows this. For a stretch of five years or so in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bowthum was one of the country’s greatest athletes you’ve never heard of.

He was born and raised in Silverton, with a stint here and there in other small towns. In the summer of 1977, he was living at the Three Rivers Ranch in Canby.

He was 23 years old, four years into his professional rodeo career. He started on bucking horses when he was 16, and learned the trade from his uncles.

He competed in high school rodeo and the amateur Northwest Rodeo Association before he hit the big time, breaking into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1973, at the age of eighteen.

Pee Wee Rodeo, Little Britches rodeo, Junior rodeo, high school rodeo, intercollegiate rodeo and a host of amateur associations feed into the PRCA. You make it there, and you’re in with the big boys. The roughest competition in the world; the meanest, hardest bucking broncs and bulls; and the richest payout of all.

Bothum cut an unusual figure in the rodeo world. Freckle faced and sandy haired, he had a playful, nonchalant air, more like an “aw-shucks” sort of all-American boy than a driven athlete competing at the absolute pinnacle of his sport.

He loved arcade games, and would often blow off steam on long road trips with rounds of Pac-Man or Space Invaders. A favorite snack was a mixing bowl full of cold milk and Trix cereal, which he ate standing at the kitchen counter at home or on the road — wherever he happened to be.

He harbored secret dreams of a second life as a country western singer, and was known to suffer bouts of impromptu karaoke, singing along to Conway Twitty on the radio, with an empty diet Pepsi can for a microphone. Alas, as his wife and friends well knew, the boy could not carry a tune.

Professional rodeo was surging in popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, driven by a host of factors. Their cumulative purses each year totaled in the tens of millions. They sold more tickets than the NFL.

In the summer of ’77, Bothum launched himself onto the national stage by being named the North American Saddle Bronc Champion. He claimed the title by winning the world-famous Calgary Stampede in Canada, eh?

It was an upset, to say the least. Bothum entered the final round tied with future Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer Joe Marvel. But everything broke right for Bothum that night, and in his final ride he earned a perfect score, 100 out of 100.

He went home to Canby with the trophy and the purse — $2,300, which was a little low even for those days. Marvel would go on to win the World Saddle Bronc Riding Title the following year.

In was also in 1977 that Bothum suffered a devastating loss, which would deeply impact him for the rest of his life, and make him ride all the harder. It was the loss of his friend and traveling partner, Mick Whitely, who died beneath a bull at Englewood, Colo.

“We shared the goal of making the Finals,” he would later tell a reporter. “I knew how much he wanted to make it, and that just made me want to get there more.”

He got there. From 1978 to 1982, Bothum ranked in the top 15 of nearly 2,000 PRCA saddle bronc riders, earning himself a berth at the National Finals Rodeo each year. In 1982, he ended the regular season ranked seventh in the world, with winnings of nearly $30,000.

He rode 100 rodeos a year in his prime, often competing 10 or 12 times a week, scattered over half a dozen states. In this business, this kind of schedule is called “rodeoing hard,” as opposed to “rodeoing easy,” which means eight hours a day in a car instead of 16 or 20; one rodeo a day instead of two or three.

No one puts more hours into his work but gets paid for less time on the job than a rodeo cowboy.

But it eventually caught up to him. It does to all athletes, of course, and rodeo cowboys have a shorter shelf life than most. Maybe it’s the brutal schedule: driving thousands of miles every week. Maybe it’s the stress: Rodeo cowboys get paid only if they win. If they get a bad draw, or a bad break, they get nothing. Better luck next time.

Maybe it’s the physical toll. In his day, Bothum competed with a broken ankle, a broken toe, a torn knee and separated ribs. In the rodeo business, this is known as an “injury free” career.

Whatever the reason, Bothum eventually retired to eastern Oregon, where he became a contractor running his own home-building firm. And in 1988, he helped found the Farm-City Pro Rodeo, which has grown into one of the central events in the region, drawing top cowboys from around the sport of rodeo and giving the small, blue-collar community of Hermiston one of the best shows on dirt.

Bothum continues to serve on the Farm-City rodeo board to this day.

Much of the material for this segment comes from a 1982 profile in Oregon Magazine by writer Teresa Jordan. We’re grateful for her permission in allowing us to pilfer liberally from her excellent piece.

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