Legends are forever

Saturday, October 30th 2004, 3:51 pm
By: News On 6

ADA, Okla. (AP) _ Over the years, rodeo like baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer has had its share of superstars, but, like those other sports, it has had only one or two performers who have truly reached legendary status. Jim Shoulders is a member of that exclusive club.

Shoulders was the top cowboy of his era. When he retired in 1959, he had won 16 world titles, and been world champion all-around cowboy five times. He rode bulls like nobody before him, and like very few since, and captured the imagination of rodeo fans everywhere.

When his sport got around to building halls of fame to honor its greatest competitors, Shoulders was in the first class of honorees each time. He is in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Champions in Colorado Springs, he was at the groundbreaking and was enshrined with the first group at the Cowboy Hall of Fame (now the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum) in Oklahoma City, and he is the only professional cowboy honored in the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame in New York.

As a whole, New Yorkers don't know a lot about rodeo. But they do know about legends.

Before Troy Aikman was a twinkle in his parents eyes, Jim Shoulders was Henryetta's favorite son. He was born there in 1928, and he still lives there with Sharon, his wife and companion for the past 57 years. But, because people like to see and touch a legend from time to time, Jim and Sharon have spent almost as much time on the road as they have in Henryetta over the past half-century.

``Rodeo has been good to me,'' said Shoulders. ``What I've got I owe to the rodeo business.

``I've made a lot of good friends and got to do a lot of things I would never have gotten to do.''

At 76, Shoulders is the elder statesman of his sport, an ambassador whose legend has reached almost mythic proportions. Most of the people who shake his hand never saw him in action, but just about every one of them knows that he was something special.

Shoulders brought the sport of rodeo into the mainstream. Cowboys became sports stars because of him and some of his contemporaries in the 1940s and 50s. In fact, he was the first rodeo star with an endorsement deal (he has represented Wrangler since 1948).

Shoulders said that bull riding, although it gets a lot more exposure now through such events as the Profession Bull Riders (PBR) tour, hasn't changed that much in 50 years.

``It's no different,'' he noted. ``Some guys ride using balance, and others use strength. The guys who ride the best have a combination of balance of strength, and that hasn't changed.''

He said the biggest difference between his era and today's rodeo is in the numbers.

``Really rank bulls today aren't any ranker than really rank bulls back then,'' Shoulders explained. ``There are just so many more of them today. Stock contractors breed bucking bulls, and the PBR just picks the rankest bulls from all of those contractors.

``There are more good bull riders, too, because more guys try it,'' he added.

Still, while bull riding has remained virtually unchanged, the terminology is a little different now than in pro rodeos early days.

``I got knocked out a few times,'' he said when asked about the injuries he had sustained during two decades of competing in one of the worlds most dangerous sports. ``But they hadn't invented concussions yet.

``Now, when a cowboy gets a concussion, the sports medicine guys put a collar on his neck and take him to the hospital for observation,'' Shoulders said with a smile. ``Back then, when you got knocked out they just drug you out of the ring and poured water on you.

``I've had to buy a few teeth over the years, and I got my nose broken once in seven places,'' he continued. ``But I try not to go to those places anymore.''

Like a lot of legends, Shoulders retired, or tried to, at least, while still in his prime. His first ``retirement,'' in 1959, came just after he had won the bull riding and all-around cowboy titles at the first National Finals Rodeo in Dallas. By then, he had already been riding bulls more than half his life.

``I tried to retire, but people just kept wanting to see Jim Shoulders get on bulls and broncs,'' he recalled. ``I guess I didn't really retire. I just quit winning.''

Although he was a superstar in the early days of television, rodeo was rarely a programming choice for TV executives. A series of beer commercials two decades later made Shoulders a familiar face to a new generation of Americans _ many who weren't so much rodeo fans as they were fans of the product Shoulders was selling and showed him just how powerful a medium television could be.

``Miller Lite got a group of retired athletes together for some ads in the 70s and 80s,'' Shoulders recalled. ``There was me and (former New York Yankees second baseman and manager) Billy Martin, (Green Bay Packers linebacker) Ray Nitschke, (former baseball player and now Hall of Fame announcer) Bob Uecker, (former Baltimore Oriole) Boog Powell and some other guys.''

One of the most popular commercials had Shoulders teamed with Martin, a known brawler in his day who, as manager of the Yankees, once had a dugout altercation with slugger Reggie Jackson. In the commercial, Shoulders made a reference to ``punching dogies'' (a cowboys term for branding cattle), and Martin responded with a smile, ``I didn't punch that dogie.'' ``For years, I would walk through airports, and people would yell at me, I didn't punch that dogie,'' Shoulders recalled. ``I was world champion cowboy 16 times, and nobody recognized me; I make one damn beer commercial and all of a sudden everybody knows me.''

Although all of his rodeo successes didn't give him the exposure of one beer commercial, Shoulders said it was quite a ride, nonetheless. At least most of it.

``I enjoyed rodeoing when I won,'' he said. ``When you're laying under a bull and he's stomping on you, it's not as much fun.''

Nobody said being a legend was easy.