Ty Murray was born to be a rodeo star in fact, his first words were "I'm a bull rider." Before he was even out of diapers, he was climbing atop his mother's Singer sewing machine case, which just so happened to be the perfect mechanical bull for a 13-month-old. Before long, Ty was winning peewee events by the hatful, and his special talent was obvious...obvious even to a man called Larry Mahan. At the time the greatest living rodeo legend, six-time champion Mahan invited a teenaged Ty Murray to spend a summer on his ranch learning not just rodeoing but also some life lessons. Those lessons prepared Ty for a career that eventually surpassed even Mahan's own Ty's seven All-Around Championships.
In King of the Cowboys, Ty Murray invites us into the daredevil world of rodeo and the life of the cowboy. Along the way, he details a life spent constantly on the road, heading to the next event; the tragic death of his friend and fellow rodeo star Lane Frost; and the years of debilitating injuries that led some to say Ty Murray was finished.
He wasn't. In fact, Ty Murray has brought the world of rodeo into the twenty-first century, through his unparalleled achievements in the ring, through advancing the case for the sport as a television color-commentator, and through the Professional Bull Riders, an organization he helped to build.
In the end, though, Ty Murray is first and foremost a cowboy, and now that he's retired from competition, he takes this chance to reflect on his remarkable life and career. In King of the Cowboys, Ty Murray opens up his world as never before.
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King of the Cowboys
By Murray, Ty
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Chapter 1: The Cowboy Way
"So," he said, "why do you do it?"
I've been giving interviews most of my life, so this one was nothing unusual. We were outside the locker room at a Professional Bull Riders (PBR) event sitting on a stack of portable seats, the kind you'd find on an arena floor during a concert. The reporter asked some intelligent questions - it's always nicer when these guys have done their homework - but after a few minutes he asked that question, the one I'd heard more than any other since I'd begun riding.
The people who ask that question are always sincere. After several thousand interviews I expect it. But I still have a hard time answering it, not because I don't know why I'm a cowboy, but because the concept of the cowboy way is so foreign to some people that I have a hard time boiling it down to a simple sound bite.
"I'm a cowboy because I've always been a cowboy," I said to this reporter. It was the umpteenth time I'd used that line, but I wasn't sure my media buddies got it. "I was born to it."
The reporter's eyes glazed over, and I knew I needed to do a better job of explaining myself. As far as I was concerned, asking a cowboy why he's a cowboy is like asking a Frenchman why he's French. Still, I needed to give it another shot.
"A cowboy is a cowboy no matter how he makes his living," I said. "Not all of us wear chaps and hats. You'll find plenty of cowboys wearing Brooks Brothers' suits on Wall Street, or playing in the NFL. Those real estate developers who borrow millions to build big office towers, a lot of them are cowboys. The cowboy way is about how you approach things, whether you're talking about a businessman, an artist, or a housewife. Being a cowboy is in your DNA. You either have it or you don't."
I still wasn't sure I was getting through to this reporter, so I tried another tack. "Look. When I won my first all-around championship, I was twenty years old. Almost every reporter asked me if I was surprised by how well I'd done so early in my career. That seemed funny to me. They asked it as if I just woke up one morning and found a gold buckle on my belt. I'd been working to win that first all-around championship since I was two years old.
"Being a cowboy was never a conscious choice. I never considered doing anything in life other than rodeo.
"Why do I do it? From the time I was old enough to walk I've always known where I wanted to go with my life, and I grew up in an environment where if I worked my butt off every day, I knew I would get there.
"I do it because it's all I've ever wanted, and all I've ever known. Not a lot of people can say that."
My cowboy genes run deep. Riding and ranching have been my family's trade for almost a century, and our history mirrors the history of rodeo itself. Near the turn of the millennium I was given the nickname "the king of the cowboys," but at the turn of the last century, members of my father's family were blazing trails that make my life look tame by comparison.
The Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch, which at its peak was the largest working ranch in America, encompassed 110,000 acres near the town of Ponca City in northern Oklahoma between Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kansas. According to one of the brochures the Millers printed in 1910, "The 101 Ranch is the wonderspot and showplace of all the great southwest. Here is ranching in all its old-time picturesqueness. Here are the thousands of cattle and horses, the unblocked trails and cattle pastures, the unchanged cowboys and the Wild West cowgirls, the round-up camps, the corrals, and many tribes of primitive Indians living undisturbed in wigwam, lodge, and rough house."
The Millers also raised buffalo, ostriches, camels, elephants, sea turtles, and poultry. They grew wheat, apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, corn, potatoes, and oats. The ranch had its own oil wells that pumped fuel to run its vehicles, which included its own fleet of trains with 150 freight cars and Pullmans. They had their own bank with their own 101 Ranch currency called Miller Script, which could be spent at a general store with a tame black bear chained to the hitching post out front. The store advertised everything "from a needle to a Ford," but the bear was particularly fond of soda pop. Miller Script became so popular that it was accepted within a hundred-mile radius of the ranch (and was not infrequently used to pay off gambling debts).
The spread was so large it had its own power plant, oil refinery, phone system, post office, school, tannery, ice plant, laundry, saloon, café, woodworking shop, packing plant, cannery, and dude ranch. It also had some of the greatest and some of the most notorious cowboys in history working as hands.
George Washington Miller (the founder of the 101 and father of the brothers George, Joe, and Zack) had been through his share of scuffs with the law, a tradition he passed on to his sons. Joe was a convicted felon, and all the brothers were linked at one time or another to questionable activities. It shouldn't have surprised anyone that the Millers didn't check the backgrounds of their hands. Some of the cooks, cowhands, wranglers, and roustabouts were thieves, rustlers, and cold-blooded killers. But the Millers never seemed to mind. As long as you were a tough cowboy willing to work, you were welcome at the 101.
Ranching was a profitable business, but the brothers saw other opportunities. With the invention of the automobile, the Wright brothers' breakthrough at Kitty Hawk, the completion of the cross-country railroad, and the industrial revolution in high gear, a lot of Americans longed for a reminder of the old West. The Millers happily obliged. With so many great frontiersmen working and living on the ranch, Joe, George, and Zack began producing the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, a riding, roping, steer-wrestling, and trick-shooting extravaganza. The show was a big hit. Teddy Roosevelt came to the 101 to see it. So did John D. Rockefeller, William Randolph Hearst, General John Pershing, and Admiral Richard Byrd, who toured the ranch on an elephant not long after returning from the north pole.
These famous visitors and thousands of others like them paid to see the cowboys at the 101 do what they'd been doing in their spare time for free. After a day of working cattle, groups of hands would gather by the Salt Fork River and entertain themselves by riding bulls and broncs and wrestling steers. One of the most famous of these cowboys, a black man named Bill Pickett, got so mad at an uncooperative steer one day he jumped off his horse and bit the steer on the nose, holding on with his teeth like a bulldog. From that day forward Bill Pickett was considered the father of bulldogging.
It seemed odd to the cowboys that folks would pay to see them ride, rope, and shoot, but they weren't complaining. Bill Pickett became a star showman, one of the main attractions. The show got so popular that the Millers took it on the road, traveling from New York to California with cowboys, Indians, cattle, and horses in tow. When Hollywood started producing moving pictures with cowboys and Indians, the 101 provided the talent.
Just before the Christmas of 1911 the citizens of Venice, California, woke up to a surprise when they looked out their windows. There, perched on Venice Pier, were one hundred Ponca Indians with their tepees. The Indians, along with seventy-five cowboys and twenty-five cowgirls, were in town to film a movie, even though none of the participants had ever seen a moving picture show. But the new actors didn't stay ignorant very long. Hollywood silent-movie stars such as Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, and William Eagleshirt got their start as hands on the 101, and as performers in the Wild West Show.
The movies netted the Millers a fortune, but it was the live performances that drew the biggest crowds. In a 1929 Time magazine article, the show the Millers had created was described as "the incarnation of that vanished West in which cowboys had not become associated with drugstores and Indians were not graduates of Carlisle. Begun informally, casually, when the Millers permitted some of their cowboys to perform at a local fair, the 101 Ranch Show grew into a circus that netted the Millers a million dollars a year. Sideshows it had, and freaks, and many a Bearded Lady and Human Skeleton. But it was essentially a Wild West Show, with buffaloes and cattle, cowmen and cowgirls, pistols and scalping knives, and the sure-fire big scene of the Attack on the Stage Coach, with round-eyed, heart-pounding spectators writhing on the edges of pine-board seats." Little did the Millers know they had created what would become the modern rodeo, an American tradition that would outlast them all.
Buffalo Bill Cody rode in the 101 Show. So did a young Will Rogers, who did rope tricks on horseback. The U.S. army even allowed its most famous POW, the Apache chief Geronimo, to ride, shoot, and skin a buffalo in the 101 Show for the entertainment of the fans.
Among those who performed regularly were a group of cowboys known as the Schultz brothers. There were seven of them: Walter, Guy, Clarence, Troy, Will, Grover, and Floyd. Guy wrangled with Bill Pickett, rode broncs, and bulldogged buffalo. As part of the show he would jump from the running board of a Ford to bulldog a steer or a buffalo. He also rode the Hall of Fame bronc Midnight. Along with his brother Floyd, the two Schultzes were considered the best wild-horse racers and relay racers of their day. They were also great cowboys, something they never forgot even as they were traveling the countryside performing.
Guy was billed as a "champion bronc buster," and he toured Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland riding bareback and saddle broncs for folks who'd never seen a real cowboy. In the summer of 1915, Guy toured the country with boxing champion Jess "the Great White Hope" Willard, who had won the heavyweight title by knocking out Jack Johnson in the twenty-sixth round of a fight in Havana, Cuba. Willard joined the show and was billed as "a cowboy from Kansas," even though he was a boxer first and a cowboy second.
Walter Schultz was a well-known mugger on the ranch. In those days there were no bucking chutes, so the mugger's job was to hold the bronc while the cowboy got on him. It was a tough job for a serious cowboy, and Walter fit that bill. While his brothers traveled, he stayed on the ranch, which suited him better. A young Potawatomi Indian girl had caught his eye, and Walter wasn't too interested in hitting the trail, even if it was for places like Chicago and Hollywood.
When the girl, named Josephine Papan, turned fourteen, Walter married her and moved her into his tent along the banks of the Salt Fork River. Life was hard, but simple. Walter continued to work as a mugger, while Josephine strung trotline across the river, sometimes catching catfish that weighed over a hundred pounds. She would string the fish up from a nearby tree and clean them like you would skin a buck. They bathed and drank from the river and cooked on an open fire. For the Schultzes, the Wild West wasn't something you had to see in a show. It was the way they lived every day. In time they had a daughter they named Georgia. And Georgia is my grandmother.
My great-grandfather and his brothers were the original rodeo cowboys before anyone knew what a rodeo was. By 1932, the Millers were mired in financial problems brought on by the Great Depression. People were struggling to feed their families. Entertainment luxuries like Wild West shows were well down on most folk's priority list, so the ranch was no longer profitable. That same year Bill Pickett died of his injuries on the ranch when a bronc kicked him in the head. Later, with the debts mounting and the Depression raging, the great 101 Ranch went bankrupt. Now all that's left are photos, a few scattered buildings, Pickett's grave, and a cowboy legacy that has touched every one of us.
Georgia Schultz, my grandmother, grew up and married Harold Murray, my grandpa. In 1941 they had a son they named Butch. He is my dad.
Dad never lived on the 101, or The One, as the hands called it, but he grew up with the same cowboy values that his grandpa and great-uncles had learned on the ranch. When Dad was nine years old, his grandpa Walter and his great-uncle Guy took him out on a broncy colt. As Dad was getting the colt broke, a school bus full of football players rode by. The kids, being too full of themselves for their own good, started beating their hands on the side of the bus trying to spook the colt.
"Hey. You boys cut that out," Walter shouted.
All of a sudden the bus slid to a halt on the gravel road and the football team came filing off. It seemed the coach had told his team to go teach those two old men a lesson. They might have succeeded if it hadn't been for Walter's loyal old dog named Jim. According to my dad, "All he had to do was say, 'Get 'em, Jim,' and the dog would latch onto an arm and drag one of them off." The two aging, gray-haired ranch hands (with the help of Jim the dog) whipped an entire football team that afternoon. Nobody ever messed with the old men again.
Two years later at the ripe old age of eleven, Dad began work as Walter's free jockey, riding in match races in Oklahoma and Texas. Once again Walter was there, toughening him up every step of the way. "He had me riding racehorses without touching the reins," Dad said. "That'll sober you up pretty quick, especially when you're eleven years old and going thirty-five to forty miles an hour on a horse. But I figured the hurting I'd get from falling off was less than what I'd get from him if I touched those reins."
Dad's not a big man, but by the time he was a teenager he was too big to ride racehorses. That's when he started breaking colts for a living, honing the horseman skills he would use for the rest of his life. By the time he was twenty, Dad was breaking fifty horses a year, working all week in the breaking pen and riding in rodeos on the weekends. He loved to compete in rodeos, even though he spent all week breaking horses. Horses were his life, and his passion. He loved them more than anything, with one exception.
Three days after Joy Myers turned eighteen, Butch Murray married her. Mom knew what she was getting into when she married a cowboy. She was a two-time world champion girls bull rider in the Little Britches Rodeo. In fact, she won the National Little Britches all-around title thirty years to the day before I won it. She also came from a great rodeo family. Her brother, my uncle Butch Myers, was a world champion steer wrestler.
Mom and Dad moved to Arizona, where Dad gained a good reputation for being able to break the toughest colts. Owners would send colts in by the truckload, because they knew Dad was the best. He worked from dawn till dusk every day, always giving it everything he had. There was no other way, because if you weren't giving it your all in the breaking pen, you were crazy and soon to be laid up with an injury. This was not a job where you could ever mail it in.
Excerpted from King of the Cowboys by Murray, Ty Excerpted by permission.
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