Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010 | 3:27 a.m.
Ages ago, I worked as a sports writer in Redding, Calif., for the Record Searchlight newspaper. When you are a sports writer in Redding, you get to cover rodeo. Eventually.
It’s a rite of passage. When you have covered, say, 100 high school football games, you get to buck out some stock. Or, at least, write about the bucking of the stock.
There were two major rodeos in our coverage area at the time, the Redding Rodeo and the Red Bluff Round-Up. I knew little of rodeo before I would ever report about the sport. But I did learn something about that slice of American culture during the first year I was on the Record Searchlight staff.
It was before I’d ever set foot inside the gates of an event. I was working in the office, typing in track results because I’d not earned the honor of covering a rodeo. During my shift, the reporter who was assigned to the Red Bluff Round-Up returned from the first day of action.
He was dressed as a cowboy. Hat. Wrangler jeans and a bright white, western-cut shirt. Boots. Big ol’ belt.
And a notepad.
“What the hell are you wearing?!” I shouted. “Is this required attire for the Red Bluff Round-Up?”
“Attire?” he said, laughing. “They’re called ‘duds,’ and someday you’ll get the rodeo.”
The next year, I got the call -- but I never caught the rodeo bug to such a degree that I dressed as a cowboy. I do remember walking into my first rodeo and reading a bumper sticker on a weather-beaten Ford F-150 that read, “I Go Nuts for Wrangler Butts.”
I learned what such terms as “cowboy guacamole” and “cowboy lemonade” meant. I interviewed all variety of cowboys, ranging from the great all-around rodeo champion Ty Murray -- who walked into the chutes the day I talked to him by looking over the other contestants and saying, “Hello, girls” -- to the bullfighters who save the contestants from being flung, stomped and gored.
I saw a man die in the ring, too: A bull rider was pitched off the backside of his ride in the opening moments, dropped to the dirt and was stomped. A member of the medical staff hired by the rodeo to treat injuries walked away from the scene and said, “It’s not good. He’s got blood in his britches.”
That’s rodeo, all of it. The bulls and blood, the dust and mud, the roar of the Sunday crowd, as Wynn headliner Garth Brooks warbles. But this being Las Vegas, the rodeo is a spectacle that spills out far beyond the competition’s venue, in this case the Thomas & Mack Center. The National Finals Rodeo runs from Dec. 2 through 11, and I’ve secured unprecedented access to the event. Unprecedented for a journalist, anyway. The project is title Kats Goes Cowboy. Find the coverage on LasVegasSun.com/Kats and also by hitting NFRExperience.com, where the column also will be linked among the NFR’s official Web site information about the event. The official NFR Twitter page is @LasVegasNFR, and you can follow my characteristically aggressive event tweets via @JohnnyKats.
During the event, I’ll be shadowing NFR President Shawn Davis, the man whose vote broke a 6-6 tie to move the rodeo from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas in 1985. My first tidbit about Davis: His battle-scarred cell phone looks like it’s been through a bunch of rodeos.
I’ll be picking the brains of Las Vegas resort, tourism and even security officials so vital to the event’s success. I’ll be chatting up legendary announcers Bob Tallman, Boyd Polhamus and Randy Corley. I’ll find out what motivates the bullfighters to risk their own well-being to protect the competitors, and of course I’ll make my way over to the contestants vying for Miss Rodeo America.
Western-ized locales to visit will be South Point, Aria, MGM Grand, The Mirage, Palms, Wynn Las Vegas, Tropicana and Sam’s Town. Naturally, a stop at the Cowboy Hoedown on Fremont Street and a duck-into at Golden Nugget are on the agenda, as is a reunion with Ricky and the Redstreaks at Studio 54 (I seem to remember catching their show at Stardust in 1999, in a torrent of beer quaffing and table-dancing). Trade shows, meetings, a session in the chutes, autograph sessions and conversations with vendors and fans are in the offing.
To better match the rodeo’s sensibilities (and unlike the old days in Northern California), I’ve consented to a Dodge City makeover. The good people at Boot Barn, specifically good person Michael Hull, who is a salesman there and a dang good one, led me through the process. I learned so much.
Every piece of clothing is designed for a purpose. The Resistol felt fur hat is slightly sloped so rain can drip safely down the front. My Justin J-Flex boots have wide toes so my feet have space to breathe while walking several miles a night. The sides are equipped with quarter-size holes so I can pull them on with little effort. The Wrangler jeans issued to me are throwbacks to the company’s original design from 1897, so long ago that fashion design features were limited to any letter in the alphabet stitched into a back pocket.
I picked a pink Wrangler shirt for Wednesday’s “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” night and another blue number from the George Strait line, because every time I see George Strait, he seems to look pretty cool.
I’ll be properly outfitted, and I’ll get full run of the Ponderosa, as it were. It’s a monster of an assignment. I hope I’m up for the task.
If not, it can be said that he died with his boots on.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.