Neal Gay’s weekly Mesquite Championship Rodeo is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Neal’s son Don hopes to celebrate a record eighth world championship in bull riding by season’s end.
Article by RANDY WITTE • Photography by MESQUITE CHAMPIONSHIP RODEO
I gave up calisthenics long ago when I traded a lackluster part-time rodeo career for the more comfortable life of a fan. But there was a time when I performed a full battery of daily exercises—push-ups, sit-ups, running, the whole sweaty works. And it was during this period 10 years ago last December that I was sharing a hotel room with several others in Oklahoma City during the National Finals Rodeo.
None of us were Finals contestants—we were either has-beens or hopefuls in rodeo—but we were working at the NFR in various capacities. I remember staggering out of bed early one morning to begin my ritual of self-torture. I puffed through 50 jumping-jacks and was preparing to endure the push-ups when one boarder, stock contractor Carl Murphy of the old Rocky Mountain Rodeo Company, raised up from bed and peered at me over a pillow, observing this ludicrous scene with contempt.
“You make me sick,” said Murph, who really sounded sick as he collapsed back into bed. Murphy’s a little abrasive in the morning, but a good-natured sport otherwise. I recall the Finals when he flanked one of his bucking horses and forgot to let go of the flank strap. The horse left the chute and Carl was jerked into a full gainer, landing in the arena at the end of the gate. The crowd loved it.
Anyway, I completed the exercises, and by that time some of the others were up—the late Randy Spears, a talented rodeo publicist, and Don Gay, a high school senior from Mesquite, Texas, who at age 18 was already a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
That was the first time I met Don, and more than anything I remember his workout that morning. He was dressed and ready to walk out the door when he hesitated. “Those exercises are a good idea,” he said. ”I better do mine.”
He proceeded to do three quick push-ups and three sit-ups, then walked out of the room, ready to face the day; he was going to watch the Finals that night and help around the chutes. I wasn’t impressed with Don’s exercise routine, but sensed he was in better physical condition than I, and was no doubt turning into a capable bull rider.
I watched him ride the following month in Denver. Cy Taillon was announcing, and he simply told the audience that Don was “a bull rider from Mesquite, Texas, and son of rodeo stock contractor Neal Gay.” Don made a good ride.
He traveled to other major rodeos that winter and spring, and still graduated from high school in June. Don had been eager to compete full-time, and he would hit the road with blessings from Neal, whose only stipulation had been that Don complete school before he embarked on a rodeo career. So with diploma in hand, the life of freedom and travel, pain and glory, was Don’s for the taking.
Don’s older brother Pete was also competing. Don entered saddle bronc and bareback riding as well as bull riding; Pete entered bareback and bulls, and steer wrestling occasionally. Both qualified for the Finals’ bull riding for the first time in ’72, and Don finished the season 8th while Pete was 13th.
In 1973, Don and Pete made it back to the Finals. Pete had concentrated solely on bull riding that year, and led the standings early in the season. But Don was beginning to take command of the event, and by Finals time he and Bobby Steiner, son of stock contractor Tommy Steiner of Austin, Texas, were locked in a head-to-head duel for the world championship. Don led for the title at one point, then Bobby regained the lead, and it all came down to the last bull.
Don drew the Bull of the Year, a big Charolais named Mr. Bubble, owned by Billy Minick of Fort Worth, Bobby drew a Scotch Highlander owned by Carl Murphy. Don could win his first bull riding title by conquering Mr. Bubble and taking first. But, as it turned out he missed the qualifying buzzer by a couple of seconds, and the title went to Bobby, who rode his bull.
In the hotel lobby that night Neal Gay stood with one arm around Don, the other around Jeana Day, a family friend who finished second in barrel racing. “Here’s two runner-ups, and you can bet they’re gonna be back next year,” he said.
They did return. As for bull riding, Don’s third Finals was the beginning of an era in the event, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the competitive days of Jim Shoulders. Last year, at Don’s tenth consecutive Finals, he tied the Shoulders record of seven bull riding championships. This year Don is working toward number eight.
The Mesquite Championship Rodeo is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The weekly contest—every Friday and Saturday night, April through September—is PRCA-sanctioned, and its home is Mesquite, Texas, near Dallas and Fort Worth. The rodeo, in a word, is successful; there is a covered arena and ample livestock; ESPN Cable TV televises the competition into millions of homes, and spectators either in the grandstand or in front of television sets are assured of seeing some of the top rodeo hands in North America competing at Mesquite.
Neal Gay started the rodeo in 1958, in partnership with five friends—Jim Shoulders, Ira Akers, Bob Grant, Harry Tompkins, and rodeo clown D.J. Gaudin (the Kajun Kid). Neal was named managing director, and Jim Shoulders was elected president of the corporation. Of the five, Shoulders is the only one still involved with Neal in the rodeo, and he still serves as president.
Neal was raised in Dallas, and as a youngster enjoyed visits to a relative’s farm on the outskirts of town, where he rode calves for fun. He didn’t really get involved in rodeo, though, until after World War II when he returned home from the Coast Guard and went to work in his dad’s garage. A bronc rider named Tex Lewis used to drop by, and one day Tex asked Neal if he would like to enter the bronc riding at a contest over in Garland.
He had never been on a bucking horse, but Neal entered the rodeo and nearly made the whistle. He climbed on his second bronc at another nearby rodeo the following night and won first place for $35. That hooked him—he joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association and become an all-around hand who frequently ranked among the top 10 saddle bronc riders in R.C.A. standings.
Neal liked rodeo life, but when his first son, Pete, was born in 1952, Neal felt the tug of responsibility and decided to settle down. He needed to be a father, and he needed a job that would allow him to be home each day. He opened a used car lot on the former site of the old Pleasant Mound Rodeo, where he had won the $35 for his first successful bronc ride. Six years later, the site became home for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo.
Neal will never forget opening night. A man had come by earlier and offered to parachute into the arena at the start of the performance for publicity purposes. “Well, he came by on opening night,” recalls Neal. “Only one hitch. He missed the arena and got tangled up in a bunch of wire about 100 yards away.”
The Mesquite rodeo was not an instant success. “We tried different things to get people to come out,” says Neal. “We even tried cowboys versus Indians basketball games in the arena. The rules were simple. Anything was legal. The only requirement was that you had to be horseback to score a goal in baskets hung up on each end of the arena.”
The winning team would get $10; the losers $5. Neal finally gave up on the games. “It got too rough,” he says. “Those guys actually used to get into fights.”
The rodeo became more accessible when Interstate 635 was built nearby, and in 1964 Neal added an arena roof, so spectators would be comfortable even if it rained. Gradually, the contest began to attract more and more spectators. It became a popular source of entertainment for area residents, and also afforded young cowboys a place to practice and compete with some of the top contestants in the nation. There are many in rodeo who got their starts at Mesquite; one of them is twice world champion saddle bronc rider Monty Henson, a family friend who grew up with Don.
Neal Gay has long been a respected stock contractor. He produces a limited number of other PRCA rodeos in addition to the Mesquite contests, and his special “Western spectaculars” —a blend of rodeo action and other entertainment—are popular with convention groups. Neal also has become a source of bucking stock for other stock contractors, particularly in the bull department. Some of the most formidable bulls in the last 20 years got their start at Mesquite.
Cross-bred Brahmas like the legendary Tornado—voted best bull of the National Finals five times during the 1960s, and now buried at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City—started his career at Mesquite before Jim Shoulders bought him. There were others, like Booger Bear, top NFR bull of 1968; Tiger, owned by Billy Minick when he was named best at the ’72 Finals; and Ringeye, the top bull of 1974. Most recently, Mesquite’s Ruff and Ready was voted top bull of the 1980 Finals. Bulls like The Honker, Mission Impossible, Sandy Jo, Lightning, Billy Bob, and the fierce high-horned fighting bull Buster have all been part of Mesquite, and the National Finals.
Last year Mesquite Rodeo Corporation had five bulls selected for the Finals, in addition to four saddle broncs and four bareback horses.
Neal continues to locate and purchase good prospective bucking stock for his own use and for sale to others. He maintains around 400 animals on two ranches near Mesquite, and employs 30 people. The entire family is also involved in the operation, including wife Kay, a good barrel racer and all-around hand who is in charge of the saddle horses, doubles as costume designer for the flag bearers, and also does much of the official timing for the contest events.
Pete Gay, who qualified for a third Finals before retiring from full-time competition, devotes his efforts to the family business. He and youngest brother Jim are pickup men at the rodeos, and Jim, 18, also won the 1981 bull riding and all-around titles in Texas high school competition. Don’s wife of five years, Terri, serves as rodeo secretary.
Don helps out whenever he’s home, but full-time rodeoing doesn’t leave much time for home life. Riding bulls and winning championships is his business; when the day comes that Don puts his bull rope away for the last time, he’ll become a stock contractor.
Don flies his own twin-engine Comanche to most of the rodeos these days, and the plane has a distinctive paint job. Late in 1981, he signed a promotion agreement with Miller Beer, and the plane now carries the Miller logo on the tail; lettering over the fuselage reads: “Miller High Life Flying Cowboy, Seven-Times World Champion Bull Rider Don Gay.”
The cowboy is a businessman, and he continues to make more money on the backs of bulls than anyone in the history of rodeo. In 1974, when he won his first championship, he set a new earnings record for the event—$32,917; with his second title in ’75 he earned $34,850; in ’76, $38,812, and in ’77, $41,574.
Don set another earnings record in 1978, even though he didn’t win the championship. From 1976 through ’78, the world titles were awarded strictly on Finals winnings. Don had come through with the biggest wins twice, but in ’78 he lost the title to Butch Kirby; Butch won $15,000 at the Finals that year, Don was second with $10,000, but his year-end total was still a new high of $48,275.
The system reverted back to what it was originally for the 1979 season, and Don won the championship with $59,999. His sixth title came in 1980, with $60,639; the seventh was earned in ’81 with $63,907. Figures are fine, but when fans think of Don Gay they probably don’t think of the money he has won. Most likely, they’ll think of specific rides they’ve seen him make, either on television or at rodeos they have attended. By virtue of the stock, many of these have occurred at the Finals: he set an NFR record in ’74 when he rode Bull of the Year Tiger for 94 points; he set a new NFR record with a 95 on Red One in 1976; he conquered the swift spinning bull Oscar for the last time in 1977, during a “ride off” for the championship with Randy Magers.
In recent years, rodeo afficionados have watched him overcome pain and adversity at season’s end. He showed up for the ’79 Finals with 63 stitches in his left side from injuries suffered at a rodeo only a few days before. In ’80 he had his ribs torn in the fourth round, and came back to win first the next night with a 77 score. Last December, Bull of the Year number 105 added injury to insult when he bucked off Don in the first round and mauled him. Don went to the hospital for eight stitches in his head, and returned to ride and win—business as usual.
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