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Faces of the Rodeo: The man who provides the bulls and bucking horses

James Cheng / msnbc.com

Stock contractor John Growney, 62, left his family car business to get into the rodeo business instead, eventually building his small business into one of the primary providers of bulls and bucking horses for the National Finals Rodeo. He stops for a portrait on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010 in Las Vegas, NV.

LAS VEGAS – The stern eyes of the security guard brightened as he saw the thin, gray-haired man hop out of his pickup truck and approach the stock pens. The guard’s no-nonsense demeanor evaporated as he rushed to shake the man’s hand, thanking him for all he had done for the sport of rodeo.

The man, a smile plastered across his face, laughed off the compliment and exchanged pleasantries with his admirer. Such a scene is not uncommon wherever you see this man, an affable and sharp-witted 34-year veteran of the rodeo business named John Growney. It’s just the effect he has on people.

A 62-year-old rodeo stock contractor, Growney has the energy of a 25-year-old and the magnetic personality of a car salesman, only somehow more trustworthy. In fact, he once dreaded he was going to end up in the selling cars, as there was a strong call to join a family business started by his grandfather.

But through his own skills, some luck and perhaps a little help from above, the native of Red Bluff, Calif., eschewed the automobile industry and started his own stock contracting business, eventually building it to be one of the primary providers of bulls and bucking horses for rodeos on the West Coast, including this week’s National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

“What’s a car dealer’s kid doing in the rodeo business?” asks Growney. “Most people think I was born and raised into this business, and I wasn’t. When I was 28 I got into it.”

Growney dabbled in bull riding from high school into his 20s. That’s around the time he noticed “Bank of America was giving away money, and I said ‘I want to be in the rodeo business.’ And they put me in it.”

Having been a rodeo competitor, Growney had a few practice bulls and horses with which to start his contracting business. Eventually, he got enough to put on some amateur rodeos, and two years later a California pro rodeo company that found itself going out of business asked Growney to buy them out.

Perhaps the biggest break for Growney Brothers Rodeo, Co. came when a legendary bull named Red Rock, landed in his lap.
“I bought him from an amateur stock contractor who was dying of cancer,” Growney said. “And he went all over Oregon, Washington and California to look for a stock contractor who really took care of his animals, because he knew he was going to sell this great animal to us. So he picked us, and we were already doing really well in the rodeo business, but when we bought this animal called Red Rock, it just elevated us quickly to the top.”

When Red Rock was named bucking bull of the year in 1987, Growney pitted the animal against the top bull rider that year, Lane Frost, in a made-for-TV, best-of-seven showdown. Red Rock had never been ridden successfully in 309 attempts, but Frost rode the legendary bull in four out of seven tries, and rodeo had itself a hit.

“It turned out to be the biggest thing to ever happen to rodeo at that time, and rodeo actually reached outside of the rodeo world,” Growney said. “And then George Michael picked us up, and we were on ‘The Sports Machine’ every Sunday after we did one of these challenges. It just elevated us to the top.”

A year later at age 25, Frost was killed when he was gored by a bull in Cheyenne, Wyo. His career was later dramatized in the Luke Perry film “8 Seconds,” which included a cameo appearance by Growney.

It’s been an amazing ride for Growney, a journey filled with unexpected twists and turns, not unlike a ride on Red Rock. But the son of a car dealer has found his love, and he clearly enjoys every second of it.

“I have an uncle who was in World War II and he was 21 years old and a platoon sergeant,” Growney said. “And he said ‘I always surround myself with ranchers and farmers and cowboys,’ because he always knew they’d be there.

“I think we represent a lot of good and a lot of mannerisms, and I think we’re the kind of people you’d want your daughter to marry. A lot of us are a little rank, but still overall, I love this sport. Every year there are new kids coming in, and here I am and I’m older, and I don’t realize I’m a Mr. Growney. They all want to call me Mr. Growney and I have to correct them that my grandfather was Mr. Growney and for them to call me John.”

The family car business may have lost an edge when John Growney decided to blaze his own trail, but the sport of rodeo gained a pretty good ambassador in the process.

See more Faces of the Rodeo every day this week on Photoblog.

See Faces of the Rodeo: The cowboys. Get to know some of the top competitors in rodeo, and find out what they love about their sport.