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Faces of the rodeo: Fans and a legend return decade after decade


James Cheng / msnbc.com

Legendary calf roper Dean Oliver, 81, an eight-time world champion, still comes to the National Finals Rodeo every year, working as a grip for a television crew so he can stay close to the action.

LAS VEGAS – With eight world titles in calf roping and three all-around championships on his resume, Dean Oliver is a rodeo legend.

His name carries a lot of weight, and he probably could use it to score just about any seat in the house at the National Finals Rodeo if he wanted. But Oliver is not the kind of guy to take something for nothing. Besides, to him, he already has the best seat in the house.

Oliver, 81, has worked as a grip on a television crew for the past 10 years. He takes his job seriously, keeping the camera man’s cable curled up nice and neat and tucked out of the way, not unlike the rope he learned to master more than 60 years ago. The job allows him to roam with the cowboys by the bucking chutes and to bask in the atmosphere he loves.

“I used to sit up in the grandstand and watch it, then I got a chance to do this,” Oliver says in the measured, relaxed tone of a man at home in his environment. “It’s kinda fun.”

Unlike many rodeo competitors, Oliver was not born into the sport. His father was a pilot -- not a rancher – near Boise, Idaho. He would fly coyote hunters low to the ground, letting them lean out the door and shoot the predators to keep them away from the sheep. If anything, Oliver expected to end up a pilot like his father. But when his dad died in a plane crash, a 10-year-old Oliver, one of seven children in the family, was thrust into the working world. He worked at ranches and dairy farms, toiling all day for three or four dollars.

When he was 15, Oliver snuck into a rodeo with his brother and watched a calf roper win $300, and “that kinda planted a seed in me.” Oliver had no background in rodeo, and neither did his family, so he taught himself how to rope fence posts. He soon bought a horse and started competing in amateur rodeos.

“I wasn’t very good because I didn’t have any calves, but it didn’t take me long,” Oliver said. “I just kept improving that way.
“When I got to where I was winning a little I bought some calves and then I got to practicing more, then I started winning. I just liked it. It was fun, more fun than working on a dairy farm all day.”

When Oliver was 25 he bought a farm, paying $60,000 for 80 acres. He has upgraded since then, but still lives just outside of Boise and still raises cattle and hay to this day.

Oliver has seen much change in rodeo during his 60-plus years in the sport. He says calves nowadays tend to weight about 200 pounds, as much as 150 pounds lighter than they were in his day. He also says the athletes are quicker, and he marvels at the level of talent in his sport.

“Cody Ohl, Fred Whitfield, Trevor Brazile, Stran Smith, the Cooper brothers, all of them are tough,” he says. “They’re quick. They’ve been roping since they were 10, 11, 12 years old. I never even started roping until I was 20. So you can see the advantage of them.”

And Dean Oliver has the best seat in the house to watch them work.

James Cheng / msnbc.com

Long-time rodeo fans Berth and Jack Watson take in the action at the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010. Jack, 86, and Bertha, 79, have attended every NFR since 1959, when the event took place in Dallas.

Some people are rodeo fans, but to place that label on Jack and Bertha Watson would not do them justice.

The Watsons have attended every National Finals Rodeo since 1959, watching the event in Dallas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and for the last 25 years, Las Vegas. That’s the same vacation each year for 51 straight years, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jack Watson, 86, a former bull and bareback rider who also fought in World War II in the Pacific theater, says that he and Bertha, 79, pack their car each winter and leave their home in Ruidoso, N.M., for the NFR. They choose driving over flying because, as Jack puts it, “we’re here 15 days and take too many clothes.

“I don’t like being X-rayed (at the airport) because I’m bashful,” Jack says with a grin, motioning to his wife, “I don’t want them looking her over, either.”

They have witnessed many memorable moments in their 51 years attending the National Finals Rodeo, but Jack didn’t hesitate when asked his favorite: having prime seats to watch Freckles Brown ride Tornado in 1967 in Oklahoma City. In a six-year career, Tornado never had been ridden, and Brown, a month shy of his 47th birthday at the time, seemed an unlikely candidate to pull of the feat.

“He was an impossible bull,” Jack says, shaking his head, “and Freckles was the first one to ride him.”

But it’s the everyday moments and the family atmosphere that keep the Watsons coming back year after year.

“The families are all together,” says Bertha. “They help each other, like if you have a son or daughter who wants to compete. So it’s really like now it’s one big family here with all the contestants and their families. That’s what good people are.”
And they don’t plan to stop coming to the place they love the most.

“We’re gonna be here at every one,” Jack declares, “because when we die, we’re gonna have them put our ashes out in the arena so we’ll still be here.”

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.