Donnie Gay recalls his rookie year bull riding at the Cody Stampede Rodeo in 1972.
He was in slack, at an hour when early party-goers just going to bed crossed paths with morning workers carrying their wake-up cups of coffee.
Then, since it was Cowboy Christmas over July 4, he sped on to other rodeos in Red Lodge and Livingston, Mont.
“I had bulls for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Gay said.
However, few spectators alert for Gay’s Cody debut knew what they were seeing, or what it presaged.
By 1974, Gay was the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National world champion for the first time. By 1984, Gay had eight of those titles on his resume, the most ever. And 35 years later, Gay is still the king, the winningest bull rider ever.
At 66, long retired from putting his body through the churn, grind and danger of challenging 2,000-pound bulls for eight seconds at a time, Gay is still very much connected to the Stampede.
Gay will spend his patriotic holiday in Cody this year in three capacities.
He and partner Dan Miller will record an hour-long TV show on the 100th anniversary of Xtreme Bulls-Stampede, June 30-July 4. Gay and a handful of others dubbed “Legends of Rodeo” will wave to crowds on Sheridan Avenue as they populate the grand marshal float in the Stampede Parade. And Gay is general manager of Frontier Rodeo, the stock supplier for the Stampede.
“Our bucking horses and bulls are second to none,” said Gay, who flies his own plane to rodeos. “Cody is a favorite stop on the rodeo trail. I love playing golf up there.”
When Gay is coming in for a landing in Cody, probably flying his Cessna 310, he makes sure to steer over the Olive Glenn course.
Gay jokes that his landings in that plane, or the jet he flies 500 mph, are “much better than they used to be.”
Softer, he means, than when the bulls tossed him skyward.
All in the family
Gay and Dan Miller, the local singer, have been rodeo announcing partners since the 1980s. This will be their fifth year making a Stampede show.
Currently, a tape of the 2018 Stampede is running nonstop at the Buffalo Bill Center as part of the museum’s “Whoop It up” 100th anniversary exhibit.
“I’m with the best bull rider ever,” Miller said at show’s start.
Not only could Gay ride well enough to classify as a legend, he is a world-class talker. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Gay had more fun rodeoing or what he does now describing it.
“We’ve done hundreds and hundreds of rodeos,” said Miller, dating back to Mesquite, Texas, in 1985. “I give Donnie all the credit. He’s one of the great blessings.”
Gay’s father, Neal, began developing the modern version of the long-running Mesquite rodeo on the outskirts of Dallas starting in 1957.
Donnie was born in 1953, but his mother died of leukemia when he was a year old. He and older brother Pete were raised by Neal and his second wife, Kay.
Neal’s Mesquite rodeo and roping partner was Jim Shoulders, the greatest cowboy of his generation as a 16-time world champion, starting in 1949. Seven of those were bull riding crowns.
At times when Gay was a little boy, Shoulders, who died in 2007 at 79, might well have hoisted him on his shoulders. Before Gay chased the record of “the Babe Ruth of rodeo,” Shoulders was a frequent babysitter.
“He was like a second father to me,” Gay said. “Jim Shoulders, he was my hero.”
All these years later, Donnie Gay, Neal Gay and Shoulders are all members of the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Donnie Gay was not yet out of first grade when he announced he wanted to ride bulls for a living. Not only was he fortunate to reside in a ranch environment, comparing it to a bat boy who became a Major League baseball player, have a father who produced rodeos, and an “uncle” who was the best in the world, at 5-foot-7 and 148 pounds, he had the perfect build for an event that favors shorter and lighter men.
Gay was interested in other sports, particularly football, which is halfway to being religion in Texas, but that flirtation ended abruptly when his coach forbade him to hang out with cowboys, claiming they were a bad influence.
That insult so infuriated Gay he told off the man and walked away from the sport, as the coach additionally accused him of being a quitter.
That just focused Gay’s head and stoked his determination. He could not wait to leave high school behind and rodeo full-time. At 18, on the day he collected his diploma, he bid his parents goodbye and took off rodeoing with a half-dozen friends.
Gay left home with $400 and won more than $400 in his first rodeo in Illinois the next day. The guys all ate steak that night. He was most proud that he never borrowed money from his family to make his start.
He immediately began painting canvases eight seconds at a time that turned him into an artist and made him a Hall of Famer.
Sky’s the limit
Gay pilots planes 250-300 hours a year. At first flying was all about the most efficient way to get from rodeo to rodeo. Most cowboys team up and drive hundreds of miles together, divvying up the time behind the wheel and taking turns sleeping.
It helped being part of a rodeo operation where many of the best cowboys came to you. Gay and his father knew Larry Mahan, an eight-time world champion in all-around and bull riding – who is due to share the Stampede rodeo float next week with Gay in Cody.
Mahan flew to rodeos and gave Gay rides. It didn’t take long for Gay to breakthrough. He won his first world bull riding title in 1974, the first of four in a row. After missing out one year, Gay won another three times in a row through 1981, and added a last crown in 1984.
When Gay was closing in on tying Shoulders’ seven titles mark, the older man encouraged him.
“I brag about Donnie and I’m pulling for him as I would for my own son,” Shoulders said in the early 1980s.
Gay qualified for the National Finals Rodeo 13 times by the mid-1980s, but one of his most memorable rides occurred in San Francisco in 1977 in the old Cow Palace sports arena. He rode a bull named Oscar to a stunning score of 97 points out of the maximum of 100, which no one ever gets.
He admits that was a pretty subjective score and maybe a 95-point ride at the NFR was actually better.
Young Donnie Gay was probably more intense than senior-citizen Donnie Gay is. He likes to spend time sitting on his front porch in Texas, sipping coffee and smoking a cigar. One day when discussing the past, he sounded pleased, satisfied, content, or something like a word synonymous with those, as he watched his 93-year-old father drive a tractor around the property. The implication was the old man had yielded little to age, except, “He does have to have air conditioning.”
When at Stampede Park, Gay, who wears glasses now, can be seen in a black cowboy hat, perhaps a black vest over a light-colored shirt, in jeans and cowboy boots, occasionally offering advice on form to young bull riders.
If they wonder who this unprepossessing looking guy is, shame on them for not knowing.
Kanin Asay of Powell, retired from bull riding at 33, said when he hears Gay’s name he thinks, “He’s one of the greatest. He holds a lot of records, maybe some that will never be broken.”
When he was young, before injuries slowed Asay’s career, he said he wanted to be Donnie Gay, to become the world champion bull rider.
“That’s all I talked about,” Asay said. “That’s what I dreamed of.”
Asay said anyone who doesn’t know who Gay is now, “then you obviously don’t do anything in rodeo.”
Gay was enough of a celebrity during his championship years. His name transcended rodeo. He was the subject of articles by Sports Illustrated and People magazines.
Ben Williams, 56, who did some bull riding in his youth, and is now a member of the Stampede Rodeo board of directors, said when he was 14 years old, Gay was his hero.
“Donnie was in his heyday and he wore a red ostrich feather on his hat,” Williams said. “I had a hat with a feather in it just like him. I got an autographed picture of him when I was a kid.”
Gay put his own feathers in his hats as a young man, continuously building up an unrivaled record.
Miller and Gay will be collaborating commentators for this Stampede, a regular duet once again. More than 30 years ago they broadcast seasons of Mesquite rodeo on cable TV.
Gay was coming to the end of his riding career when they met, but Miller sometimes drove him to rodeos. Hours and hours of travel together can make friends or enemies.
“We have never had a cross word,” said Miller, who called Gay’s honesty one of his greatest attributes.
“Honesty is a hard virtue to come by,” Miller said. “I find that refreshing.”
Mike Darby, currently co-president of the Stampede board, said one day he walked out of his Irma Hotel and spied someone who looked familiar just relaxing in a parked car. It was Gay, inhaling a cigar.
“He’s a class guy,” Darby said. “He’s just a regular guy. He tells you how it is. Eight-time world champion. That’s for real.”
Bull riding is as real as it gets in sport. The comparative size of man versus animal is a mis-match. The animal is ornery, the man determined.
No one, even the best, walks away unscathed from years of bull riding. Gay was punctured in the side by a horn, tore stitches out by not resting, earned stitches to the head and had four knee surgeries. Which does not mean he took advisable lengths of rest time. In rodeo, if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid.
“If you’re not confined to bed, you’re not hurt,” Gay said. “As a bull rider, it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when. First place, that was what you were entered for. I did everything to win.”
And win he did, more than anyone who came before him and anyone else who has followed over the next three-and-a-half decades.
For the first time since 1984, though, there is a challenger on the horizon, someone who could surpass Shoulders and Gay both. Sage Kimzey of Strong City, Okla. has won the last five bull riding titles and he is only 25. Kimzey, who always rides in the Xtreme Bulls and Cody Stampede, is a threat.
“He’s got five in the bank,” Gay said. “I’m happy he does. I’m probably one of his biggest fans.”
Gay said he will cheer for Kimzey the way Shoulders cheered for him if it comes time for a royal passing of the baton.
He made his name through riding, but open and engaging, Gay spent years as the announcer at the NFR and on other TV shows. He makes personal appearances for Frontier Rodeo and does radio spots.
“He is the best at what he does, and he is the best ambassador for the sport,” Miller said.
Gay never really left rodeo, he only changed jobs from making a living with his body to making a living with his mouth.
He said sometimes people ask him after all of these years in the limelight if he gets tired of posing for pictures and signing his name.
“I’m just glad to be remembered for a good thing,” Gay said.
Good thing? Others may upgrade eight world championships to a great thing.