ARLINGTON, Texas – When he left he swore he’d never return.
Justin McBride’s announcement that he was retiring in the prime of his career was as surprising in October 2008 as it was hearing him say, “I’m back,” five years later.
Then again, to know McBride is to know a one-day event – THE AMERICAN – with a chance to win $1 million is the type of moment the one-time face of the PBR was (and clearly still is) all about.
The 34-year-old Nebraska native will be in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday after receiving a World Champion exemption to compete in the richest one-day rodeo in history.
McBride was the most popular bull rider in the world when he simply walked away from it all a year after winning his second PBR world title—leaving legions of fans, and even some fellow riders, shocked by the news.
“Holy cow,” L.J. Jenkins said at the time, “I would have never thought that he would do that. … I never saw it coming.”
Luke Snyder, one of McBride’s closest friends and travel buddies, added, “Shoot, in this game, everybody knows when they’re done.”
J.B. Mauney said, “You gotta hand it to him—he’s going out on top and he’s still riding good.”
Two-time World Champion Chris Shivers, who retired after the 2012 season thought it was a good decision.
“Whenever you feel like your dreams are fulfilled and then you don’t really want to do it anymore, then it’s not worth getting hurt over,” Shivers said.
“He’s that good that he can retire at a young age,” said Sean Willingham, “because he’s won so much already. It’ll be good for him.”
Leaving the sport when he did has only added to his legacy.
McBride’s announcement was something the 20 founders could have only dreamed of 16 years earlier when they gathered in that Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room and each agreed to write a check and invest $1,000 toward getting the PBR started. While a number of cowboys have become millionaires – 20 of them to be exact and four others are within $100,000 of the mark – competing at PBR events, it took the next era of riders to cycle through their careers before any of the founders knew with certainty their dream had truly been realized.
So on what was a dreary day in October 2008, McBride’s announcement solidified the then 29-year-old as being the richest Western athlete after earning in excess of $5.1 million, which to this day is more than anyone in history.
And if McBride has his way, he’ll add another $1 million to the total on Sunday to ensure he holds that record for a while longer.
A number of PBR co-founders can only smile.
For those whose rodeo career was spent traipsing the country from one coast to the other and back competing in as many as 120 rodeos or more, McBride typifies the career they once longed for.
“That was our vision,” Jerome Davis said, “that one day guys like Justin McBride would be able to do what he did—when you see that happen, it makes you feel good.”
Cody Lambert agreed.
“That’s exactly right,” Lambert said. “The PBR was designed for Justin McBride or Justin McBride was designed for the PBR.”
Ty Murray added, “He came in the PBR for 10 years, kicked the (crap) out of them and went home. That’s an admirable thing in my book. I like seeing that.”
The founders wanted to provide the hope of a better future for all the professional bull riders who came after them and, little more than a decade later, that hope was all McBride took with him to a bank when he asked for a multi-million dollar loan to purchase his Oklahoma ranch.
“I had won my first (World Championship),” he explained, “but I was still a long way from having what I needed to buy that place. I needed to win that other one.”
Having won the 2005 title, the Nebraska-native had laid claim to the $1 million bonus paid to World Champions in $100,000 installments over 10 years.
Putting his faith in accomplishing what only two men – Adriano Moraesand Shivers – before him had done, which is to win two World Championships, McBride bet his long term future on the success of the remainder of his riding career.
He was honest with the bankers in telling them, “I have at least $100,000 every year I can give you. I said, ‘That’s really the only promise I can make you.’
“But they knew exactly what you were able to win and everything like that and so they said, ‘When do you want to sign the papers?’ I didn’t even put any down. It wasn’t like they said, ‘You need to come up with 10 percent, 15 percent of it.’
“I signed my name on the dotted line,” he continued, “and then went and got busy.”
McBride is best described as a quintessential American cowboy.
He’s a fifth generation cowboy who represents the iconic imagery both personally and professionally.
In the traditional sense, just like his dad and grandpa – as well as another two generations of McBride’s before them – McBride grew up on a working ranch, bought one of his own in southwest Oklahoma with his wife and two children, and – after a brief return to their home state – they are now relocating to Texas.
Professionally speaking, McBride is a modern-day hero having won two World Championships – one in 2005 and another in 2007 – and laid claim to nearly every record in the organization’s history.
Only twice did McBride finish a season ranked outside of the Top 10 and during that eight-year stretch there were six years he finished ranked in the Top 5 in the world standings.
He was a model of consistency and only once – back in 2000 – did he finish with a riding average lower than 50 percent. In fact, he finished with an impressive career average of 56.29 percent.
He rode in 248 events, won a record 32 of those events and eight single-season event wins. Along the way he also recorded 72 scores of 90 points or better.
One of the most decorated bull riders in PBR history, the two-time World Champion was the first bull rider to ever win more than $4 million and eventually the only rider to this point to surpass $5 million. He also tops the list for the most money earned in a single season with $1,835,321.
In his 10-year career, McBride set an extensive list of records, including 32 career event wins; the most money earned in a single season ($1,835,321); and eight single-season event wins, among many others.
Despite how others felt about his place in the sport – best friend J.W. Hartthought he was leaving another pair of buckles on the table – McBride’s comments in 2008 were sobering.
“I just don’t like doing it anymore,” he said, “so I’m quitting.”
McBride later explained, “I have done what I wanted to do—win a PBR world title. Now I am in a position to go out while I’m healthy and still riding well. I mean you can get hurt crossing the street, but there are more risks involved with bull riding. Now that I have a family and a child to think about, I want to be able to retire and enjoy my life with them and not be a crippled bull rider.”
Following his surprising retirement, he chronicled the only way of life he’s ever known as a singer and songwriter of tried-and-true cowboy music.
Long before he climbed on the back of a bull he grew up listening to Hank Sr., and before he was even a teenager he discovered the music of Chris LeDoux—a World Champion bareback rider-turned-musician.
Just as he once followed the lead of bull riding heroes like Jim Sharp andClint Branger, McBride followed in the footsteps of his earliest musical influences.
He released his first album Don’t Let Go in 2009 and followed a few years later with Live at Billy Bob’s Texas.
Whether it was a honky tonk song filled with the odor of stale beer and day old cigarettes or in conjunction with the lifelong familiarity of a PBR event, McBride went out and played one show after another.
Within a year of focusing solely on his music career, he sang a pair of songs on the stage of the famed Grand Ole Opry. Six months later he performed in front of more than 46,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium during the intermission of the first Iron Cowboy Invitational back in 2010.
“I was fortunate enough to have a career riding bulls,” McBride said. “That’s a lot of your same audience and so I could go out and book places that other people might not be able to yet.”
His persona is now bringing him back to the bull riding arena.
He’s one of 16 riders competing in the bull riding event.
The draw includes the Top-10 finishers from last year following the PBR World Finals – minus Shane Proctor, who is out of competition after undergoing shoulder surgery – winners of six qualifiers and, of course, McBride.
That’s a big change for someone, who just three years ago, talked about rediscovering the sport as a fan.
“I was a fan growing up,” McBride said, “but in a whole different way because I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be the best at it.
“That didn’t start when I was 18 years old. That started when I was three years old. I was always a Ty Murray fan, a Tuff Hedeman fan, a Clint Branger fan, a Michael Gaffney fan, but I also always had this little chip on my shoulder that, oh, I want to beat those guys so bad if I could just get the chance to be around them.
“Now that I stepped away from the sport,” he continued, “I do get to just kick back and watch it.”
However, even then he worried, “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done to this point.”
He’s recently taught himself how to watch the sport as an analyst. In the five-plus years since his retirement, McBride has spoken out on seeing a lack of effort – specifically a lack of second effort – the need for top riders to train and workout along with the need for coaches.
Despite his burgeoning career as a broadcaster—it comes down to one thing: once a bull rider, always a bull rider.
After being approached by former PBR CEO Randy Bernard, who is organizing THE AMERICAN, McBride talked with his wife and as he’s been quick to reference time and again in nearly every interview over the past five months: “It’s one day, not a whole season.”
Lambert likes his chances of winning.
Murray tempers his thought by saying it’s asking a lot of a 34-year-old, who hasn’t ridden in five years, to come back and ride two of the rankest bulls in the world.
However, Murray added, “If anyone can do it, McBride can.”
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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