By Kendra Santos
Cotton Rosser is a cowboy pioneer who has spent the last 87 years blazing the Western-world trail. He’s come a long way since he was a young buck growing up in Long Beach, California, where he delivered newspapers from the back of a donkey named Jack, cleaned stalls at local stables and worked cattle on Catalina Island during the week so he could rodeo on the weekends.
Rosser, who calls Marysville, California, home, has received countless cowboy accolades for his lifelong commitment to rodeo, ranching and agriculture, and his latest career achievement is as the first-ever National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Triple Crown winner. In 2006, Rosser was awarded the Ben Johnson Memorial Award, which each year since 1998 has recognized someone who’s gone above and beyond to raise the bar on the sport of professional rodeo. It’s a prestigious award presented to a special individual who, like the late Johnson, helps perpetuate a positive image for rodeo and the Western lifestyle.
Rosser followed that feat up with induction into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2009. On April 18, 2015, Rosser was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Westerners for his lifetime of exceptional contributions and promotion of Western heritage and traditions, achievements of national significance and historic relevance, and exemplifying the traditional ideals of honesty, integrity and self-sufficiency.
“That’s like winning the all-around, and I couldn’t have won it if I’d been a rodeo hand,” said ProRodeo stock contractor Rosser. “I might have had a gold belt buckle, but I wouldn’t have lived the life I have and met the people I’ve met.
“When I look at the men who’ve been honored before me (with the Great Westerner Award) — Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower —it’s the greatest thing that ever happened,” Rosser said. “This is tall cotton for me. What a great honor.”
The Hall of Great Westerners is full of trailblazers, including additional U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and cowboy artists Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Only the literal best-of-the-best bless this very hallowed hall.
Rosser also is a ProRodeo Hall of Famer he was inducted in 1995. As a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association stock contractor, he has earned his reputation as the consummate showman. Rosser runs a tight ship at his rodeos from the back of a horse, a place his is comfortable in. He started riding Hereford bulls at 13 and saddle broncs at 16; he worked every event, but, “my big three were steer wrestling, calf roping and bronc riding.” Rosser’s competitive days were cut short in 1955 when, at 27, he had a catastrophic run-in with a post-hole digger while building an arena on the ranch.
He suffered compound fractures to both legs. Both of his ankles were crushed, along with his competitive dreams. But Rosser stayed strong in spirit, and turned an agonizing heartbreak into a 60-year triumph. Rosser and a partner bought Flying U Rodeo Company in 1956, and he’s spent the last six decades setting the rodeo world on fire.
“That accident was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Rosser, who took up flying while attending college at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and was one of the original high-flying cowboy pilots. “My competitive cowboy days were over, but not my love of rodeo. I look at it as a blessing. I would have went on and rodeoed. Instead, I got into management and putting on the shows.”
Cowboy camaraderie is real, and we tend to find true friends in the toughest of times. Rosser had no insurance when the rug was pulled out from under his rodeo cowboy career without warning.
“I couldn’t pay my hospital bill,” he said. “Ben Johnson and Dean Oliver had a match roping here in Yuba City (Calif.), and Casey Tibbs and Billy Ward had a match bronc riding. They raised about $8,000 to get me out of the hospital. That’s cowboys for you.”
Rosser was a multi-event superstar who helped start the storied rodeo tradition at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. At the time Rosser was working on his college education, Cal Poly was an all-male campus made up mostly of World War II veterans attending college on the GI Bill. Three generations of his family have been Cal Poly Mustangs, and in 2013 Rosser received an honorary doctorate degree from his beloved alma mater.
“I owe everything to Cal Poly, and have used the Mustangs motto of ‘Learn by Doing’ all my life,” Rosser said. “When I got hurt and couldn’t compete anymore, I learned by doing when it came to the rodeo production business.”
While attending college on California’s Central Coast in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rosser simultaneously took to the professional rodeo trail and sometimes traveled with cowboy legend and Hall of Famer Gene Rambo. Rambo could spot a talented all-around hand from across the ranch, and would sometimes enter Rosser for half (pay his entry fees in exchange for half his earnings) when his lean college-kid budget kicked in.
“Rambo wanted to take a hacksaw to a buckle one time when I won a rodeo,” Rosser remembers with a fond-memory laugh. “He said 50/50 is 50/50!
“The sport of professional rodeo has really grown and progressed, and I’m not just talking about the fact that we used to step off of the left side of our horse in the calf roping, which is unheard of today. The money is so different now, and the talent is so much better. Back then, we might get $28 for winning a rodeo. It’s great to see where the sport is today.”
One of Rosser’s countless contributions to the cowboy sport is on the production side. He’s renowned for running a tightly choreographed performance, and for always changing things up with colorful, bar-raising twists. His creativity and innovation landed him the contract for producing the openings at the first 10 Wrangler National Finals Rodeos ever held.
“I’ve heard people say if you’ve seen one rodeo you’ve seen ’em all,” Rosser said. “I don’t believe that’s true. Coming from California, the entertainment state of the world, I like to have big opening ceremonies with the American flag. I like to make a show of it. Rodeo is entertainment. And the entertainment value of rodeo is real. You have to run the show, you can’t let the show run you. If you don’t keep the audience entertained they will go somewhere else.”
Rosser has always hung his entertainment-style hat on family values and patriotic pride. “See that American flag and all those folks with their kids?” Rosser said proudly, looking out at yet another packed house. “This goes back to John Wayne, Gene Autry and all of the great cowboys. Kids today think milk comes from 7-Elevens, not a cow. The rodeo business can teach them a lot about the real world and life.”
Rosser is also a huge proponent of educating folks to the truth about how rodeo livestock is treated like royalty and family. Crowds go crazy when Rosser lets a herd of bucking horse mamas and babies run wild around the arena during his rodeos. It illustrates not only how the great ones are born to buck, but also the respect and love rodeo people have for the animals, and how the rodeo torch is handed down from generation to generation.
“To have a champion bucking horse is really something for us,” he said. “It’s like having a Kentucky Derby winner. We really think a lot of the animals, and the cowboys appreciate them, too. A lot of cowboys will tip their hats to the horses to say, ‘Good job!’ when they’ve been bucked off.”
Other highlights along Rosser’s long and storied rodeo road have included 1971 Rodeo Man of the Year; 1985 PRCA Stock Contractor of the Year; and 2004 induction into the California Rodeo Hall of Fame. In 2011, the California Bountiful Foundation bestowed the honor of the first-ever California Bountiful Foundation Public Outreach Award on Rosser for his lifetime achievements in educating the public about farming and ranching, and in 2014 Rosser was inducted into the Western Fairs Association Hall of Fame.
Fellow Rodeo Hall of Famer and California cowboy icon Jack Roddy has admired Rosser all his life, and he’s far from alone.
“When I was a kid Cotton was my idol, and he still is to this day,” Roddy said. “Cotton always wore a nice hat, and always looked and acted like a gentleman. There were three all-time great all-around cowboys, in my book — Phil Lyne, Gene Rambo and Cotton Rosser. Cotton worked every event at the rodeos, and was also a great ranch cowboy.
“I remember being at the State Fair Rodeo in Sacramento one time when a bucking bull jumped the fence and took off running down the midway. Cotton roped that bull running down the midway, which was packed with people. I’ve always admired Cotton because he never waivered in his love for rodeo — from the start to today.”
Roddy is another of the legendary champions to come through the Cal Poly Rodeo program, and he went on to make his mark as a world champion steer wrestler. Though Rosser’s competitive career was never completely fulfilled, it does not damper Roddy’s respect for Cowboy Cotton.
“Cotton Rosser has to be one of the greatest cowboys of all time,” Roddy said. “When you look at his record, he’s done it all. He was a champion at Cal Poly, and he worked every event in the RCA (predecessor to the PRCA) before he got hurt. He did it all, and he did it well. If he hadn’t gotten his legs caught in that post-hole driver, Cotton could have been the all-around champion of the world. What award hasn’t Cotton won? And he deserves them all.”
Rosser — who has dedicated his life to rodeo, ranching and agriculture — fondly remembers the days when every contestant rode in the colorful opening ceremonies in then-renowned rodeo towns such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Fort Worth.
“I’ve had a great life,” grinned Rosser, who’ll actually celebrate his 87th birthday on August 5. “My whole family has loved this life. I’ve loved every minute of it. Rodeo’s the best thing in the world to me. I never got rich, but I live like I’m rich. All the great friends I’ve met along the way make me rich. All I ever dreamed about was being a cowboy.”