by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | May 12, 2014
Byron Walker was the American Junior Rodeo Association steer wrestling champ in 1975, and his buddy Roy Cooper won the tie-down roping and all-around titles. They went on to win Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championships in 1978 for winning more than anyone else in the regular season. Walker will join Cooper as a ProRodeo Hall of Famer when he’s inducted with the Class of 2014 this summer.
When Byron Walker takes his place in rodeo history once and for all with induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame this summer, the highlights of his storied rodeo career will be front and center on the Western world’s mind. The water-cooler buzz will focus on facts like his 1981 world steer wrestling championship and that he qualified for 16 Wrangler National Finals Rodeos in four decades—(1977-87, 1991, 1997-2000).
But those of us who’ve watched Byron work all these years also know he’s one of the cowboy sport’s most colorful characters, and that his life in the arena and out has tested all edges of rodeo’s—and life’s—extreme meter in terms of highs and lows.
The in-arena high had to be that gold buckle. But when the PRCA powers that be experimented with the world championship format from 1976-78—and world titles were determined by sudden-death money won only at the NFR those years—it cost Walker a second world championship in 1978, when he came out on top of the regular season and had to settle for “PRCA champion” status.
Walker has seen—and lived—a lot of ProRodeo history. His intense, competitive personality keeps him all-in at all times, and he has, at times, had to roll with some pretty severe punches to survive. At this stage of his game, the 56-year-old cowboy lifer from Ennis, Texas, has earned an exceedingly high level of perspective. My favorite part of his Walker-way storytelling is that he always calls it as he sees it.
“Going to the National Finals that same year I made the AJRA (American Junior Rodeo Association) Finals and the College Finals (while rodeoing for Howard College in Big Springs, Texas) at 19, it took me awhile to really believe that I belonged there,” he said. “I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’ The first night I ever competed at the National Finals I drew maybe the best steer I’ve ever had at any NFR and totally embarrassed myself.
“I rode in the front of the box, looked down and (ProRodeo Hall of Fame steer wrestler) Harley May was watching the line. He said, ‘Hey, Sug, what steer you got? (All the old timers called Byron “Sugar.”) I said, ‘I, I don’t know—that’s him.’ I was so nervous I couldn’t even talk. I hoolihaned that steer, broke his horn off, got him up and threw him in 10.”
Walker’s first NFR in 1977 was held at the Jim Norick Arena in Oklahoma City. “That old building out at the fairgrounds was pretty dark, and they only turned on the ‘TV lights’ during the television performances,” he remembers. “It was dark for grand entry practice. Then when the rodeo started and I rode in there for the real thing those lights were bright and all those cameras were rolling. To be on TV back in 1977, oh my God, that was huge. First of all, we only had three TV channels in ’77. To be on TV was a bigger deal before they had 500 channels, like they do today. Goodnight, that was a big deal.
“Those bright lights just overwhelmed me. The one and only time in my life I’d seen them was right then, at my first NFR. The second night of the Finals, I had a big, fat Hereford steer that was horrible. I won second in the go-round on him, and from then on, I felt like I not only belonged, but I would be the champ.”
The NFR moved downtown to Oklahoma City’s Myriad Arena in 1979. A lot of people who were there then fondly remember those good old days, when all the cowboys stayed across the street from the rodeo at the same hotel.
“You got to meet everybody’s families, and the kids all played together in the lobby,” Walker recalls. “Every event stays at a different hotel nowadays. But every event mixed it up back then.”
Those Oklahoma arenas were wide open size-wise compared to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, which has been home to Rodeo’s Super Bowl since 1985. “When we went to Vegas the steer wrestling event changed,” Walker explained. “It changed the champions and the way you bulldogged, due to the fact that the arena’s so short. A lot of things I did really well and trained my whole career to do with the Finals being at OKC evolved. One of the guys who adapted to that change the best was Johnny (ProRodeo Hall of Famer John W. Jones Jr.). He was able to evolve, and was great in all conditions. I struggled with it a little more than others, maybe partly because it was more toward the twilight of my career than the beginning.
“The draw factor really changed with the move. The more steers you use the more uneven it is. In OKC, there were only two pens of steers—30 total steers—and you ran 10 of them, or a third of the steers. Since the move to Vegas, there have been as many as five pens of steers and as few as three. Nowadays, there will be one steer they run four times in 10 days that might win all four of those rounds. The more steers you have the more a good one stands out. With only 30 steers you had to do good on the good ones and the bad ones. Those steers weighed 700 pounds back then. Now they’re closer to 500.”
The change in conditions was better news for some than others, in Walker’s eyes. “Guys like Rod Lyman and Todd Fox should have been world champions,” stated Walker, who traveled a lot over the years with close friends like Fox and Randy Vaughn. “I think they would have if the Finals had stayed in OKC. The guys who struggle to make the NFR and win the world aren’t that great. We knew we were going to make the National Finals. Every year I could name 10 guys I knew would be there. I don’t know that I’d bet the ranch on five guys now to be there. I’d only name two right now. Dean (Gorsuch) and Luke (Branquinho) will be there every year until they decide they don’t want to go. They impress me. In other sports, those guys would be first-ballot hall of famers. When they bulldog, I watch and pay attention. They’re that good.”
Walker says his star shined brightest at the big-arena rodeos. “I liked the long scores—rodeos like Tucson, Salinas, Cheyenne, Pendleton and Houston. Back then (when Houston was the richest rodeo of the PRCA’s regular season), in 1978, my dad (Whitey Bob) and me went into the short round sitting first and second. That was a big thrill in our lives. Gary Walker (no relation, though Byron kiddingly called him “Cous”) went in third. My dad’s steer stopped, I stayed second and Gary won it. Then I came back and won it in 1981, the year I won the world. When I walked into that Astrodome, it didn’t feel like ‘if’ I was going to win, but ‘how much.’ I loved those long scores, where you really had to cowboy your horse.”
Only the legendary Roy Duvall, undisputed king of the Checotah Gang, has wrestled steers at more NFRs (24) than Walker, who was the reserve champ of the world in both 1979 and ’83.
“When I was 19 years old, I parked my truck after the College Finals at North Platte, Nebraska, and it stayed parked there for a month and a half,” Walker remembers well. “I got in the pickup truck with Roy Duvall and Karen, his wife, and rodeoed with him for about 45 days. I rode old Whiskey and Roy hazed for me on old Black. I learned a lot about rodeo and life. Roy Duvall is one of the most special friends I have in rodeo. He was very, very helpful getting me started and making me believe I was good enough. It was fabulous.
“The lowest of lows in my bulldogging career was in 1983, when I got to Red Lodge, Montana on the Fourth of July and had $3,000 won. I’d been to every rodeo they’d had. My horse was not running. I had just gotten married to Mary, and as my dad would say I was broker than the 10 Commandments. At that same time, Roy had a bulldogging horse named Cat. And all of his crew that was riding that horse had quit him. Me and Roy sat down by a stream that runs through Red Lodge that day and watched Susie McEntire-Eaton (Reba’s sister; they’re the daughters of ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clark McEntire and the granddaughters of World Champion Steer Roper John McEntire) washing her 2-year-old son’s butt in that stream because he’d sh*@ his pants. Roy and I were laughing, because the stream was ice cold, that kid was squalling and Susie was whipping him with her shoe.
“Right then and there, Roy and I devised a plan to get that year out of the ditch. We would get back in the truck together and I’d ride Cat. We decided to go out rodeoing, and when the (ProRodeo) Sports News came out August 1, Byron Walker was No. 2 in the world. That’s what I think about Roy Duvall.”
Walker credits his dad, Whitey Bob, for teaching him everything he knows about bulldogging, horses and life. Then there was big Jim Bynum, the ProRodeo Hall of Famer who taught him all about winning.
“Jim Bynum was the greatest steer wrestler of all time, in my opinion,” Walker said. “He was big, stout, agile and quick. He was a hell of an athlete. He would win just as much today as he did back then. He was left-handed, which made him quicker to the nose and was a huge asset.”
Two things stand out from Walker’s world championship year in 1981. “To be recognized as the champ was a big deal for me after 1978, which was probably my most memorable year rodeoing, when I won the most money but the NFR determined the champ,” he said. “All the cowboys knew who the champ was, but in 1981 it was finally official for me. Those sudden-death years were tough on guys like me, Roy (Cooper), Joe Alexander and Donnie Gay. That was just a bad deal, but we lived through it.
“The other most memorable year I had was ’84. I probably bulldogged as well as I ever did that year. I went to the Finals sitting second. Johnny (Jones) came to the house after the Cow Palace (in San Francisco) and we practiced every day for 30 days. Sherrie (Jones’ wife) and Mary videoed, and my dad hazed. Then Johnny and I went back and forth every night at the Finals. If I couldn’t win it I wanted him to win it. It came down to the last steer, and I was glad for him to win his first (of three) championship (Jones, Duvall and Walker went 1-2-3 in the world that year).”
Walker had his nearest miss in 1983, when he finished just $891 back of Kansas cowboy Joel Edmondson for the gold after turning out in the Pendleton short round when he was the high man back. “I went elk hunting after Pendleton slack on Tuesday for a few days up in the mountains in Challis, Idaho,” Walker said. “It snowed, and we couldn’t get out. I had to turn out in the first round at Albuquerque, too. Mary said, ‘I hope that elk was worth it.’ At least we had something to eat.”
Byron and Mary are a rare gold-buckle couple. As the rodeo family knows by now, a horse by the name of Latte saved the day and gave the grieving parents a reason to ride on after the loss of their only child—Reagon, a talented young gun and all-around champ, who died April 23, 2011 after a highway tragedy at 21. There was a heart-wrenching scene at NFR 2012’s end, when Mary Walker and Tuf Cooper won their world titles together and kept a Walker-Cooper family promise.
“In 1975, Roy (Clint, Clif and Tuf’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame dad) and I took a picture at the AJRA National Finals in Odessa,” Byron remembers. “Roy was the calf roping and all-around champion, and I was the steer wrestling champ. We made ourselves a pact that day that the next picture we’d have made together was when we were the world champions.
“Reagon and Tuf had seen those pictures hanging in our houses, and unbeknownst to Roy and me they copied us dads and had their picture made when they won those same titles at the 2006 Texas State High School Finals in Abilene, when Reagon was a sophomore and won the steer wrestling and all-around (a feat he repeated in 2007), and Tuf won the calf roping his freshman year. They made the same pact that they’d get their next picture made when they won the world. So in 2012, when Tuf and Mary won the world, she took Reagon’s place in that picture. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears.”
For all of his own glory days, Byron says the best ones were spent watching Reagon make his memorable mark on this world. “Reagon was the light of my life,” he said. “The best days I ever had rodeoing were rodeoing with Reagon—watching him compete and win those championships. That was the time they dragged me back into rodeo that I got the most enjoyment. That was better than me winning or Mary winning. We had a blast. There is not anything you can do more fun in your life than raising your children. The Lord had a plan for Reagon, and we feel blessed that we had the time with him that we did. It was sad the way it went, but we’re not supposed to ask why and there’s a reason everything happens. It’s an experience that I wish on no family. Joe (ProRodeo Hall of Famer Beaver, who lost his son, Brody) and Cody (World Champion Bull Rider Custer, who lost his son Aaron) get strength from each other now.”
Gratefully, Walker laughs at how rodeo has refused to quit him. “Rodeo is a very cruel and demanding sport,” he said. “And 99 times out of 100 you do not get to pick when you’re done. Rodeo will tell you when you’re done. It may be when you’re just a kid, and it may never really end. I was really, really fortunate. I feel like Al Pacino in The Godfather. They keep dragging me back in. I rodeoed for 24 years. When I ended my career I was at the top of my game. Then Reagon’s career took off, and we were having a magical time. Then I lost that. And it felt like it was over. Then here came Mary and Latte, and rodeo dragged me back in. We’re still out on the road rodeoing. Now I get a call from the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. I’ve quit so many times, but never seem to really leave. I don’t know what’s left. But it’s been a hell of a ride.”
Courtesy of PRCA