By: Andrew Giangola
At one point or another, for all sports fans, reality eventually bites.
They follow the games and buy the latest merchandise, and they hang onto their favorite athletes’ every performance.
Then one day, they meet their heroes. And all too often, the star athlete from TV and Instagram standing there in the flesh is not what he or she is hyped up to be.
Cynthia Johnson and Evelyn Robinson have never run into that problem with their favorite sport – professional bull riding.
The ebullient sisters from Brooklyn, now relocated to San Jose when not touring the PBR circuit, are people magnets with an ease for creating friendships with the bull riders and supporting band of staffers who form the itinerant road show bringing the sport from city to city. The inseparable duo has traveled to nearly two dozen PBR events, and their heroes have yet to disappoint.
There they are chatting with two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney, the Dragonslayer himself, with little Jagger in tow, in the Target outside of Billings, Montana.
There they are ordering a bite at McDonald’s in South Dakota with Lucas Divino, who was bringing a pungent fast-food haul back to his Brazilian countrymen riding in the Monster Team Challenge event playoffs.
There’s nine-time stock contractor of the year Chad Berger, spotting the pair at breakfast in the Sheraton Sioux Falls, serenading them with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
There they are at the front desk in the Arlington Hilton, trying to join a special PBR Global Cup tour, after missing an email. It’s too late.
But overhearing this is PBR co-founder and Director of Livestock Cody Lambert, who drops everything and takes the chatty sisters to meet riders from the five nations competing in “the Olympics of bull riding” along with the bulls chosen for the special team event in the NFL’s largest stadium.
The common perception of Lambert’s public persona is that of a porcupine who got up on the wrong side of the log. But Lambert is warm and friendly and funny, and after the private tour he brings his new friends behind the scenes of a TV interview with two-time world champion Justin McBride.
This is the new world discovered by two unlikely PBR fans, who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of in Brooklyn – a place generally not associated with cowboys, although through television, two young girls could explore new frontiers.
“We grew up on cowboys and were glued to all the westerns on TV: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, and Wagon Train; you name it, we watched them all,” Evelyn said. “And we had family who raised tobacco in North Carolina and Virginia. So there’s a connection to the energetic American spirit of cowboys in the PBR. Like you see in PBR’s opening video showing a lot of diversity, cowboys come from everywhere. It’s a clean sport, there’s no politics. It’s just come and have a good time. It’s just everything we love about America.”
“It’s a family thing – you see children with their grandparents,” Cynthia adds. “PBR honors the flag, prays, and recognizes the military – it’s all the things we support, a true American sport and experience.”
Their mother came from a southern family of eight siblings and their dad from four. They still have relatives in Virginia and North Carolina, including a 94-year-old great aunt, with cousins up and down the east coast.
“Family is super important to us, and PBR is a family atmosphere,” Evelyn said. “Everyone is kind and humble, from the bull riders and bull fighters to the stock contractors, from the PBR bigwigs to the guy who takes care of the dirt. The environment is awesome. Everyone looks out for each other. Every event is the next level. We go home and think, ‘Nothing is going to top that!’ And then PBR does it again! We wind up talking about it all week long.”
Cynthia was first to go west with her tennis instructor husband, in 1976, and Evelyn followed from Brooklyn six years later. The sisters were able to attend rodeos, enjoying bareback events and barrel racing.
And then eight years ago, Evelyn came across Guilherme Marchi riding a bull on CBS Sports Network, and life would take a turn.
“I was hooked,” Evelyn said. “I thought it was absolutely insane – that someone would try to ride an animal that powerful and unpredictable. I’d come to learn these bull riders are genuine athletes, but it’s so different than sports where you can read the body language of your competitor. The bulls are unreadable, yet they’re thinking, with their own strategies. They are so intriguing to me – powerful, fantastic athletes in their own right.”
She started learning more about the bulls and developed her favorites then and now: Little Yellow Jacket, Asteroid, Bushwacker, SweetPro’s Bruiser, Chiseled, Cochise.
“When you see these athletes up close – they’re giant muscles with horns, but they’re agile and they’re smart,” Evelyn said. “You can see them thinking as the riders are on them. These are not dumb animals you put a rope on. And they get great care, just living the life. Their owners give them massages and hydrotherapy. They worry about them like their children.”
Ask the sisters about their favorite riders, and they’ll each independently say “the guys who are humble and appreciate the fans.” Then they’ll start talking about the Americans, and segue into the Brazilians and wind up with the First Nation riders, rattling off a list of down-to-earth good guys way too long to print here.
Evelyn says she “recruited” her sister to watch on TV. Then the duo, separated by 16 months, attended the PBR in Oakland in 2013. Then in San Jose, they saw a young Cooper Davis win.
“This was way too cool. After that we were off and running,” Evelyn says. “TV is great but we said, ‘We have to go live.’”
They’ve been to PBR in Albuquerque, Bismarck, Billings, Nashville, New York City, Sioux Falls and of course a few times to Las Vegas for PBR World Finals. Last week, when PBR moved the 2020 World Finals to spacious AT&T Stadium in Arlington, they immediately pivoted to book a flight to Dallas.
After they see the next PBR World Champion crowned, the sisters will fly back to Texas three weeks later to witness what might be the coolest event in PBR history.
They’ve purchased a premium experience package to be two of 50 fans to board the USS LEXINGTON in Corpus Christi, Texas, for a seat on the flight deck when PBR bucks bulls on top of the famed aircraft carrier. The PBR Air Force Reserve Cowboys for a Cause will be carried live on CBS (noon ET, 11 a.m. CT) on Saturday, December 5.
They are lucky to have jobs that allow for an enormous amount of travel to hit so many stops along the PBR circuit.
“To be honest, we’d do all them all if we could,” Evelyn said.
When COVID-19 shut down all live sports in the second half of March, and PBR briefly went on hiatus before becoming the first pro sport to return with closed-to-fans events, the sisters decided that when fans were also allowed back in the arena in Sioux Falls, they’d be there cheering on their favorite cowboys and bulls.
“We were not at all nervous,” Evelyn said. “I felt really confident with PBR’s safety measures. There was constant spraying and wiping, and people were wearing masks. We felt completely safe and comfortable, and decided to go to the next two events in Bismarck and Billings.”
Of course, they hung out with South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. The straight-shooting, rising star in the GOP had recently hosted President Trump at Mt. Rushmore, then enthusiastically opened doors to blaze the trail for PBR to be first back to host fans in the arena at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls. Gov. Noem brought her own horse to ride Old Glory triumphantly onto the dirt to usher in the return of ticketed sporting events.
“We have a few hundred country concerts under our belts,” Cynthia said. “We know a lot of floor people. If you’re in with the production guys and the PBR dirt guy, you can meet just about anyone.”
It doesn’t hurt that the sisters always opt in for the best seats in the house through PBR Elite Seats.
“The bulls are kicking up the dirt, and it comes up and hits you. I just love it,” Evelyn says. “That kind of up-close-and-personal experience just amplifies how awesome the sport is.”
In fact, the sisters take a bit of dirt back from every arena they visit, put it in tube and label it.
They’ve met great friends at PBR events, and are now pairing up with a couple from Texas in a four-person “pod.”
Winding up at a Chad Berger barbecue, they became close with Elmer Blackbird, who has sent them Lakota (Sioux) phrases to learn.
As part of the Elite Seats, ticket holders get special mementos. One is a plaque signed by two-time PBR World Champion Jess Lockwood. The sisters started to accumulate Lockwood plaques and came up with an idea, inspired by PBR official entertainer Flint Rasmussen’s “Cooper Tires Fan of the Night.” (Yeah, they know Flint, too.)
“Now we go out and pick our own fans of the night,” Cynthia said. “We find a young person and give them the signed Jess plaque. The little people are just so excited to get that.”
In a sport that gives so much to them, Cynthia Johnson and Evelyn Robinson are becoming fixtures of their own, and also giving back with their laughter and conversation, their curiosity and friendship, and, now, special surprises a group of youngsters will never forget.
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