“GET YOUR ASS ON,” TY MURRAY SAYS, pointing to the mechanical bull in his large work shed.
“Absolutely no way,” I reply.
“Come on, city boy. You said you wanted to understand what I do.”
The finest rodeo cowboy in America—perhaps the greatest rider of bulls and bucking horses of all time—gives me a sly little grin, and the corners of his lips twitch upward. Although he is 29 years old, he could still pass for a teenager. He is only five foot eight and 160 pounds. His face is so baby-smooth that you’d think he never has to shave. When he pulls the brim of his hat over his forehead, he looks like James Dean in Giant. He talks like him too: in a clipped monotone, his voice as flat as a fence post.
“I want to see you bear down on that sumbitch,” he says, his grin getting wider. “I want to see you ride.”
It’s a spring afternoon in north-central Texas, a few miles south of the town of Stephenville, where Murray owns a breathtakingly beautiful 1,861-acre ranch. More than two hundred head of brindle cattle graze on perfect pastures that slope down toward the Bosque River. Except for the occasional visit from his girlfriend, Julie Adair, a former barrel racer who lives in California, Murray spends his days here alone, on the highest hill overlooking the spread, in a three-bedroom house filled with the memorabilia of one of the most astonishing yet least acknowledged careers in all of sports. Spread throughout his pine-paneled living room are dozens of belt buckles awarded to him for his rodeo victories. In a corner of the dining room are the hand-stitched saddles he received for winning a record seven all-around cowboy championships at the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s National Finals. In rodeo circles his seven titles are the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Byron Nelson’s eleven consecutive PGA tour wins. He has lost the all-around title only three times since 1989, and those years he was injured. No less an authority than Larry Mahan—the renowned rodeo cowboy who held the previous record with six all-around titles—believes Murray’s record will not be broken. “And, barring injury, he could win many more,” Mahan says. “He’s just unbeatable.” This is why I’ve come to the ranch: to try to understand, in the words of one observer, Murray’s “mystical ability” to stay on crazed, whirling beasts.
“Go on. Get up there,” he says to me. “You need to know what this feels like.”
“But there are no pads to cushion my fall,” I point out.
He shrugs. In the time-honored tradition of rodeo, Murray has laid down a challenge, and he wants to see what I’m going to do. Or, to put it in the vernacular of his world, it’s time for me to “cowboy up,” to “show my sack” (“sack” being a rodeo term for, um, a certain component of male genitalia).
I climb onto the back of what looks like a converted metal oil drum, and Murray starts pushing and pulling on a lever behind me to get the thing bucking. Immediately I am being tossed into the air and thrown back down on the bull, over and over. Each jolt nearly shreds my spine. Three seconds later—a literal eternity on the machine—I jump off, wild-eyed. It feels like someone has hit me between the legs with a baseball bat.
“There’s nothing like it, is there?” Murray says, completely deadpan. He then climbs onto the mechanical bull while his ranch foreman, Heraclio, steps forward to grab the lever. Murray fixes his unblinking, light green eyes on the back of the bull. Like a conductor at the start of a symphony, he slowly lifts his left hand in the air: the classic rodeo pose.
Heraclio tugs on the lever, and the machine goes into spasms, but Murray . . . how do I explain this? He looks as if he’s taking a ride in a limousine. He is in such perfect synchronicity with the bucking of the bull, his frame rising and swooping with every explosive thrust, that his upper body hardly moves. His back remains ramrod straight, his chin stays tucked against his chest, and his left hand remains perfectly poised in the air. Eight seconds later, he lightly hops off and looks at me, still a little bent over, my hands grasping my inner thighs to ease the pain.
“And I bet you thought all you had to do was hang on,” he says.
HE MIGHT NOT EVEN BE RECOGNIZED BACK EAST, but in much of the American West he’s revered. He’s always introduced at rodeos as the King of the Cowboys. Kids surround him and plead for autographs. “Buckle bunnies” (the pretty young women who follow rodeo, also known as “shiny brights” because of the colorful Western shirts they wear) throw themselves at him. “Whenever he walks into a rodeo arena, the atmosphere changes, even for the other cowboys,” says Lane Barber, a well-regarded saddle bronc rider. “You’ll be taping up in the locker room, getting ready for the night’s performance, and suddenly there’s Ty. You’ll see the young riders suddenly get real nervous and start whispering, ‘My God, Ty’s here.’”
While almost all cowboys have just one specialty, Murray has mastered rodeo’s three glamour events: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding. He earns more than a million dollars a year at competitions and through endorsements, the most of any rodeo cowboy in history. Besides dominating the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) circuit, he’s a star on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour, which brings together the world’s 45 best bull riders for a 29-event season. He’ll hit as many as three rodeos a week scattered thousands of miles apart. During last year’s “Cowboy Christmas”—the lucrative July 4 weekend in which more than thirty rodeos are held across North America—he flew in a private jet so that he could compete in Arizona, Texas, Utah,