Steamboat Springs The late Dale Earnhardt, an auto racing legend accustomed to driving almost 200 mph, once called J.C. Trujillo crazy for being a rodeo cowboy.
They entered the national scene as spokesmen for Wrangler: Earnhardt, a NASCAR champion, and Trujillo, one of the world's elite bareback riders.
That was more than 20 years ago, but Trujillo remembers his professional cowboy days vividly. He traveled the country, schmoozing with celebrities, and barbecuing with the likes of President Ronald Reagan.
Trujillo counts himself lucky and blessed -- and retired. But not in spirit. He works as an outfitter between Steamboat and Meeker, resigned to the land instead of the rodeo arena where he found success.
"When you are at the top of the game and get that recognition and then you have to change to a guiding outfitter and stay out in the high country you kind of miss the stardom," Trujillo said. "You've come from the top and you're back down on Earth, doing something regular people do."
The Yampa Valley is home to several former cowboy greats, including Trujillo and 1996 World Champion steer wrestler Chad Bedell. The Yampa Valley also boasts cowboys still living their dream, such as Danny Jendral and Clint Walker. All four have or still participate in the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series.
The seemingly nomadic lifestyle of the full-time cowboys who make appearances in Steamboat hasn't changed over the years, but the rodeo has evolved dramatically since Brent Romick, chairman of the series' board, began his involvement with the Steamboat rodeo in 1979.
Now, participating cowboys or cowgirls -- except for those in the mixed team roping or peewee barrel racing events -- must hold Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association cards or permits because the series is officially sanctioned by the PRCA and the Women's Professional Rodeo Association.
There was a time, however, when the weekend rodeos were a locals' jackpot. For $20 or so, an amateur could ride a bull.
"Those were the days when some guys, not your typical cowboys but people from the ski area, would maybe have a beer or two and get on a bull on a dare," Trujillo said.
Bedell's family summered their livestock near Clark when he was a child. He came down to watch the roughstock riders.
"The guys would grab some chaps and a glove and some would take the biggest wrecks," Bedell said.
Last year, the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series Committee won an award from the PRCA as the Best Small Outdoor Rodeo Committee of the Year, recognizing the work it has done to create an ever-improving rodeo and experience for fans.
Jendral and Walker are thankful a successful rodeo exists near their homes in Steamboat and Hayden, respectively, allowing them to compete close to home whenever possible.
Steamboat's proximity to booming rodeo destinations such as Cheyenne and Greeley makes it an accessible event for cowboys trying to squeeze in as many competitions as possible, especially during the 14-day span around July Fourth.
The rodeos in Steamboat over the July Fourth holiday are the most lucrative for cowboys as well, with the total payout doubling to $1,000 per event on top of entry fees. The amount won measures the success of a cowboy or cowgirl's season, but the sacrifices made are a trademark way of life.
"When you're out there traveling, it's not easy," said Jendral, 26. "There are a lot of miles to be driven and flown, and you can really get involved in it, and everyone does. ...When the hard times do come, the love for the sport breaks through."
Jendral, a bull rider, scaled back on his winter season dramatically, choosing instead to focus on his schoolwork at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He knows there is a life after his rodeo days are done, and he is preparing for it now instead of the day it comes. But that doesn't mean he's ready to give it up.
"Yeah, sure I miss it," he said. "With rodeos it's such an up and down game. The good times, it's really good and the bad times it's really bad. It's hard on you. It's good to take a break."
With school out, his break is nearly over. Jendral plans on increasing his rodeo schedule this summer, making appearances in Steamboat when he's home.
Walker's season is well under way with nearly 30 rodeos under his belt. On May 25, Walker took home $1,100 for winning the bull riding competition in Craig as part of the Grand Ole West Days.
With his wife, Layne, 4-year-old daughter, Shandon, and another baby on the way, Walker, 25, has another life besides the eight seconds he hopefully has on a bull each weekend.
Layne and Shandon travel with Clint Walker most of the time. Both enjoy watching him compete.
Bedell admires the commitment cowboys like Walker have for their sport and family.
"You have to sacrifice a lot to live on the road like that," he said. "It's a fun lifestyle if you're single with little responsibilities. In 1996, I probably traveled to 70 rodeos and that was about my average. It wasn't bad, but I was gone up to 320 days a year. The travel got to be hard with the 10 to 16 hour days on the coffee jitters with little sleep. I still don't miss the traveling. I miss the steer wrestling."
Peer pressure is eating at Bedell. A friend of his wants the former world champion to buy his PRCA card back and resume competing. Not anything full-time, but maybe the rodeos in Steamboat and surrounding areas.
Bedell said he's debating. He would need a horse, but he still possesses the physique and undoubtedly the skill to compete again.
Trujillo still hasn't shaken his desire to compete. Romick, Trujillo's wife, Margo, and Trujillo take part in Steamboat's mixed team roping event during the summer. But he wouldn't trade his days in the spotlight for anything. He wishes his bareback career would have spanned longer than 17 years.
"It was fun, but you have to be a little bit wild," Trujillo said. "To be a good rodeo cowboy you have to be real determined and real independent. You have to give 120 percent any time you do anything.
"Driving all night trying to get to a rodeo, you haven't eaten and you're tired and you're up against a real, old mean bronc, but you have to suck it up. You have to try and win first every time. ...I feel like I was fortunate to have the talent and determination to become a Top 15 rider. To every young kid that's trying to be a bareback rider, I'm going to say, 'Go for it.' It's an exciting life, and I wouldn't trade my rodeo life for anything."