The year was 1967. Ronnie Rossen was the reigning World Champion bull rider. In the decade of the 1960’s, Rossen was the dominant bull rider in an event where ‘toughness’ was obviously a requirement.
Ronnie had also won the World Championship back in 1961 as well as the National Finals Rodeo in 1964 and 1965. Following his second championship year, he geared back on his rodeo travels and was staying a little closer to home. The first week of June Ronnie scheduled a bull riding school in his home town of Broadus, Montana. I was a freshman in high school and had paid my tuition to this ‘school of hard knocks’ in advance. Another boy by the name of Bill Stovall had also signed up for the school. We were the two youngest students…but I’m getting ahead of the story.
The previous Memorial Day weekend an amateur rodeo was held near the small town of Lame Deer, Montana, which is located on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The rodeo arena was located in a lovely bowl shaped valley back in the pine hills. Spectators sat on the hillsides surrounding the arena in their lawn chairs or on blankets on the ground.
Bill and I were too young to be allowed to enter the rough stock events, but we were in attendance with some of our family members who were participating…and who else showed up at the rodeo? The reining World Champion bull rider, Ronnie Rossen! Ronnie wasn’t competing. In those days if a member of the Rodeo Cowboys Association (now the PRCA) was caught competing in an amateur rodeo he would be stiffly fined and not allowed to compete in another RCA rodeo until his punishment was fulfilled. Ronnie was just enjoying the day off.
Bill and I spotted him before the rodeo started and immediately went up to him to let him know that we would be attending his bull riding school the next week. Ronnie let us hang out with him the whole day. It couldn’t get any better than this! We were with the reining World Champion bull rider! He knew our names! We were his pals! Being a famous guy, he attracted a lot of attention all day, and we were his entourage!
Late in the afternoon, we went to the concession stand where Ronnie bought cokes for both of us. We were there for quite a while because of all the attention Ronnie attracted everywhere he went. He was signing autographs and visiting with his fans. What we didn’t know was that while we were there, a big black bull was on the fight and had broken out of the arena on the opposite side of the concession stand. We also didn’t know that a cowboy (or cowboys) had roped him, dragged him back to the arena, and tied him to the loading chute on THE OUTSIDE OF THE ARENA! Back in those days pipe arenas were very scarce, and the pine boards and poles of the arena weren’t going to hold that bull. Also, when they tied the bull to the chute, they tied him at the knot which gave him about thirty-five feet of nylon rope before he hit the end of it.
Finally, we walked away from the concession stand and started to head back to the other side of the arena where Ronnie’s car was parked. We walked around the north end of the arena and approached the loading chute which was connected to a short alleyway. The alleyway caused the loading chute to protrude out several feet from the arena holding pens. The three of us had to walk around the loading chute to get to our destination. The bull was on the other side of the loading chute, and we had no idea that he was there. As we started around it, suddenly a black freight train was in front of us and coming at full speed. We had absolutely no time to react. Bill and I were walking on each side of Ronnie. The bull missed me, but he hit Bill a glancing blow that knocked him rolling for about twenty feet. The black tornado hit Ronnie dead center and proceeded to ‘hook’ him unmercifully. The black tornado pushed him all the way to the end of the thirty-five feet of rope…and then Ronnie still couldn’t get away from him because there was an outhouse against the fence exactly at the end of the rope! The bull actually rolled him up the side of the outhouse, dropped him, rolled him up and dropped him again before Ronnie was able to scramble and crawl to safety. Poor Ronnie! There he was, shirt almost ripped off, belt tore loose with his world champion buckle dangling down between his knees like the pendulum on a grandfather’s clock, and not a breath of air left in his body.
No! Not the end of the story yet! As I said, this all occurred at the north end of the arena, and if you were a spectator on the hillside you would have to be looking away from the rodeo action inside the arena to witness this incident. However, a little old lady sitting in her lawn chair close to the north end of the hillside did see the wreck. Ronnie was bent over, hands on his knees and desperately trying to get air back in his lungs. The older lady got up out of her chair, tottered down the hill to Ronnie and started bawling him out for ‘teasing the bull.’
“That serves you right you dim-witted twit for teasing that bull and I oughta report you to the humane society!” she shouted at him.
Ronnie is trying to answer her but is still having too much trouble trying to breath. Ronnie recovers enough to utter; “I wasn’t teasin’ the bull.”
“Don’t sass me you cement headed idiot!” she counters back.
Ronnie, finally getting his air and voice back retaliates, “You heard me you old hide!”
“That serves you right you dim-witted twit for teasing that bull and I oughta report you to the humane society!” she shouted at him.– Little old Lady
I’ve often thought of this day over the years and considered how absolutely crazy the scenario really was. There were hundreds of people at the rodeo. In order to get from one side of the arena to the other, you had to walk around either the north or south end of the arena. Anybody could have unknowingly been confronted by that bull, elderly people, women or children. Who does the bull find? The reining world champion bull rider who makes his living on exactly that kind of bull. The champion bull rider is not even entered in the rodeo and doesn’t step foot inside the arena on that day. He is only attending the rodeo that day to relax and to visit with friends. Ronnie told me later that it was the worse ‘hookin’ he’d ever taken over his whole rodeo career.
Bill Stovall and I don’t see each other very often, maybe every four or five years. But whenever we do, we have to laugh and talk about it all over again, as if it happened yesterday. We are the only two surviving witnesses. Ronnie Rossen was killed riding a bull at an old-timer’s rodeo in the early 1990’s… and the old lady…well, she could possibly be jetting around on her broom, looking out for animal welfare!