The Bob Elias Sports Hall of Fame has named its Class of 2019, and living rodeo and roping legend Denny Watkins will be one of four all-star athletes recognized at the 52nd annual Bob Elias Hall of Fame Celebration Dinner on February 19 at the Marriott Hotel in Bakersfield, California.
Hometown hero Watkins—who roped at 19 straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeos from 1974-92, and won Rodeo’s Super Bowl in both 1981 and ’84 with David Motes—will be recognized for his long list of rodeo achievements alongside three other sportsmen supreme in John Stenderup (mountain climbing); Donald Valpredo (horse racing); and Jake Varner (wrestling).
“It’s a very diverse group, and I’m very proud to be a part of it,” said Watkins, who’ll turn 63 the week after the celebratory bash on February 25. “John Stenderup has climbed Mount Everest. Donald Valpredo is a lifelong horseman and rancher who’s served on every horse racing board you can imagine, including the Breeders’ Cup board of directors. Jake Varner is an Olympic gold medalist who’s now an assistant wrestling coach at Penn State University.
“People don’t realize how many good athletes from all walks of life come from Kern County. It’s really an honor, and very humbling to be recognized in your hometown. I’m ecstatic.”
The number 41 is a pretty special one to Watkins right now. On the professional side, he’s roped at 41 straight BFIs, and won the prestigious roping with Motes in 1981. And personally speaking, Denny and his wife, Cathy, who’s the daughter of ProRodeo Hall of Famer Bob Ragsdale, celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary on January 7. Cathy’s been a kindergarten teacher for 27 years. And if you think 1981 is near to them because he won both the BFI and the NFR, Denny and Cathy also welcomed their now grown graphic-designer son, Justin, into the world in 1981 also.
The man most of his cowboy friends call “Mo” was born Dennis Edward Watkins after his maternal grandfather, Dennis Edward Glasson, who died when Denny was just 18. People called Grandpa Dennis Denimo, “so I inherited his nickname, too,” Denny said. “Then my older brother Eddie shortened it from Denimo to Mo.”
Mo made his first Finals at 18.
“I set out to make the NFR when I was 15 years old,” he said. “I gave myself until I was 20 to get there. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t have any money. I was jackpotting, riding outside horses, hauling hay and working some in the oil fields trying to save up some money to go rodeo. My buddy asked me if I thought I could make it as a professional roper. I told him I was going to keep working at it, then I was going to seize the moment.
“In the summer of 1974—right after I graduated—I decided to rope all summer long, to see if I could get in and make it. I decided if I wasn’t good enough and didn’t make it, I’d join the Marines and do something else. I went to the rodeo in Hanford, and it was go twice, so I roped with (Todd and Justin’s dad) Bill Hampton and another guy. Donnie Scott introduced me to David and Dennis Motes at that rodeo, and they said they needed another guy starting at Reno, and asked if I wanted in.”
That was back in the go-twice days, so the plan was for Denny to heel for David Motes and Donnie Scott. And did the kid want in? Before he made his first Finals at 18 that year, there was a great, big bang in June.
“I’d never run a steer with David Motes before I got to Reno that year,” Denny said. “And we won the first round at the Reno Rodeo. Then we won second in the second round, and won the average. I won $2,000. I couldn’t believe it. Holy moly, that was awesome. To win like that right off the bat—and they were all there—made me think that maybe I could do it. Dennis (Motes) took me under his wing after that, and really helped me out.”
Denny Watkins is now a four-time Reno Rodeo champ (he won Reno’s silver spurs in 1974 and 1990 with David Motes, and also won the Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West with Julio Moreno in 1978 and ’79). Mo is a two-time winner of the California Rodeo in Salinas (he’s also won the Salinas Gold Card roping twice, including last summer with Pard Motes), and has won most other rodeos along the way, from Denver to San Antonio, and Prescott to the Cow Palace.
Back before there was an age requirement of 18 to join the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Denny was roping with Scott, with whom he filled his permit. In 1973, when Denny was 17, he showed up at the rodeo in Santa Rosa, California, thinking his second partner was ProRodeo Hall of Famer Arnold Felts.
“Arnold couldn’t get there, and here comes Leo (Camarillo) loping into the arena during the bronc riding,” Mo remembers. “He said, ‘It’s you and me, kid. Pick whichever end you want.’ I was riding a slow heel horse, but I decided to head for Leo and we drew a good steer. I hooked a slick half head, and Leo wheeled him. We won third at the rodeo, and Leo was laughing, like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I laughed later and reminded him that I helped him win the world that year.”
Mo still ropes daily. He also spends a lot of time helping others, who heed the advice of Denny Watkins, Team Roping Coach.
“I teach ropers young and old, and help ropers at every level get to where they can go win something,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to see people grow and succeed at this sport. I also still love to compete. I’m going to rope with Marcus Battaglia, and our goal is to try and win the circuit. I love to rope, and I’ve always been goal-oriented. I need to have a reason to be out there.”
So, Mo, what’s the key to heeling greatness?
“Good hand-eye coordination, good vision and being fearless,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to throw it.”