Some of the best three-generation times my family has involve “Papa stories.” Unless it’s storming outside, that’s when we all grab a plate and head out to the black-iron table on the porch. Ace Berry’s name came up out on the porch the other day, when my dad remembered the day he subbed in for Allen Keller and headed for Ace at the go-twice rodeo in Lake Comanche Village, Calif. Keller couldn’t get away from a movie set (he was playing a motorcycle cop) in San Francisco. (Four-time World Champion Header) Jimmy Rodriguez was the matchmaker, and knew my dad was only entered in the calf roping and bulldogging.
Jim Wheatley (who now sometimes goes by “Wade’s dad,” but was actually a world-class NFR header in his day) mounted my dad on his great gray mare Gray Box, and Dad and Ace won the team roping by a second. My dad tried to pay Jim mount money, but Jim wouldn’t take it. Dad was wishing he could have cut that mare a check directly, because he felt like she did all the work. Jim rode the Wheatley-raised-and-trained Gray Box at five NFRs, and won the 1974 NFR average on her heading for Jimmy’s brother, John Bill Rodriguez. She was a great one.
Then there was the time my dad saw Ace at a rodeo not long after he quit entering the bareback riding as a relatively young man (he was 32 at the time). “Where’s your bareback riggin’, Ace?” my dad asked his amigo. “In the Stanislaus River,” Ace replied.
He was kidding. He actually gave it away. “All the jerks were starting to hurt my shoulder,” he recalls. “I was just burned out. I’d been riding bareback horses since I was 15. That’s a lot of jerks to take when you’re that young. (Five-time Champ of the World) Bruce Ford came up to me one time when he was thinking about quitting and asked me why I’d quit. I told him I just quit craving it. And when you quit craving it you need to quit. Bruce agreed that the want-to leaves before your body gives out. He was right.”
Ace joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association when he was 13. He and 1970-71 World Champion Team Roper John Miller won a go-round at the California Rodeo in Salinas in 1960, when Ace was 13 and John was 18. There were 167 teams entered at Salinas that year.
A couple years later, Ace qualified for his first NFR at age 15 in 1962. (J.D. Yates also was 15 when he qualified for his first Finals in 1975.) Ace is the only cowboy in rodeo history to win two NFR averages in each of two events from opposite ends of the arena. He won the 1967 NFR team roping average heeling for Bucky Bradford, back when half the rounds were team tying and the other half were dally roping. (There were actually nine rounds at that year’s NFR.) The two events rotated every other round.
For those of you unfamiliar with team tying, the header was tied on. The same three legal head catches were good, and after the header roped the steer he went left. The heeler was tied on, too. After he heeled the steer, he turned his horse out to the left and laid the steer down. The header would hang off the side of his horse in that left stirrup (in part so he wouldn’t get trapped in the saddle with the rope over his right leg), then he stepped off, ran down and tied a square knot around both hind legs with the “tie rope.”
There was no five-second penalty for a heeler roping a leg in the team tying, but because the tie rope had to be around both hind legs there was plenty of advantage in a two-foot catch. According to Ace, “the trick if you caught one foot was for the heeler to give back a little slack, so the stretched out leg would come back to the other leg. It was way easier if you roped two feet.” The best team tying horses, “were strong, able to take a jerk and pull.”
They didn’t have team tying in California, but I got to see it at Tucson once. I didn’t get to see much of it down there, because my dad dislocated his ankle on his first steer. It was a long couple days waiting for his partner to rope his calf Sunday so we could head home. My brothers swam at the hotel, but I had an ear infection so had to sit it out and sweat. Turtles made a big impression on me that trip. I remember seeing turtles the size of small sheep at the desert museum my dad took us to, and also recall being thoroughly disgusted when my dad ordered a turtle steak at the restaurant where we ate across the Mexican border in Nogales one night. It was really dark in there, because the restaurant was in a cave in the side of a hill.
Ace won his first NFR bareback riding average in 1971. He repeated that feat the following year, and that wasn’t all. He also won the team roping, again half team tying and half dally roping (this time 10 rounds), heeling for John Miller in 1972. “It came down to the last steer, and we won the round to win the average,” Ace said. “Anytime it comes down to the last one makes it special.
“That John Miller had enough confidence to rope with me at the Finals when he won both of his world championships meant a lot to me. I was running around riding bareback horses. Those guys took a lot of risk. It was like double jeopardy roping with me. They kind of had to hold their breath every time I got on a bucking horse.”
That’s no exaggeration. In 1967, Bradford and Berry led the team roping pack heading into the last round at the Finals. Ace’s last bareback horse was a big, strong eliminator that jerked his riding and roping arm so hard it went numb. By all accounts, Bradford’s face went white when he saw Berry holding his arm after the ride. “I stuck my arm under an ice cold water faucet, and kept trying to wiggle my fingers,” Ace remembers. “I told Bucky not to worry, and that if I had to I could catch one leg with my left hand (and because it was team tying that night, there would be no five-second penalty). About three minutes before we rode in to rope our last one I got the feeling back in my hand. We split the round and won the average.”
Berry and Miller go way, way back. Miller is late cowboy acting legend Ben Johnson’s nephew. Johnson listed Hollywood as his hometown when he won his 1953 world team roping title. Ace’s dad, Virgil Berry, ran Ben’s ranch in Oklahoma. Ben Johnson and Virgil Berry, who died when Ace was only 16, were boyhood buddies who grew up together in Oklahoma.
“When Ben came to California with a bunch of horses for the movies, there was a man in L.A. named Clarence ‘Fat’ Jones who had all the horses and wagons in the old Western movies,” Ace explained. “Ben married Fat’s daughter, Carol Jones. That’s how Ben got discovered in the movies. Fat had a ranch in Farmington, about eight miles from where I live now in Oakdale. Fat gave that ranch to Ben as a wedding present. Ben called my dad, his old friend from Oklahoma, and had my dad come to Farmington to run the ranch for him when I was 5 years old. John Miller came from Oklahoma and lived on the ranch to go to Modesto Junior College. So John and I roped together since we were little kids.”
Virgil Berry was a special brand of ranch cowboy who was known for his rope-horse training. He’s who taught Ace-the high school class president and captain of the football team-to rope and be a handy horseman.
Ace Berry and Phil Lyne are the only two cowboys in rodeo history to win roughstock and timed-event average titles at the NFR. Phil added a pair of National Finals Steer Roping averages to his resume in 1983 and 1986, but both men struck twice at the 1972 NFR. Ace won the bareback riding and team roping averages that year-heeling for Miller in the team tying and dally roping-and Phil topped the tie-down roping and bull riding. Ace’s 685 points on 10 horses was at the time an NFR bareback riding record.
“Phil Lyne is the greatest all-around cowboy I’ve ever seen in the rodeo arena, period, bar none,” Ace said.
If you know Phil, you know he’s a quiet, humble guy who would never brag. Ace is the same way, and at that 1972 NFR his two-event feat kind of flew under the radar, even though it actually happened earlier in the rodeo. When Phil stepped off his last bull, announcer Mel Lambert brought the crowd to its feet for a standing ovation. C.R. Boucher was working the chutes, and yelled up to Lambert that he’d overlooked Ace. “OK, Ace Berry did it too,” is what the cowboys remember about that. Ace never would have said a word. He knew what he’d done, and that was good enough for him.
On the last day of that 1972 NFR, Ace was having breakfast when a Rodeo Sports News staffer asked Ace, “Do you realize Phil Lyne has a chance to win two events today?” Naturally, Ace did not correct him either.
If you don’t quite yet get the picture about Ace Berry being an all-around hand, take a look back at the 1965 NFR, where he team roped with Sonny Tureman. The Finals was eight rounds instead of 10 that year, and Ace headed for Tureman in the team tying and heeled for him in the dally roping. “We switched ends because Sonny couldn’t tie the square knot,” Ace smiles.
Tureman mentored Berry in the bareback riding, and 1964-65 World Champion Bareback Rider Jim Houston sponsored him. “Jim entered me for half when I first started going to the winter rodeos,” Ace remembers appreciatively.
Berry, who was recognized as the 1972 Stanislaus County Outstanding Athlete of the Year, has also been honored by the Oakdale Cowboy Museum in his hometown. He was inducted into the Oakdale Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum in 2002. Of his many in-arena achievements, which were followed by about a dozen years of running some 4,000 head of cattle on area ranches, Ace’s favorite is winning both events at the 1972 NFR. “There are a lot of things that have to happen just right for that to happen,” he said. “You have to draw right and have a lot of luck. It’s kind of like playing golf for 18 holes, only with two events it’s like 36 holes. You have to stay focused.”
The two guys Ace traveled with most were saddle bronc rider Hugh Chambliss and Australian bareback rider Jimmy Dix. “We were pretty tight,” he said. “I never did travel very good. I just hated the road. I was pretty notorious for pulling up and coming back to the ranch. Those guys would get me entered and keep me going long enough to get the Finals made.”
Ace roped at 14 straight NFRs from 1962-75, and rode bareback horses at the Finals six times, in 1967, and from 1969-73. He judged the bareback riding at the NFR in 1985, and flagged the NFR team roping in 1986. He won about every professional rodeo there was, many more than once and in more than one event, from El Paso (three years in a row) to Denver, San Antonio to San Francisco, Reno to Cheyenne, Calgary, Salinas, Tucson, Livermore, Phoenix, Nampa, Lewiston and Pendleton. He won all three rounds at Pendleton one year, and led the pack by 10 or 15 points rolling into the short round, where he drew Harry Vold’s great mare Necklace.
Ace’s hand popped out of his riggin’ right after the whistle, and he got knocked out when the back of his head hit the grass infield. “When I came to, they were handing me all kinds of neat stuff,” he laughs. He won Pendleton a second time in dominating fashion when it was one long round and a short. Ace won the opening round, split the short round aboard Vold’s notorious Smokey and won the average.
Ace, who’s married to 1976-77 NFR barrel racer and fellow Oklahoma native Renee Sutherland, is still amazed that he’ll be inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame this summer. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’m still in shock. You can’t go any higher than that. It’s the biggest honor you can have. I’m still getting calls every day from all over the country.”
Ironically, all Dan Mortensen had to do to get inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame was retire. The recent ruling that contestants complete their careers before being considered for induction-which seems to make unanimous sense not only because their body of work is complete but because they appreciate the rare honor more looking back than when still looking forward-is all that’s kept Mortensen from being immortalized for a few years now. When Mortensen tied the legendary Casey Tibbs in 2003 for a record six world saddle bronc riding championships, well, that was all she wrote on the slam-dunk deserves- to-be-in-the-Hall front.
“I announced my retirement last fall,” he said. “I hadn’t been rodeoing for quite awhile, but I wanted to be sure before I made it official. My body told me it was over, but I wanted to get healed up to see if I’d feel differently. I broke my foot in Dallas. I got to where I had a lot of back pain. When you’re hurting and constantly fighting injuries, it takes a lot of the fun out of it.”
The 1990 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Saddle Bronc Riding Rookie of the Year qualified for his first of 16 NFRs that same year. (The record for most NFR bronc riding appearances is owned by the timeless Billy Etbauer at 20.) Mortensen won the NFR average in 1994. He won his first world saddle bronc riding championship in 1993, and his name’s on the gold buckles dated 1993-95, 1997-98 and 2003. In 2003, Mortensen became the first roughstock rider in history to break the $2 million mark in career earnings. He won more than $2.5 million in his colorful career. Mortensen twice claimed the $50,000 at the Calgary Stampede.
Mortensen also won the coveted world all-around crown in 1997, with a little help from the bull riding event. “I got on seven bulls that year,” he remembers well. “I rode them all, and placed on six of them. You had to win $3,000 for another event to count for the all-around, so when I got to $3,000 I quit entering. But I went ahead and got on at the rodeos I’d already entered.”
Mortensen won about $12,000 on those six bulls, including the win at Walla Walla and splitting Moses Lake (Wash.). “I rode bulls all through high school,” he explained. “I got recruited to college as a bull rider, and filled my PRCA permit riding bulls. When I graduated from college, I jumped in with (Canadian champ and 19-time NFR saddle bronc rider) Rod Hay, and we wanted to make a hard run at making the NFR in the saddle bronc riding, so I didn’t feel I could do both. I didn’t plan to give up bull riding permanently, but then my bronc riding took off and I never really did look back.”
Mortensen, 40, is a native of Billings, Mont. An 18-foot bronze sculpture featuring the Mighty Mort in action stands front and center at the Montana Wall of Champions outside Metra Arena in Billings. It’s reminiscent of the one of Tibbs that graces the entrance of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Road signs recognize Billings’ best cowboy as you drive in and out of town.
“Being tied with Casey Tibbs for the most bronc riding titles is a special deal,” Mortensen said. “I also recognize that Casey Tibbs accomplished a lot more in rodeo than just six saddle bronc riding titles. I only tied him in one particular category. So that’s not saying I’m as good as Casey Tibbs. I have a very special respect for what he did in and for this sport.”
Mortensen graduated with honors with an agricultural business degree and a minor in economics from Montana State University in Bozeman. He was the 1991 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association saddle bronc riding champion. Mortensen was inducted into MSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
He and Hay shared a buddy group and a bond for much of Mortensen’s career. “Rod was always so positive,” Mortensen said. “He had the best mindset. He taught me so much, not only about the event, but about rodeo in general and being positive. Everything was always black and white with Rod, and it was important to him to always do the right thing. When we first jumped in together and started rodeoing, our goal was to go as hard as we could. We never turned out unless we absolutely had to. And we always gave 100 percent.”
Mortensen won his first of seven Montana Circuit saddle bronc riding championships as a PRCA permit-holder in 1989, and won the circuit bull riding title in 1991. Mortensen was the Montana Circuit all-around champ in 1990-91. He won Columbia River Circuit saddle bronc riding championships in 1999, and 2001-02. Mortensen won the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo saddle bronc riding buckle in 1994, ’97 and 2003, and was the DNCFR all-around winner in 1992.
“You look back over your career and there are several high points,” he said. “The first world title you win is always special. The one that tied Casey Tibbs is definitely special. The bronze recognizing me in my own community is special. Now being put in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame is special to me. It’s verification of what a person’s accomplished. It verifies that you made it in this sport, and that they consider you one of the best. I always considered it an honor to get on the really good horses, and I got on a lot of them, from Airwolf to Skitso and Painted Smile. I won some and I lost some. Either way, those are the rides to remember.”
My first memory of Ted Nuce was at a District 5 high school rodeo over in Oakdale. It must have been a multi-district rodeo, because I was in District 4 at the time, but I remember three things about that day. It was rainy and muddy and cold, and I was extra miserable because I dislocated my knee in the goat tying-again-and it was blown up like a basketball. The third thing that always stuck in my mind from that day was this bull rider with a funny looking hat that barely had a brim on it. I didn’t know any bull riders personally back then, and didn’t usually pay much attention to that end of the arena, to be honest. But this kid stuck out. He was anything but average, and his unusual talent made an impression on me.
Ted grew up in that San Joaquin Valley region of California, and graduated from Manteca High. He got on his first bull at Bill Lynn’s house in Oakdale, where they had a little weekly jackpot, when he was 14 or 15.
In 1980, his first year out of high school, Nuce was named the PRCA Bull Riding Rookie of the Year. He qualified for his first of a record 14 straight NFRs in 1982. Only Nuce and Wacey Cathey rode at as many Finals, and Nuce is the Lone Ranger among men who managed to do it consecutively (1982-95) in rodeo’s most dangerous event.
“To make 14 NFRs was a lot, because we had to go to so many rodeos every year,” Nuce said. “It was nothing to go to 125 rodeos, and in the early years we went to 150. Wacey was a great bull rider. He loved it. And he always had a good time.”
Nuce is now 48 and lives in Stephenville, Texas (which has an ongoing friendly feud with Oakdale over which town is the real Cowboy Capital of the World), with his wife, Stephanie, and young sons, Wyatt, 3, and Westyn, 1. Looking back, he’s hard-pressed to pick a single career highlight. “Winning a world championship was great,” he said. “But there were so many great days. I got to ride with some of my heroes, like Donnie Gay and Denny Flynn. I had a lot of help and a lot of cool experiences along the way. I got to travel with guys like Bobby DelVecchio and Charlie Sampson.
“Charlie won the world the year I made my first Finals. He taught me to believe in myself. I went to (Larry) Mahan’s school in the 1970s at Bob Cook’s arena in Clements before I was old enough to drive. A couple years later, I went to Gary Leffew’s school. He told me if I wanted to be a world champion I had to think positively.”
As a rookie in 1980, Nuce traveled with Donnie Gay’s 1979 reserve titlist Jerry Beagley. Beagley brought Nuce up to speed on the business of entering rodeos and similarly important strategizing and logistics. Then there was that magical year with Sampson in 1982. “We had a lot in common, and we had a lot of fun,” Nuce remembers. “That year Charlie won the world he was on fire. He couldn’t draw a bad bull, and he had such a great year it was unbelievable. I was in awe. I missed the Finals in 1981, then started traveling with Charlie in 1982, and it was a breeze.”
Nuce won the gold bull riding buckle in 1985. He also won the NFR average that year. He was runner-up to the likes of Tuff Hedeman, Lane Frost and Jim Sharp in the 1986, ’87, ’88 and ’91 world championship races, and in 1988 captured the bull riding gold medal (along with the team gold as a member of the Team USA squad) at the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. Nuce won the Calgary Stampede in 1992. The eight-time Sierra Circuit bull riding champ won the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in the spring of 1996. He walked away from the game that summer.
“I got on my last bull at Reno in June that year,” said Nuce, who cleared the million-dollar mark in career earnings one ride at a time. “I was entered up over the Fourth, but I didn’t go. I’d been at it 16 years, and hadn’t ever taken a break from the time I started. I never slowed up in all those years. I went as hard as I could as long as I could. But I got to where I didn’t love it anymore. I no longer had that passion and burning desire. When you have to make yourself go, it’s time to quit.”
He could easily have made it 15 years in a row to the Finals. After qualifying for the 1995 NFR, he was off to a good start in 1996. But Nuce knew in his gut that he was playing far too dangerous a game to go about it half-cocked. “I just couldn’t make myself go anymore,” he said. “I was very blessed to never get hurt where I was out for more than a month or so. I rode through most of my injuries. If you truly love what you’re doing, it’s amazing what you can make yourself do. In fact, you can do just about anything if you truly love it. But when it was over, I couldn’t make myself go anymore. I was at the end of my rope.”
Nuce doesn’t necessarily have one personal all-time favorite ride. But there was one he replayed as a highlight reel in his mind before so many other rides. “A ride I used to visualize in my mind before I rode was on Bernis Johnson’s Bar 88, Supreme Velvet,” he said. “He was a rank bull, and I won the fourth round on him at the 1984 NFR. He was a really exciting bull in the eliminator pen. He was so big and bad, and he didn’t allow you to make any mistakes if you wanted to ride him. I did everything correct. I had to.”
Nuce, who’s also been honored by the Manteca Sports Hall of Distinction, is understandably sentimental about his induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “This is what I dreamed of when I was a little kid,” he said. “Rodeo’s been very good to me. I was able to live my dream, and now this is the perfect ending to that part of my life. What I accomplished in rodeo has helped me in all kinds of business endeavors over the years. Going into the Hall is my last hurrah as a bull rider.
What might be more amazing than the fact that Walt Arnold of Silverton, Texas, qualified for the National Finals Steer Roping 19 times (1965-67, 1969-72, 1974-82 and 1984-86) is the fact that he didn’t hit the full-time rodeo trail until he was 25. Arnold, who was the world champion steer roper in 1969, is tied with Jim Davis at 19 NFSRs. Only Guy Allen at 31, and Arnold Felts at 20, have competed at more NFSRs. Arnold won steer roping titles at such premier PRCA events as Pendleton (Ore.) and Pecos (Texas), and the “Daddy of ’em All” at Cheyenne, and racked up many an all-around title during his tenure atop the sport.
Arnold, now 70, was the reserve world champion steer roper in 1971 (Olin Young eclipsed him by a scant $538 that year) and 1978-79. Arnold captured NFSR average crowns in 1965 and 1978. Arnold served as the PRCA’s steer roping director from 1974-77. He also competed at the NFR in 1966 and 1968. He headed for Bob Ragsdale in 1966, and for Tim Prather in 1968. NFR tie-down roper and heeler Ragsdale roped left-handed, by the way.
I love looking back at the careers and lives of previously forgotten cowboy legends. There’s just something so great about finally giving them their deserved due. Leonard Ward was the first-ever cowboy Triple Crown winner. He won world bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and all-around titles in 1934, and started rodeo’s Triple Crown tradition that has since been carried on by Everett Bowman, Louis Brooks, Bill Linderman, Casey Tibbs, Harry Thompkins, Jim Shoulders, Roy Cooper and Trevor Brazile.
In his banner year of 1934, Ward-who rodeoed out of Talent, Ore.-won titles at 16 rodeos in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding and steer decorating. A badly broken leg suffered in the steer decorating event at the 1937 California Rodeo in Salinas ended Ward’s heyday. Ward completely called it quits in 1941, when he was 38, and worked construction on Midway Island in the Pacific, near Hawaii. Shortly after being transferred to Wake Island, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ward was captured by the Japanese and held captive for 45 months in Japan. Upon his release, Ward returned to his native Oregon and continued with his construction and ranching careers. Ward, who married Mary Hittson at age 25 but had no children, was born in 1903 and died in 1985.
Erv Korkow joined forces with fellow South Dakota stock contractor Jim Sutton Sr. in 1958 and started the Korkow-Sutton Rodeo Company. Korkow-Sutton showcased bucking stock at every NFR from the first one in 1959 until the company disbanded in 1968. After the Korkow-Sutton alliance ended, Erv and his son Jim produced events as Korkow Rodeos. The Korkow family takes great pride in having participating in all of the first 50 NFRs. The only year in that span that the Korkow name did not show up on the livestock roster was 1982, when the Korkows sold five of their first-string bucking horses late in the season, after the horses had been selected to buck in the big show in Oklahoma City.
Erv Korkow received the 1970 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Award of Merit. He was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1992, and was twice honored in his home state with an official Erv Korkow Day. Korkow traveled an interesting route to becoming an iconic rodeo figure. When the Great Depression hit, he quit school to drive a horse-drawn school bus. He also owned and operated the Northwestern Motor Company, Korkow Trucking and Red Horse Service Station along the way. Korkow started his herd with horses bought from the Cheyenne Reservation, and trailed them the hundred miles home before breaking them. Korkow was born in 1914, and died in 1993.