Legends Never Die

None of us who knew Lane Frost-or even those who only wish they had-will ever forget him. Lane left a mark in rodeo’s record books and all our memory banks that will not fade in any of our lifetimes. He was truly that special.

Lane had the charisma of Elvis, and he didn’t reserve his endearing personality for paying customers. He had time for anyone who happened by, from the star-struck 5-year-old kid in search of calf riding tips to the 95-year-old rancher wanting to talk about the affects of the drought on this year’s calf crop. It sometimes drove his traveling partners crazy to have to wait on Lane, and they harassed him and called him a politician for it, but he didn’t do it for publicity points. When Lane asked you a question, he looked you in the eye, paused and eagerly awaited your answer.

Lane had it all, including that rare combination of God-given talent and the tireless determination to always strive for more. For such a pretty-boy looker, his bull riding peers marveled at how tough he was, and that toughness was tried time after time. Lane was never known for textbook dismounts, even after some of his most spectacular rides. If he wasn’t unconscious, he always found a way to grit his teeth, get up and out of the arena.

Amazingly, Lane called on adrenaline to get to his feet-if only for a moment-after taking a fatal blow to the back by a Bad Company Rodeo bull they called Takin’ Care of Business. He motioned to his friends at the chutes that he needed help-and they ran as fast as they could through that arena mud-but they were helpless. We were all helpless and in shock, even before we really had time to grasp what had happened.

July 30, 1989 was a cold, dark day at the “Daddy of ’em All.” I was there to interview all the winners that short-round Sunday at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, and was down at the timed-event end talking to the last event’s champ when I stopped taking notes to watch Lane ride.

We’d all been laughing back behind the bucking chutes earlier in the day, when George Michael had Lane and his best friend, Tuff Hedeman, on camera for a Sports Machine TV interview. There was a whole lot of heckling and giggling going on, and the silver dental appliances recently placed in his mouth to keep his teeth on track after a wreck almost gave Lane a little lisp. Didn’t bother him a bit, though. He just kept laughing.

It was great to see Lane make the whistle again after a rough run of rodeos in recent times. But when Lane landed in that bull’s path, the bull got in one blow to the back with his horn on the way by. I think there’s little doubt that the protective vests Cody Lambert later designed-the vests worn by virtually all roughstock riders today-would likely have saved Lane’s life. I have to go with fate on this one, and have peace that it was Lane’s time, because we’d all seen him walk away from lots of far more violent looking wrecks.

When Lane motioned for help, and the guys with the stretcher headed his way, I excused myself from my interview and took off toward the bucking chutes at a trot. “Not again,” I thought, honestly dreading nothing worse than yet another nagging injury he’d have to sit out to heal up from. I was distracted along the way by the sight of another bull rider leaned up against a fencepost-crying. I stopped, put my hand on his back and asked him what was wrong. “They say Lane didn’t make it,” he blubbered.

I ran for the medics room behind the bucking chutes, where they were working on Lane. As I rounded the last corner, the ambulance was burning rubber, lights flashing. I jumped in my truck, and headed for the hospital. I didn’t make it across the hospital parking lot on foot before Tom Reeves (who later went on to win a world saddle bronc riding title and be inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame) stopped me for a helpless hug. I kept going. It couldn’t possibly be. My confirmation came at the front steps of the hospital, when Cody came stumbling out on the verge of collapse. It was true. At 25-in the prime of his life and career-Lane was gone.

Tuff sat with Lane while they unplugged him from every machine modern medicine had used to try and save him. He gave Lane a hug and a kiss, told him he loved him and said, “See ya.” Then it was the job of Lane’s best friend to call his parents, Clyde and Elsie.

“I was standing in the arena when it happened,”

Tuff recalls. “When he waved at people to come in and help him I knew it was bad. Lane had the kind of toughness that if he had two broken legs he’d have walked out of the arena. Lane’s pain tolerance was very high.”

Tuff rode with Lane in the ambulance to the hospital, and the short trip across town remains an understandable blur. “I was hoping and praying-a million things were going through my head-but I knew it was bad,” Tuff said. “They tried to revive him in the ambulance, and kept going in the emergency room. But Lane was gone before he left the arena.”

Lane’s service still seems surreal to me. When I patted him on the chest in that casket, I just knew he would pop up and start laughing. I can still see the miles and miles of headlights of people coming to pay their respects, and remember how when we left that church there were huge herds of people everywhere who’d stood outside to listen to the service on loudspeakers.

I remember stopping for gas, and having the lady that worked at the convenience store tell us about how Lane had seen her broken down on the side of the road one day and stopped to help her change a tire. I remember how Lane was buried by his fellow world champion bull rider, dear friend, adopted grandpa and mentor Freckles Brown. “Lane really idolized Freckles,” Elsie told me. “He hung on his every word, be it baling hay or riding bulls.” I remember how Clyde and Elsie used Lane’s world champion autograph pad I sent them from the PRCA office and the saying George Michael used to describe Lane in his special salute to Lane on the Sports Machine-“Lane Frost: A champion in the arena. A champion in life”-on his headstone.

I also remember how lost Tuff was without Lane, and how it took the longest time to break myself of the habit. I realized after Lane left that I’d never said “Tuff” or “Lane.” It was always “Tuff and Lane,” or “Lane and Tuff.” After we all got together one more time to say goodbye, Tuff went back out there. It was impossibly hard, even for a guy named Richard who earned his nickname when he got his hand slammed in a car door as a little boy and refused to cry.

“I was back on the trail by that next weekend,” Tuff said. “I went to Casper, got on and was 80 points. But I was in another world. I got off and walked back behind the chutes. I sat down by myself back behind the pens and cried for what seemed like forever.

“My first thought after losing Lane was that I didn’t want to do anything. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ But sitting around asking ‘why?’ wouldn’t have helped anything. I asked myself, ‘If I got killed, would I want my friends to quit what they live for because of me?’ And I thought, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Lane had a great life. He did exactly what he wanted to do. Nobody gets out of here alive, and he made a pretty great exit. He kicked butt and took names at a great rodeo, then he left.”

The morning after Lane died, Tuff and Cody flew him home to Clyde and Elsie on a plane chartered by the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo committee. “It was the longest flight of my life,” Tuff remembers. “There was my best friend in the world laying right next to me in a bag. Losing Lane is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my whole life. I still think about him every day.”

He says his name every day, too. Tuff’s first son, Robert Lane, turns 18 this month. He just graduated from high school. Seems like just yesterday when Tuff bailed off his last bull after winning Reno, and I grabbed him for an over-the-fence interview while he was still breathless because I was running late to catch a flight. The first photo I ever saw of his Lane came from inside his cowboy hat at Reno. “That’s my boy,” Tuff beamed. My Lane just got his driver’s license. It seems impossible that our babies are becoming young men, and even more unlikely that Lane Frost has actually been gone 20 years.

Lane and his friendly foe, the great bull Red Rock, were immortalized with induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1990. Lane and Red Rock’s storied Challenge of Champions match between the 1987 world champion bull rider and world champion bull inspired award-winning filmmaker David Wittkower to produce a documentary by the same name about Lane and Red Rock. It was a welcomed record-straightening historical document for his family and friends.

So many of today’s young people know Lane only by what they saw in the Hollywood rendition they called “8 Seconds.” While we were all thrilled to see him remembered in such a mainstream movie, the inaccuracies in that one runneth over. Truth is, the facts of Lane’s life were more glorious and exciting than the ones they swapped for fiction. Lane’s dad, Clyde, for example, was so very proud of Lane. Still is.

Wittkower’s “The Challenge of Champions: The Story of Lane Frost and Red Rock” was recently honored by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City as the 2009 winner in the documentary film category. The film premiered in Oklahoma City last October, when Lane was inducted. A special July 9 showing will kick off the 2009 ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction celebration festivities in Colorado Springs, to be followed by the July 11 Class of 2009 inductions.

Lane Frost will be there in spirit. He was always there in spirit. When he was just a baby, Elsie remembers him crying when she and Clyde would try to beat the traffic by leaving a rodeo before the bull riding was over. “Lane would sleep through most of the rodeo, but when the bull riding would start he would wake up and really start watching what was going on,” she remembers well. “This particular time (at the rodeo in San Antonio), I got up to go when there were still four or five bull riders left. I had Robin (Lane’s big sister) by the hand and was carrying Lane, with a diaper bag and purse slung over one shoulder.

“As we walked out of the seating area, Lane started to cry and looked back toward the arena. I thought, ‘He acts like he wants to stay and watch the bull riding, but no, he’s not old enough to know what’s going on.’ Just to see what he would do, I turned around and walked back in where he could see the arena and what was going on. He stopped crying immediately. There was just something about bull riding that fascinated Lane.” (Lane’s little brother, Cody, came along a little later.)

Lane and Tuff first met at the 1980 National High School Finals Rodeo in Yakima, Wash. “We both made the short go there,” Tuff remembers. “Everybody was already talking about Lane Frost. I thought, ‘So what?’ He was a pretty boy. I wanted to dislike him when I met him. He was better than me and he was the most popular guy in the world. He was cool. But he was really nice. Lane ended up third or fourth, and I got drilled.”

They met again the following summer at the high school finals in Douglas, Wyo. “By then, he was even better than the year before,” Tuff says. “He won first and I won second. We still didn’t talk much. I was intimidated by him. The bottom line was he was a lot prettier than me and he rode a lot better than me.”

The Frost-Hedeman one-two punch rolled right on into their professional rodeo days. Their buddy group owned their event for years. Tuff won the world championship in 1986 (Lane won the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo bull riding average that year; the only bull who managed to get him down was John Growney and Don Kish’s Red Rock). Then it was Lane in 1987 (Tuff won the NFR average), Jim Sharp in 1988 (Jim also became the first bull rider ever to ride all 10 bulls at the Finals that year), Tuff in 1989 (Tuff and Jim split the average), Jim in 1990 (Norman Curry won the NFR) and Tuff in 1991 (Michael Gaffney won the Finals). And yes, Tuff really did ride his last bull at the 1989 NFR eight seconds for the world title and another eight for Lane.

To this day, you’ll find Clyde and Elsie sitting in their same seats behind the Thomas & Mack Center bucking chutes, cheering for everyone else’s sons as if they were their own. Lane’s widow, Kellie, married another dear friend of mine, NFR header Mike Macy, and they have two beautiful kids in Aaron and Brogan.

Lane Frost is gone, but never forgotten. I always wonder how history would have been different if he could have stuck around. He certainly made his mark, in so many ways. Long live the legend of Lane Frost.

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