Saturday, December 12, 2009

This isn't their first rodeo: Meet the people behind the NFR

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 | 2 a.m.

This isn't Binion Cervi's first rodeo.

Twenty-five years ago, the National Finals Rodeo came to Las Vegas. Cervi, then the barely one-year-old son of Mike Cervi — the man responsible for producing many of the largest rodeos in the country — tagged along his father for what would become an annual trip to the desert.

"I can't remember it," Cervi said, "But I was there and boy, have things changed since then."

Boy have they.

Once a wide-eyed youngster roaming the rodeo as his father worked, the 25-year-old Binion is now in charge of Cervi Championship Rodeo, one of the largest stock companies in rodeo history, and is attending his 25th consecutive rodeo in Las Vegas.

"Besides this weather," he said in a Southern drawl as he fought the wind outside of Thomas & Mack Center, "there is a lot more change. Consider that when we first came to Vegas, there were less than half the amount of stock contractors so that's a pretty drastic change."

His father, Mike, got into the rodeo business in 1966 and acquired the Cervi Championship Rodeo Company, previously owned by Harry Knight and Gene Autry, in 1973.

Five years ago, in 2004, Mike sold the business to Binion.

"My dad wanted it to be a family business like a lot of other people's are," Cervi said. "I grew up in it so it's nothing new to me."

Cervi owns the livestock that the cowboys compete on. For this year's Wrangler NFR Finals, they have brought seven horses, six bulls and 11 saddle horses.

The NFR only selects 100 animals in each event out of the 72 stock contractors that nominate livestock, and Cervis makes his selections from a herd of over 600 animals at their Colorado ranches.

"You're fortunate to get whatever you get," Cervi said. "That's why this event is so unique. There are stock contractors here from all across North America, and you have so many people pledging to participate."

From bulls to the booth

This isn't Randy Taylor's first rodeo, either.

The former bareback rider turned NFR announcer has been attending the prestigious event since the 1970's, when he was competing in his home state of Oklahoma before the rodeo moved to Las Vegas in 1985.

"The city of lights has taken rodeo to a different level," Taylor said. "The first year here, paychecks were triple than they were the year before and that was when you could tell the ball would get rolling."

Taylor used to earn his paychecks competing on bulls, now the Tulsa, Okla., native earns them by coloring the competition through words.

A graduate of the University of Wyoming, Taylor discovered his second calling one day next to the bull ring, years after a professor at Wyoming told him he should give broadcasting a shot.

"One day after my ride, I was icing my elbow and listening to the announcers on the radio," he said. "As a rider from Tulsa it frustrated me that Oklahoma got such little recognition."

And so the seeds of a career were planted.

Introduced at the first Las Vegas NFR in 1985, Taylor was introduced by fellow announcer Randy Corley, who said after introducing the rider, "You can take the finals out of Oklahoma, but you can't take Oklahoma out of the finals."

After riding Lonesome Me from Calgary, Taylor was a first-hand witness to a new era in rodeo.

"There's an old cowboy saying that they don't buck like we used to," Taylor said. "That saying is obsolete though because this past decade the biggest change has been the breeding programs for the bucking horses and bulls.

"They have really catapulted the depth and quality in the herds. The cowboys now are getting on horses that are unbelievable, that have excelled the caliber of athletes in horses and bulls."

That and, of course, the money have changed the classic event for good. This year, the NFR has a total purse of $5.75 million.

"That's a lot of money," Taylor said. "Maybe not for a football player, but for us, that's a ranch right there."

From star to teacher

Nor is it Gary Leffew's first rodeo.

No, Leffew has eaten, drank and slept the rodeo for more than 40 years. He's a champion, a teacher and an actor, but above all, he's a cowboy.

"The great thing about this is you don't have a boss to report to and you only have to work eight seconds a day," Leffew said, his face still roughly — but perfectly — wrinkled.

"You work all year and you set aside a week or ten days for a celebration, and this is it," he said, smiling. "There's magic in the air, the energy is high and I was as hooked on that as I was riding bulls."

Leffew is a Santa Maria, Calif. Native who won the 1970 bull riding competition in Oklahoma. His success on bulls has translated into a teaching role, as he now heads the Leffew Bull Riding Academy.

"I've spent 40 years studying this game," he said, "And the biggest difference now is money. Lots of money. Today, the guys are a little more focused as sport-athletes. We were a little bit more into partying and fun back then."

Leffew grew up on Westerns and movies and saw the rodeo as a way of living the Wild West.

"You rode at the rodeo, went to the bar and a fight would always break out," he said. "No guns, no knives, just good old clean fighting. Looked like the movies."

With his long locks and signature cowboy hat, Leffew became one of rodeo's first true stars, appearing on commercials for all kinds of products, including American Airlines and Toyota.

"I had the same attitude in front of the camera as I did riding bulls," he said. "It's not what you look like in the face, but it's what you have radiating off of you. That's why they call it a star."

After his riding days, Leffew continued to be amassed by the rodeo and worked on tutoring young riders. His stature drew the attention of Hollywood, and soon he was teaching actors how to ride bulls, such as Luke Perry in "Eight Seconds" and Cliff Robertson in "J.W. Coop."

"Most of what I teach is mental," Leffew said. "The first rodeo I went to, after 30 days of visualization I was one point off the all-time record and finished runner-up to the greatest bull rider that ever lived, George Paul.

"My big successes came after I got into positive thinking and started to learn how to program my mind with the end result of pictures and feelings of how I wanted to perform," he said. "The same holds true with actors. That's how they act, they get into character."

He said the Wild West he once rode in is disappearing by the day.

"This is the most fun and free lifestyle that I can think of," he said. "But it's getting tougher all the time. I don't know if they had as much fun as we did. There was more romance, no vests, no helmets, but nowadays, anytime you're making that much money, you just ride to live another day."

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