Back in 1998, when I was 26 and trying to work my way up the Sports Illustrated masthead, I was eternally on the lookout for story ideas. I certainly wasn’t going to be given any pieces over the Steve Rushins and Leigh Montvilles and Tom Verduccis, so I took it upon myself to find quirky and unique and oddball subjects.
One day, while doing an Internet search on “rodeo,” I stumbled upon a pair of teenage brothers—Jet and Cord McCoy—who were primed to dominate professional bull riding. That was enough for me, and before long I found myself in the back of a pickup truck, crisscrossing Oklahoma with Jet, Cord and the rest of their family. It was a fantastic time—these were genuinely good, big-hearted people who, to my utter shock, had never tried a bagel.
The story finally ran, and as a token of my appreciation I FedExed two dozen Hot & Crusty bagels to the McCoys. Though I can’t exactly say we’ve stayed in touch, I’ve always followed Jet and Cord from afar. I’m no bull expert, but it seems their careers have gone awfully well. Even cooler, they’re now two-time contestants on the Amazing Race.
Here, Cord talks bulls, bulls and more bulls. He breaks down what it’s like to have your skull crushed, what it takes to be a star and what the bulls think of gay riders. Cord McCoy, welcome to the Quaz Rodeo … (PS: Huge props to the awesome Cody Croswell for the PBR video below)
JEFF PEARLMAN: Cord, 14 years ago—when I was 26 and you were 18—I traveled to Tupelo, Oklahoma to meet Jet and Cord McCoy, teenage rodeo stars and the future of the sport. You were young and green and about to embark on an amazing adventure. Which makes me want to ask, with genuine curiosity: Has the ride lived up to the buildup? In other words, have you enjoyed your career? And what have you gotten from it, besides the chance to ride livestock for a living?
CORD MCCOY: It’s been awesome, but it’s definitely had its ups and downs and breaks and bruises. But I’d do it all again! It’s allowed me to see the world and meet lots of people. I’ve made friends that will last forever. •
J.P.: I think, in large part because of Disney movies and such, people apply too much emotion and humanity to animals. We like to think they feel as we do, emote as we do, etc. So, I wonder, do the bulls become a part of you? Are there bonds that are formed?
C.M.: The bulls are half of my score every time I ride but the bull is also my competition. My family has made a living raising livestock for generations so they are all big part of my life. And, yeah, I would say there are some bonds formed. Some you love and others you fear and respect. The bulls know who is feeding and caring for them but they know when it’s time to perform and I believe bulls wanna win just as badly as the cowboy. The bulls that are great at what they do pass on their genetics to the whole next generation of bucking bulls.
J.P.: You and your brother competed twice as a team on the Amazing Race. How did that come to pass? Literally, how did that opportunity present itself to you? And what do you most vividly recall from the experience? And are you now more famous for reality TV than bull riding?
C.M.: I was leaving Cheyenne Frontier Days and Jet called me up and said, “I’ve got a great idea!’ You know, Jet’s kind of a horse trader anyways. So we signed up for it. The whole race is amazing. To go all the way around the world at a dead run was such an awesome experience. We took off for a million but when it was over we got more than money.As for the fame—5 to 1 the race. When I’m in the airport, people stop me all the time for being on the race.
J.P.: I’m a New Yorker. None of my friends have even been to a rodeo, let alone roping a cow. How did this happen for you? Like, what was your path, beginning in boyhood, to choosing this profession? Was it even possible that you’d simply graduate high school, go to a four-year college and become, say, an accountant?
C.M.: I guess I was born into it! It’s crazy, because I didn’t so much choose it. I was pretty good at a young age and started making good money when I was a sophomore in high school. I got a full ride on a rodeo scholarship but when I graduated I never filled out a resume. I knew what I wanted to do.
J.P.: On September 26, 2004, your skull was crushed by a saddle bronc in Oklahoma City. You spent three days in a coma, then followed with eight months of rehab. A. Do you actually remember it happening? B. Why didn’t this convince you to retire and, oh, pick up knitting as a new passion?
C.M.: I don’t remember anything but waking up in a hospital. After it happened, at first bull riding was the last thing on my mind. I was just glad to be alive. But the further I went the more I felt the drive to get back on. I thought if I was gonna go out I wanted to go out doing something I loved.
J.P.: Does your sport have any chance of mainstream, NASCAR-esque national appeal? And what has to happen for it to take the next step?
C.M.: Professional bull riding is growing every year. I have ridden in five different countries. I’m excited for how much my kids will get to ride for.TV is doing so much for our sport in exposing bull riding to people who had never seen it. I feel like it is taking that step but it’s a slow one.
J.P.: What goes through the mind, moment by moment, as you mount and ride a bull? Is there fear?
C.M.: Heck yeah there is fear. It’s a dangerous sport. But it’s that fear that keeps you on your toes. You know if you mess up it’s gonna hurt. Your mind is pretty clear because it’s a reaction spot, making every move the bulls makes. It’s exciting, but also a thinking game. The bull is thinking how to bring you down and you are thinking how to stay up. It’s an eight-second fight but the whistle don’t make the bull stop.
J.P.: When I met you you’d never had a bagel. Now you’ve traveled the world; seen a million places; eaten every kind of food imaginable (I’m guessing). What’s the most fascinating place you’ve visited? Are you still the small-town guy who’d rather hang at home?
C.M.: Everywhere has something special to offer, but I guess my family and animals keep me coming back to Tupelo. I asked this question to my wife, Sara, and she says Maui. That was our honeymoon. It was such a good time. The travel has been great, but, yeah, I love the ranch! Bunch of horses, cattle, dogs, and wide-open spaces. J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest moment?
C.M.: Greatest: Oh, several! Riding the world champion bucking bull “Big Bucks.” Making the PBR World Finals. Riding on the world cup team in Australia. Finish line after racing around the world. Lowest: Crushing my skull. Learning to walk and talk again. Losing.
J.P.: What does it take to be a top-flight bull and sadly bronc rider? What I mean is, how much is natural ability and how much is work. Could an insanely talented athlete like, say, LeBron James or Michael Phelps, pick it up quickly?
C.M.: I think you need to have the ability but I have also been riding for 26 years. Most Major League Baseball players were playing T-ball when I was riding in my first rodeo. The same way you hit a 90 mph fastball, you take a million swings. A person has to practice a lot to get to the top, but most of those at the top have suffered lots of pain to get there.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CORD MCCOY
• Five reasons a tourist should make Tupelo, Oklahoma his next vacation spot: Where I live everyone here will know you’re a tourist. 1 You can learn some new redneck words; 2. Kountry store has catfish Friday; 3. Fresh air; 4. Friendly folks; 5. Bright stars.
• Best name you’ve ever heard for a bull?: Widow Maker
• Rank in order, favorite to least: Celine Dion, Snoop Dogg, Jordan Pious, BBQ ribs, your cell phone, Prince Fielder, New York City, mashed potatoes, High School Musical II, bagels.: BBQ ribs, cell phone, mashed potatoes, Prince Fielder, bagels, New York City, Snoop Dogg, High School Musicial II, Celine Dion, Jordan Pious
• Three things you travel with: Hat, boots, toothbrush.
• In 2012, could an openly gay competitor exist comfortably on the rodeo circuit?: The bulls don’t care.
• Why do you have such an awful photo of me on your website?: Lol, gotta talk to Mom about that!
• Who is the Michael Jordan of your sport? And why?: Justin McBride. Just a bad cat
• You’re stranded on an island with a lifetime supply of beef jerky—what flavor do you want?: Original
• The next president of the United States will be … :I’ll go to the Kountry store for coffee in the morning and find out. Those old men know before CNN does