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The sad, ironic death of rodeo champion Bob Blackwood

Bob Blackwood was born July 25, 1943, in a Southern California town called, of all things, Farmersville. He was born destitute, the son of itinerant farmers; his father would die when Bob was a child, the victim of a lung disease contracted after years of inhaling a poisonous pesticide used to spray crops. Bob's family moved to Missouri when he was still a kid, and he began riding neighbors' steers when he was in elementary school. He was also a basketball player; bull-riding was not yet his passion when he was in high school.

But after graduation, his hobby had become an obsession, and he began entering area rodeos. At first, he was such a novice that he didn't even have the right equipment. "He went to his first rodeo with a pair of roping spurs on," Ellen says, smiling. "He didn't know anything. And, of course, everybody laughed at him." No one told him what he was doing wrong; Bob would have to learn all by himself, getting thrown so often, his body and ego ached in equal measure.

He wouldn't begin winning big-time rodeos till he was in his 20s; he captured his first title in Mesquite in 1974 and was crowned the International Professional Rodeo Association's Southern Region Saddle Bronc Champion in 1980. Bob wouldn't win a world title till he turned 40 and entered the Senior Pro Rodeo Association circuit in the 1980s, garnering titles in 1989 and 1993. He was a champion at 50, a man who stood only five-foot-six but walked taller, stronger, straighter than men half his age. Old videotapes of his winning rides show him to be a man rarely thrown from his saddle; like the best of rodeo heroes, he seemed to walk a little closer to the ground than most men.

"What makes a rodeo rider a champion is heart," Ellen says. "You have to have ability, and it has to be your purpose, but it's the heart." No one questioned whether Blackwood, riding well into middle age, had heart.

He was as tough as the steel he used to make his spurs, which he began doing in the late 1960s, after he had his gear stolen during a rodeo. With no money to buy his own spurs, Blackwood was forced to borrow a friend's welding tools and make his own. In time, he would create a revolutionary spur bent at a 22.5 degree angle, which made it easier for Blackwood to provoke his animal without having to turn his toes out, which he couldn't do very well.

Soon enough, he would begin a business out of his back pocket, literally: Riders saw the spur, which Blackwood kept in his jeans, and asked him to make them a pair. In a matter of a few years, Blackwood was manufacturing hundreds a month. Ellen and George continue to run the business out of the Blackwoods' home and a garage-turned-factory-turned-store on U.S. Highway 380 in Farmersville. They estimate Bob Blackwood Manufacturing sells about 40 pairs of spurs a week to riders across the country.

Blackwood's first set of spurs now sits in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, but he would never become a rodeo legend like Lane Smith, Don Gay, Tuff Hedeman, Larry Shoulders, or Bob's old friend Larry Mahan. His name isn't much uttered outside the close-knit confines of the rodeo circuit. Rather, he was a more unknown brand of hero--more an inspiration, almost a myth. For years, rodeo fans would marvel at the fact that this man would continue to ride well after so many of his peers had hung up their spurs and ropes. But he was more than a novelty. Hell, he was a champ, a bona fide cowboy, and he could never retire for more than a few months; just when he thought it was time to get off the road, he would saddle up one more time.

"The horse doesn't know we're old," Bob told a Channel 4 reporter many years ago, a young man who couldn't understand why one so old would continue to risk his neck in the arena. In a soft drawl, Bob tried to explain why he couldn't give up his lifelong pursuit despite his age, despite the risk. "It's the competitiveness," he said, a matter-of-fact grin across a face that grew only more handsome with the wear and tear, "and it's the feeling of a horse bucking underneath you and knowing you're doing the best you can. It's a feeling you can't explain."

When Ellen first met Bob--who had been married once before, when he was still a young man--she didn't even much like rodeo. Born in Scottsdale, Arizona, she found them "too boring" to watch. Yet she fell in love with her rodeo king the moment she first met Bob at a dance in Tempe in 1966, where he was riding on the circuit. He serenaded her with a Hank Williams song, and she was his.

For years, theirs was a difficult marriage, to say the very least. For the most part, it seems, Bob avoided the buckle bunnies who hovered around winners, but he was always the first guy to the bar and the one who turned out the lights long after last call. Ellen began barrel-racing in the early 1970s, and their lives were almost separate: He'd be in one part of the country, riding in amateur association rodeos, she in another. Their paths barely crossed even after they left Arizona in 1971, lived on the road for three years, then moved to Texas for good.

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