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The sad, ironic death of rodeo champion Bob Blackwood

The life of the rodeo wife is filled with the constant anxiety that some day, a wild steer or a bucking bronco will stomp her husband to death. It is riddled with the gnawing realization that even the best of heroes can die in the arena, caught between the hard ground and the harder horns or hooves of an animal that cannot be tamed no matter how skilled the rider or how determined the effort. After all, in 1989, world champion Lane Smith--a young man whose friendly smile was equaled only by his unparalleled grace on his enraged animal--was gored in the ribs after a winning ride. Smith would never get up off the arena floor.

Ellen Blackwood keeps news accounts of Smith's death on an old videotape that also features dozens of her own husband's triumphant rides. That Bob Blackwood--rider of bucking broncos and raging bulls for so many decades, a champion even in his late 40s, a world-renowned spur maker whose creations are the property of presidents and superstar athletes, and a born-again Christian who preached along the rodeo circuit--would die suddenly, inexplicably, so ordinarily was unfathomable to Ellen. Bob had been injured on animals too often, cheated death too much, to die like a mere mortal. Cowboys don't die playing basketball.

Yet on January 20, Bob Blackwood collapsed in the bathroom of the gym at Collin County Community College in McKinney, his 26-year-old son George beside him. George, who had just received his physical-trainer's license and was working with his very first client, was able to revive his father for only a moment. Bob Blackwood would die in his son's arms, a 54-year-old rodeo champion--one of the oldest men on the circuit, one of the bravest, and, it is often said, one of the kindest--attacked by his own heart.

Less than five months later, Ellen Blackwood still can't believe her husband of 31 years could die such an ordinary death. "It doesn't even make sense," she says, sitting in the living room of her unpretentious ranch-style home, surrounded by remembrances of her husband--the ropes and buckles, the saddles and sculptures made by friends, family, and fans. "They did an autopsy and found out he had congenital heart disease, and they said that's how most older athletes die. They don't even know they have this heart disease. His vascular system was so built up, it just kept him going. It's amazing he would die that way." Ellen pauses, her voice breaking slightly, softly for the first time.

"I had spent my whole life worried he was going to die in the arena. Almost every time he got on, for so many years I was terrified of that. And then, this last year...He quit really this last year. He didn't get on one bronc in the last year, and the last time he quit in the 1980s was when he almost put his eye out. Then he got hurt after he quit, so he went back to riding." She makes a small noise, sort of a cross between a chuckle and a sob. "It is strange."

Ellen Blackwood's home in Farmersville, 45 miles northeast of Dallas, is a shrine to her husband. Their son George--a rugged, muscular young man who looks so much like his father in the old, yellowing photos kept in half a dozen ragtag scrapbooks--refers to it as a "living museum." Framed pictures of Bob hang on the walls, and in each, he strikes the rodeo hero's pose, his left arm gripping the rope while his right arm flails behind him. He looks like something out the movies, which he was: Bob was hired as a stuntman on an Elvis Presley film, 1969's Charro!, and only recently, he appeared in a CBS made-for-TV movie starring Clint Black, The Legend of Cadillac Jack.

There are also a few championship buckles and saddles scattered throughout the house; one is from his all-around rodeo champion victory won in Mesquite in 1974, while two others remind Ellen of her husband's triumphs on the National Old-Timers Rodeo Association circuit. But, Ellen says, Bob did not keep many of his souvenirs. He gave buckles (Ellen estimates about 30) and saddles to the kids who would come from all over the country to train at his rodeo school in Farmersville. Better to give them to someone--a child, a fan--who would never win one than let them gather dust on the shelf; Bob Blackwood preferred to look forward rather than celebrate what he had done yesterday. Bob didn't need to create an altar to himself.

"If you met Bob, you would never think he was a passing acquaintance," Ellen says. "He was like a good friend as soon as you met him. He was a champion for the little guy, the kid no one would have anything to do with. In rodeo, it's all about who's got the biggest buckle, and Bob would seek out those kids the champions wouldn't talk to. He would talk to the loneliest kid as he would a world champion. And I still get calls from kids wanting to come to his rodeo school, and they're really disappointed that he's dead."

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.

Bob was a cowboy from head to liver, and everything--his wife, his two sons with Ellen, his spur-making business--placed a distant second to life in the arena. On more than a few occasions, Ellen thought about leaving her husband and going back to Arizona; she had seen too many rodeo marriages fail to think theirs would be an easy fix. "We had had a lot of trouble," she recalls now. "Everything in his life was a means to the rodeo."

Years later, Bob would go on the 700 Club and testify to his newfound love for Christianity, but not before repenting his sins. "I was the life of the party," he recalled as he sat next to Ellen, the look on his face--a mixture of guilt and fond memories--revealing what his words didn't. "I was a loud-mouth. I went to extremes. I drank too much. I partied too much. I worked too hard. I did all these things too much." In the end, Bob was saved by a Christian revival that swept through the rodeo community in the late 1970s and early '80s; soon enough, he was preaching at rodeo revivals, a Cowboy for Christ.

Bob was born again; his marriage to Ellen, saved. They would remain together--riding the circuit, making spurs, saving souls--till the day Bob died this past January, a rodeo champion whose heart finally gave out on the gymnasium floor.

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