The last roundup

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."