Catching up with rodeo legends

For ProRodeo Hall of Famers Harry Tompkins, Larry Mahan and Don Gay, rodeo is, and always will be, a major part of their lives.

They set records, gave fans reasons to cheer and became legends in the arena, and now they are enjoying life to the fullest in varying ways now that their days as contestants are done. I caught up with the trio of legends to find out what they are up to these days and found them all content with their current lives and pleased with the legacies they built in ProRodeo.

Gay has been the most visible of the three in recent years, doing television commentary at each of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Xtreme Bulls Tour events for Great American Country and during the bull riding at the Wrangler National Finals and teaming with Joe Beaver to host the nightly “National Finals Tonight” show at the Gold Coast in Las Vegas during the Finals each of the past five years. He’ll be back in Vegas this December to continue those roles, sign autographs as a Boyd Gaming ambassador and be a man about town during the 10-day extravaganza.

Although Gay’s schedule is frantic, he loves every minute of it.

“Doing the broadcast portion of the telecast for the bull riding, that’s just icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned,” the eight-time world champion bull rider said. “I still find that my palms get sweaty occasionally. It’s just real easy to get pumped. The bells go to clanging, and the chute gate’s rattling and you get right back in the moment pretty easily.”

The nightly show at the Gold Coast is a fun way for Gay to interact with current contestants and fans who fill the ballroom each night.

“We’ve been almost standing-room only every night for the last three years, and this will be our sixth year doing the show,” he said. “It’s so much fun, because it’s a laid-back atmosphere and we have some of the contestants who are in the competition every night. We have a good time with it.”

Hall of Famer Don Gay (third from left) loves hosting "National Finals Tonight" at the Gold Coast during the Wrangler NFR.

Hall of Famer Don Gay (third from left) loves hosting “National Finals Tonight” at the Gold Coast during the Wrangler NFR.

The son of Hall of Fame stock contractor Neal Gay, Don, spends most of his time during the year working hard as the general manager for Frontier Rodeo Company. Providing top-quality stock and a professional production for rodeo fans is a passion of Gay’s in his role with the company.

“My ‘vacation’ time is when the band starts playing in whatever capacity I’m working, whether it’s the television broadcast, announcing in the arena or running the floor,” said Gay, who will celebrate his 60th birthday on Sept. 18. “I’m into the production and would like it to be as good as it can be. It’s for the fans who’ve paid tickets that we need to make sure we’re entertaining while we’re making a living.

“If the people who bought a ticket aren’t properly entertained, then we lose.”

Serving as GM of Frontier Rodeo also allows Gay to enjoy a lifelong passion on a frequent basis.

“I’m also the corporate pilot, so if we’ve got to be somewhere quick, I’m the guy who’s flying the plane,” he said. “The only two things I really love to do are rodeo and fly. So, I feel like I’ve been on vacation since I got out of high school – which was a long time ago.

“The best thing for me is I’ve been able to stay connected to rodeo past my competitor days. I’ve been real fortunate that I’ve been able to stay involved in the business of promoting professional rodeo. I’ve always felt like I’ve been able to be a plus in the industry, and it’s a good thing, because that’s all I know how to do.”

Mahan, 69, also stays extremely busy these days. Whether it’s working his ranches in Texas and Colorado raising horses and cattle with wife, Julanne, competing in team roping events or working with charity fundraisers like the Fort Worth-based Roundup for Autism, Mahan always has several irons in the fire. Mahan also still makes appearances to promote his Larry Mahan Collection of clothing and Milano Hat Company.

“It seems like I’m busier than I was when I was rodeoing, but I know that’s impossible,” he said. “It seems like all of those things keep us pretty busy these days. We do lots of horses and cattle. We start lots of young horses, and I don’t do the first rides on them anymore, but we’ve got about 80 head of horses altogether.

“That’s my passion and is what got me into rodeo in the first place.”

Eight-time World Champion Larry Mahan remains active in ranching and rodeo.

Eight-time World Champion Larry Mahan remains active in ranching and rodeo.

The eight-time world champion, who received the PRCA’s Legend of ProRodeo award in 2010, thoroughly enjoys his pursuits.

“I love it, I really do,” said Mahan, who will be in Las Vegas this December to watch some performances of the Wrangler NFR.

Also a longtime pilot, Mahan is toying with the notion of buying another plane to enjoy as well.

“I don’t fly anymore, although I have been thinking about maybe getting a little single-engine plane to putt around in once in a while,” he said.

Regardless, Mahan feels lucky to have good health that allows him to live life to the fullest.

“You get to a certain age and you realize that health is wealth,” the six-time world champion all-around cowboy said. “I’ve been blessed with good health. I have some buddies I used to rodeo with who, because of the injuries they’ve had, can’t do a lot of the things they’d like to do.

“So, I’ve really been blessed that I can still ride and do the things I love doing.”

Good health has allowed the 86-year-old Tompkins to spend quality time with his family in Dublin, Texas, and they’re always pushing him to go to rodeos with them.

“We just stay around the house pretty close,” said Tompkins, who spends his days on a 30-acre ranch with wife, Melba. “Sometimes we’ll go down to the local pub to see who’s there and visit.

“I just go (to rodeos) for the kids,” “They say, ‘Oh come on and go. We’ll go if you go.’”

Harry Tompkins won eight world titles during his Hall of Fame career.

Harry Tompkins won eight world titles during his Hall of Fame career.

Tompkins will attend the Wrangler NFR again this year, and it’s a trip he always looks forward to.

“You get to visit everybody,” he said. “They’re happy to see me, but there’s not many of us left.”

I asked Tompkins, who also won eight world titles during his illustrious career, if he ever misses competing.

“Oh no,” he said without hesitation. “Oh, I think about it, but that’s about all you can do when you get up in years. I’m one of the few that’s left.”

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