EIGHT SECONDS IN RODEO HISTORY - THE STORY OF FRECKLES BROWN -
BY RON JACKSON JR.
for The Oklahoman
Photographer Ferrell Butler clutched his bulky, strobe-light camera, and anxiously awaited the opening of chute No. 2 from 30 feet away on the first night of the 1967 National Finals Rodeo. The final bull ride of the evening was now only seconds away.
The anticipation plucked at his nerves. He wasn't alone.
Of the nearly 9,000 fans who packed State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City that night, nearly all were either standing or perched on the edge of their seats at that moment, as restless as Butler. Suddenly, the crowd grew eerily silent.
"The crowd was very quiet," recalled Butler, now 75 and living in Red Oak, Texas. "Everyone was scared to death."
Spectators were unsettled by the unknown. Behind chute No. 2 were two of rodeo's living legends – a nasty, 1,600-pound Brahma-Hereford cross appropriately named Tornado and an ageless former world champion, Freckles Brown. Few, if any, gave Brown a chance.
No cowboy had ridden Tornado since the animal burst onto the rodeo scene seven years earlier. Of the 220 cowboys who had tried, not one remained aboard the wildly bucking beast for the required eight seconds. Tornado – owned by 16-time world champion Jim Shoulders of Henryetta – had thus earned a fearsome reputation as "unrideable" by even the toughest cowboys on the planet.
A sterling reputation also shadowed Brown when he entered the arena that night, although at age 46, most experts considered him past his prime. By then, the Wyoming-born cowboy had already competed in rodeos for 30 years, winning a world bull riding championship in 1962 and later earning legendary status after coming back from a broken neck. Brown was a diminutive man in stature, packing 140 pounds of wiry muscles into a 5-foot-7 frame. Yet, he cast a giant shadow among his peers, and was as respected and beloved as any man on the professional rodeo circuit. And no one doubted his grit.
Still, many feared a dangerous mismatch.
"Everyone thought Freckles was gonna get bucked, and Tornado wouldn't just buck you," Butler said. "If you didn't get out of there, he'd camp onto you something fierce. Then he'd go wipe out the barrel. We were all just scared."
Then, without warning, the chute flung open …
Warren Granger Brown was born the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters Jan. 18, 1921, in Wheatland, Wyo. The family lived on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming between Fort Laramie and Lingle, 2 miles north of the North Platte River.
Brown's earliest memories were crowded with recollections of herding cattle in the summer and reading books.
"My only desire since I was a little boy was to be a cowboy," the late Brown once wrote in a few pages chronicling his life. "I use to dream of working on a ranch and breaking horses and just being a good cowboy. I never even thought of being good enough to Rodeo."
Brown's passion showed him differently.
In 1937, at age 16, he rode his first bull at a rodeo in Wilcox, Ariz. His family had moved to Arizona two years earlier for his mother's health, and at that time, Brown found work at a dairy farm 6 miles outside Tucson. On his first day of work, the boss asked the freckled-faced youngster what his name was and he sheepishly replied, "Warren Granger Brown."
The man looked at the lad and said, "Anything you say, Freckles."
"Well, that name sure did stick even if my freckles didn't," Brown cracked years later in an interview. "You could hurt your eyes trying to find any of those freckles on me now. I reckon all those bulls I've been riding over the years just shook those freckles off."
Over the next six years Brown worked on ranches in Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado. From the vast, wind-swept ranges of Wyoming to the high-altitude cliffs of the Rockies, he endured everything from blizzards to blistering heat, chasing down stray calves, mending barbed-wire fences and breaking wild horses.
The Wyoming cowpuncher was living his dream, and in his spare time, always indulged in his greatest dream of all – the life of a rodeo cowboy. He rode saddle broncos, bulls and roped wherever he could find competition, oftentimes jumping on a bull for no more than $5 a ride. Rodeo flowed through his veins.
"I won my first bull-riding trophy in 1941," Brown once said. "I was back up in Wyoming working on a ranch in the Straight Basin near Yellowstone National Park. I rode an ol' bronc horse 50 miles into Cody to go to the stampede. I left at 8 in the morning and got to town about 6 o'clock, in time for supper. I got kicked by a bull during the rodeo so after I won I had to ride back to the ranch the next day with my hurt foot outside of the stirrup. Rode all the way back like that, but I didn't care 'cause I had me a fine trophy. I was a real honest-to-goodness bull rider."
War soon set Brown on a different path. Two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Brown drove to Cody, Wyo., where he sold his car, bought a bus ticket and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served his basic training at Fort Sill, where he worked with the post's famous horse-drawn artillery unit. He later attended a horseshoeing school while stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., before being recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.
The OSS engaged in espionage activities behind enemy lines, and Brown did his part by helping to train Chinese paratroopers in secret. In the spring of 1946, with the war over, he returned to China to compete in a Red Cross-sponsored event in which U.S. pack mules were used in place of saddle-broncs and barebacks and native cattle were rounded up for bull riding. Brown left China with the all-around title.
"It was the first rodeo that was ever held in China," Brown noted decades later. In typical fashion, Brown then quipped, "I bet they ain't never had another."
By the time Brown returned to Chinese soil, he was already rodeoing on a full-time basis.
Brown traveled near and far to compete. He journeyed from Mexico City to India to New York to San Francisco, and every dusty town in between. In those early years, he put his horseshoeing skills to good use. He would attend events and shoe horses for the other cowboys to make expenses.
Along the way he piled up awards and memories. Brown used to fondly recall winning the all-around title in Omaha, Neb., in 1948 and 1959, the time he won a wild horse race in New York in 1950, and his first National Finals Rodeo in 1959 in Dallas. He returned to the National Finals in 1961 to experience his toughest defeat to that point in his career. That year he was bucked from his last bull, and while still soaring through the air, heard the eight-second whistle.
If Brown had scored on that bull, he would have been crowned world champion.
Brown paid a heavy price physically throughout his career. Later, he would take inventory of his battle scars – 10 broken legs; operations on both shoulders; two broken necks; chronic arthritis; countless broken ribs and smashed fingers … and the list went on. By the time he hung up his spurs and chaps in 1974, he had a metal pin in one shoulder, a screw in one ankle and enough humor to describe himself as "a walking hardware store."
Humor shadowed the amiable Brown at every turn. Once, a young cowboy Doug Brown approached Freckles with a favor. "Would you mind if I told people you were my uncle?" asked Doug Brown, who was no relation.
Freckles chuckled and replied, "Tell 'em anything you want to."
Later, while Doug Brown was enjoying success on the rodeo circuit, he turned in a memorable day in Salinas, Ca. Freckles approached his younger contemporary after the rodeo and quipped, "Doug, would you mind if I told people you are my nephew?"
Mostly, Brown possessed the legacy of an ageless cowboy with true grit.
Brown, then residing in Lawton with his wife, Edith, crossed into the realm of living legend in 1962 at the crusty age of 41. In October of that year, Brown entered a Portland, Ore., event comfortably leading the Rodeo Cowboys Association World Bull Riding Championship standings with $18,269 in earnings. On his last ride in Portland, Brown mounted Black Smoke – a 2,000-pounder he described as "a big muley Brangus" and "extra long."
The ride started out well. Black Smoke bolted from the chute with four straight, high kicks as Brown stuck like glue. Then the bull lunged to the left, and jerked the rope out of Brown's hands. He hung on with the tail of the rope, shifting to the left with each whipping turn.
"When the whistle blew I was too far to the inside," Brown recalled. "He caught me with his head and turned me a flip. I lit all wadded up on the back of my head."
The ride earned Brown another $406 in earnings, but he now lay motionless on the dirt floor of the arena. "I knew what was going on," Brown remembered, "but I was paralyzed."
Brown broke his neck.
Doctors determined Brown had mashed his fifth and sixth vertebrae, and would need a rare operation – a front-neck fusion – after 17 days in bed at Portland's Emmanuel Hospital. During the operation, doctors shaved a piece of bone from Brown's hip and fused it to his neck. They then placed him in a 15-pound cast that extended from his waist to the top of his head, leaving holes for his eyes, nose and mouth.
Brown endured the misery of traction for 34 days. Eventually, he flew to the National Rodeo Finals in Los Angeles as a spectator. In the end, his $18,765 was enough to clinch the world championship, distancing his next closest competitor – Bill Rinestine – by $4,633.
The beloved Brown – "The Unsinkable Mr. Brown" as he was affectionately known on the rodeo circuit – had finally captured his elusive world championship. Those familiar with his career hailed him for his hard work, determination and resiliency.
Now there was one prevailing question that echoed loudly across the rodeo world: Would Freckles Brown ever ride again?
By Brown's own account, no soul searching was ever needed.
"I knew I was going to ride again," Brown said flatly. "It was just a question of when."
On July 10, 1962, less than nine months after breaking his neck, Brown climbed on the back of two bulls at a rodeo in Coleman, Texas. The first bull (No. 7) bucked Brown hard after several seconds, but the old master scored on his second bull (No. 100). More importantly, he left no doubts about his toughness or plans for retirement.
Rodeo fans could only wait to see what the ageless wonder would do next.
The late, great Jim Shoulders – long ago dubbed "The Babe Ruth of Rodeo" – once harkened back to a day in Memphis, Tenn., when he first paid attention to his 1,600-pound bull, Tornado. Shoulders, then still riding bulls competitively, watched with mild interest.
"I thought I'd sure like to draw him," Shoulders remembered. "He always turned back to the right and I liked that. After I saw him a few more times, though, I wasn't sure if he was such a good draw after all."
Shoulders' doubts only increased with time.
From Tornado's first rodeo in Mesquite, Texas, in 1960 through December 1967, the rank bovine remained unridden. Time after time he flung the grittiest cowboys from his hulking back, leaving a trail of fractured skulls, cracked ribs, concussions, broken bones and shattered championship dreams in his wake.
Tornado's reputation grew like an F5 twister.
Four times Tornado was named the National Finals Rodeo's "meanest bull alive."
"Tornado had such a reputation that most cowboys were thrown before they even got on him," once recalled former state senator and Oklahoma Congressman Clem McSpadden, who served as the general manager of the National Finals Rodeo for nearly two decades.
"Several times before he had been voted bull-of-the-year, which, for a bull, ain't a bad award," eulogized The Oklahoman's witty Frank Boggs after Tornado's death in 1972. "His reputation had not been gained smelling flowers. He was rodeo's orneriest critter, a massive assembly of muscle and guts and powerful old bones."
The sign outside Tornado's pen at Shoulders' J Lazy S Ranch in Henryetta said the rest: "Warning: Enter at Your Own Risk."
Shoulders fondly referred to Tornado as "a pet," extolling his bull's gentle nature around children who visited his ranch. He often walked up to Tornado in the pasture to pet him or feed him grass. But in the arena Tornado transformed into a holy terror – explosive, violent and unbeaten.
This is the bull Brown would encounter on a stormy December night in 1967.
Dec. 1, 1967 – The Ride
Suspense mounted from the start.
Word spread throughout the arena regarding who had drawn the ferocious and unbeaten Tornado – Freckles Brown, rodeo's battle-scarred and tested ageless wonder. Brown, who would receive the final ride of the night, was one month shy of his 47th birthday.
"I was real tickled when I drew him," recalled Brown, then living on a 540-acre ranch in Soper, OK. "I was wantin' him. I'd watched that bull for years … Every time anybody jumped out there, anytime anybody had Tornado drawed, I was up there watching, looking over the chute."
Brown studied Tornado for seven years before finally getting his chance to ride rodeo's most feared bull.
"Sometimes he was just impossible, and on those days there wasn't a bull rider alive who could have ridden him," Brown said. "I had never seen Tornado have a bad day. But he was an honest bull. He always fought the clowns real good and he hardly stepped on anybody."
Shoulders half-jokingly said that was because Tornado "throwed everybody so far away that he didn't hardly ever step on any of 'em."
Regardless, Brown craved the challenge. Not every cowboy had shared Brown's enthusiasm for riding Tornado.
"Many a cowboy said he couldn't be rode," Brown said. "A lot of guys would draw him and not even try to ride him. They would just walk away. But I had to give him a go. I knew he was due to be rode. I thought I could do it. I had to give it a try."
At some point that night, Brown overheard fellow bull rider Ken Roberts discussing his upcoming ride. Roberts said, "Tornado's scared a lot of guys off but he's gonna have to buck Freckles off."
The cowboys were clearly in Brown's corner.
Then came the moment of truth. Brown ambled to the battered boards of chute No. 2, climbed to the top and lowered himself down on Tornado's massive back.
Canadian Marty Wood, then a former world bronc riding champion, leapt to the side of the chute. Wood was apparently one of the few in the arena that night who was unaware Brown had drawn Tornado until that moment.
"I wanna pull your damn rope," Wood barked in support of his friend. Brown later admitted it was then he felt a little nervous, but said he always felt that way seconds before a ride.
Only this time, Brown knew he was on a bull far different from any of the thousands he had mounted during his 30-year career. At first, the signs weren't evident. Brown pushed against the beast to adjust himself, and there was plenty of give. Tornado's muscles were relaxed.
A tug on the rope changed everything.
"The bull understood what was happening," Brown told a Sports Illustrated writer in 1987 while placing his hand flat on the surface of a nearby end table. "After I got on him, and just before the chute was about to open, his hide went as hard as this tabletop. He knew what he was supposed to do."
Tornado also appeared to sense this was a titanic matchup: Champion vs. champion.
"His muscles tensed like a runner in the blocks," Brown recalled. "It was then and there it dawned on me. I knew what made Tornado different. He was an athlete. He loved the contest. He was tense with anticipation – ready for the gate to crash open."
A tension spread throughout the arena.
Spectators moved to the edge of their seats, or simply stood as Brown secured his left hand between Tornado's massive back and his tightened rope. Three athletic rodeo clowns stood motionless in the center of the arena with their eyes fixed on chute No. 2. And photographer Ferrell Butler bravely nudged to within 30 feet of the chute in hopes of capturing rodeo history.
"I couldn't get any further back because the flash on those old strobe-light cameras didn't go very far," Butler recalled. "Those old strobe-light cameras took four to five seconds to reload before you could fire off another shot. The first shot I figured, ‘I better get that one off pretty quick' because no one thought Freckles was gonna be able to ride 'em.
"In fact, most people were scared he was gonna get hurt."
Silence suddenly overpowered the moment.
"The tension could be felt like a good heavy fog," remembered announcer Pete Logan in a 1989 interview.
Logan set the stage, introducing the two worthy combatants – both living legends.
"Ladies and gentlemen – Freckles Brown will come out of chute number two …" Logan said as his voice began to crack. He started again: "Ladies and gentlemen – Freckles Brown will come out of chute number two – on a bull that has never been ridden – Jim Shoulders' great bull, Tornado!"
Fans remained strangely quiet as if mesmerized by the drama that was about to unfold. Logan finished his pitch in a whisper: "If you all believe he can do it, he will."
Chute No. 2 suddenly exploded open. The mighty Tornado violently pitched forward as Brown remained centered, his right fist held high above his head and his eyes fixed on the bull's shoulder muscles.
Butler snapped the first of his two now-iconic shots – one of which has since been lost.
Tornado spun to the right. So did Brown.
"I got over there to the right," Brown recalled. "Maybe just a hair too far. I straightened up and he spun three or four times."
Four seconds, five seconds … Brown held on tightly. The crowd erupted with deafening cheers.
"People were screamin' and hollerin'," Butler said. "I never heard it so loud in that place before."
Suddenly, unbeknownst to most spectators, Brown felt a moment of vulnerability.
"I just got behind him a little bit," he said. "I throwed my foot out there, got my head back in there and did all right. You can feel it. It may not look like you were in a storm, but you can tell it when you're riding."
Brown now sensed rodeo history was a heartbeat away.
"I just felt real good," Brown said. "I got where I wanted to be, and that's the first time I got exactly where I wanted to be. Sometimes you don't feel that way. Sometimes out there, about the third or fourth round if they're bucking, you feel like you can ride him regardless of what he does, but not very often. It was just before the whistle when I felt like I had him rode."
Yet, Brown never heard the eight-second whistle. Fans, rodeo staff and fellow contestants were cheering so wildly and loudly, Brown said he heard nothing at all.
"But then I saw the clowns move in and I knew I made the whistle," Brown said. "I got off of Tornado real good – landed on my feet."
Brown seemingly landed on the run and into the arms of a grinning Jim Shoulders, who was the first to congratulate him for his historic ride. "Boy," Shoulders said, "I'm proud you rode him."
"The hollering wouldn't let up," Brown remembered. "I stood out there in the middle of the arena with my hat off for the longest time. The applause didn't die – it just kept going. Even the cowboys were clapping and yelling. I finally walked off, but it didn't let up any. I looked up at Clem McSpadden, and he motioned me to go on back out. So I did. And it started up louder than ever. Never heard anything like it ...
"This was the greatest and biggest thrill of my rodeo career."
The legend grew overnight.
Radio icon Paul Harvey regaled a national audience for several minutes with details of Freckles Brown's historic ride on the fearsome Tornado. The publicity did wonders for the professional rodeo circuit.
"I think it turned the whole thing around," Butler said. "Before that, we couldn't get enough people in an arena to start a cussin' fight. We generally got a few people out on the weekends, but it was always hard during the weekdays. After that, people started coming out on the weekdays."
Country-western singer Red Steagall also immortalized the ride in song when he composed the "Ballad of Freckles Brown." The tune, in part, goes:
Tonight bull riding hist'ry's made,
A cowboy gained a crown
His bull was called Tornado
And the cowboy, Freckles Brown
Eventually, in 1969, the mighty Tornado was retired to pasture at Shoulders' J Lazy S Ranch in Henryetta. Tornado was ridden only five times – twice by Brown. Few, if any, remembered the second ride in Miami the next summer.
"Besides Tornado's great bucking ability, he was a good fighting bull and crowd pleaser," Shoulders said fondly. "He enjoyed his prestigious position at the ranch and made it a point to attract attention when strangers were around by bellowing and throwing dirt – almost as though he wanted all to know he was still a champion."
Tornado died in the spring of 1972. At the time, Shoulders said the most famous bull in the world, "simply laid down and never got up." He was 16. Today, Tornado's grave is on a grassy knoll outside The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Fifteen years later, the rodeo world also mourned the loss of Warren Granger "Freckles" Brown, who was inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association Hall of Fame for Bull Riding in 1979. The legendary cowboy died at his Soper ranch March 20, 1987, after a battle with cancer. He was 66.
The memory of Brown is now forever intertwined with that of Tornado, and their fateful meeting in December of 1967. Shoulders paid tribute to that memory in 1982 after learning Brown had cancer. He spoke about watching Brown snap Tornado's undefeated streak.
"You always worried about, or felt like, that after he'd gone that long somebody at Podunk would ride him, some guy who didn't really respect the bull, and there'd be some popping off," Shoulders said. "When it worked out like it did, for Freck to ride him at the National Finals … You know, it was like a movie setting.
"Really, you pull for them things to happen."
Or, at least you dream them.