Back When They Bucked with Larry Clayman
Larry Clayman comes from a long line of rodeo clowns. He is third in the line of Claymans, including his daddy, Bill, and his granddaddy, […]
[ “He had that internal fortitude and a lot of try.”]
Bill Nelson dominated the rodeo world for a short time, in two events.
Saddle bronc riding might have been Bill Nelson’s strongest event, but he won the world in the bull riding in 1971.
The California cowboy competed at the National Finals Rodeo in both the saddle bronc riding and bull riding, but it was the bull riding in which he came out on top of the world.
He was born in 1944 in San Francisco, the son of Bill and Irene Nelson. Even as a little kid, he wanted to be a cowboy. He came by it naturally; his dad was from Winnemucca, Nev., and his uncles had made a living by rounding up wild horses and selling them to the U.S. Army at the beginning of the 20th century.
After high school graduation, Bill attended Cal Poly and “one thing led to another,” he said, “and pretty quick I was riding bulls.”
Riding bulls was an easy discipline to start. “All you had to do was buy a bull rope at the feed store,” he said. With other events, a person needs a horse and more expensive equipment.
He caught on quickly to riding bulls, but he really wanted to ride saddle broncs. He taught himself, “but it took forever to learn to ride broncs.”
He bought his membership to the Rodeo Cowboys Association, forerunner to the PRCA, in 1966 so he could compete at the San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and rode bulls there.
By then, he was in college at Cal Poly. At first, he went to school in the fall, winter and spring and rodeoed in the regional shows and worked, trying to make money. Before the school year was over, he was calling his dad and needing to borrow money.
His dad asked, do you want a job? “I said, ‘no,’” Bill replied. When he told his dad he was going to rodeo in place of a job, his dad said, “oh, crap, you won’t have no money.”
But he did. “Things went to clicking, and I had more money than I had the year before,” he said.
Bill changed his college schedule; he attended in the spring quarter only, so as to compete at the big winter rodeos. He remembers winning $3,000 in Houston. “It doesn’t sound like much, but we thought we were rich,’ he recalls.
He began winning more money, so he’d take off in the fall and winter to rodeo, then while he attended college in the spring quarter, he’d rodeo up and down the West Coast and in California.
And he was winning money, so much that he qualified for the 1970 National Finals Rodeo in the saddle bronc riding, the next year in the bronc riding and the bull riding, and in 1972, in the bull riding. In 1971, he finished as the world champion bull rider and seventh in the saddle broncs.
Bill also competed collegiately, finishing as the regional all-around champion twice and the saddle bronc riding champ twice and qualifying for the College National Finals Rodeo three times, finishing one year as NIRA reserve champion saddle bronc rider.
He graduated from college in 1972 with a degree in animal husbandry.
In those early days, when he was young, it was fun to rodeo. “We went wherever we wanted,” he said. “We didn’t have to go back and forth to school or work. We’d just take off and go. If we were tired, we went fishing. We enjoyed ourselves, and we had fun.”
In 1973, his dad had a heart attack, and Bill turned out of Calgary and went home. Then his mom got sick, and he married, and “one thing led to another, and after that, I just rodeoed on the weekends.”
He began his lifetime career of managing ranches for absentee landowners in California and Oregon.
He continued to rodeo, but it was more on the weekends only. It wasn’t so enjoyable anymore.
“You’d have to drive all night to get to the rodeo, then drive all night to get back to work,” he said.
He entered his last PRCA rodeo in the early 1980s. He had competed at Caldwell, winning second in the bull riding. But when he got off, he felt a muscle tear: it was a torn groin. “I thought, somebody’s trying to tell me something,” he said. “Things like that hadn’t happened to me before.” He got on a couple more bulls to prove he wasn’t scared of them, then he quit rodeoing.
Bill preferred riding saddle broncs over bulls, but it was the bulls that paid the bills. “If I hadn’t been riding bulls, I’d never have had enough money to ride broncs.”
He remembers some of his favorite bucking horses.
He got on Beutler Brothers’ saddle bronc Descent four times. “I rode him twice and he killed me twice,” he quipped. The first time he got on him was in Tucson, and when he bucked off, “I did a somersault, he was kicking so hard.” Years later, he had him in Nampa, thinking, “Boy, I’ll get rich now.” But he got bucked off again. “He threw me so high the stirrups came off my feet and I was still going up. I lit under the pickup horse.” He did ride the horse once, to win second in Denver.
He also recalls a buckskin named Whiz Bang who was first owned by Andy Jauregui then by Cotton Rosser. Bill drew him fourteen times, four of those consecutive. “He’d rare out and buck me off,” Bill said. “He killed me.” In Yuma, Ariz., Shawn Davis was the judge for one of those buck offs. The horse “drove me into the ground right in front of Shawn, and Shawn said, ‘well, kid, you spurred him out good.’” Bill said to himself, “Big deal. I spurred him out for three weeks in a row and I ain’t rode him for six seconds total yet.” After those four consecutive buck-offs, Whiz Bang only bucked Bill off one time. “I won a lot of money on Whiz Bang.”
His parents supported their son in his rodeo.
“My dad loved it,” Bill said. “He wouldn’t let me play football because it was dangerous, but riding bulls was OK.” For a while, his mom was scared of the bull riding. “If she came to a rodeo, when the bull riding started, she’d go hide. She was scared to death.” But when Bill needed money, she helped finance him.
“A couple years later, when I was broke, she’d pay my fees for half.” One year he competed at Reno, and she went with him. She paid his fees, he won second, and she took her half of the winnings and was ready to pay his fees the next week, too. “I told her, no, I have money,” he chuckled.
“She ended up being my biggest fan.”
It was at the beer stand in Reno that he met his wife, Cindy. They married in 1974 and had two sons: Jay and Billy.
Bill was a world champion when J.C. Trujillo came onto the pro rodeo scene, and Bill mentored J.C.
“When I got out of college and hit the rodeo trail fulltime, he had already won the world’s championship,” J.C. said. “He said, you need somebody that knows what they’re doing. So I jumped in his pickup that he called the Watermelon. He had the experience and the know-how. I ended up going to the National Finals that year.”
Bill had perseverance and determination, J.C. said. “He had that internal fortitude and a lot of try. He would tough it out on a lot of bulls that would buck some guys off. He’d cowboy up and get to the whistle on them. He was a pretty talented cowboy.”
Bill managed a ranch near Whitmore, Calif., before he and his wife Cindy moved to Idaho to be closer to their sons and their families.
Jay is married to Kara; they have a son and a daughter. Billy is married to Shanna and they have three daughters and a son.
Bill reminisces on the best parts of his life.
His family and kids rank at the top.
But the years he rodeoed, when he had no bills and no responsibilities, were good years. “I had more fun than anybody going down the road.”
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