Billy Etbauer’s career highlights reel is the most inspiring kind of broken record. He continues to reach new heights (which sounds so very similar to where it all started for him back in Ree Heights, S.D.) in his already legendary roll down rodeo’s road. And odds are that by the time you read this he’ll have joined Trevor Brazile as only the second cowboy ever to hit the $3 million mark in career earnings—Billy’s twist being that he’s the first to do it in a single specialty event.
“The $3 million deal is pretty unreal, isn’t it?” asked an amazed Billy, who lives in Edmond, Okla., with his wife, Hollie, and kids, Kord, 13, Jacie, 11 and Treg, 8, when told he was closing in and just a few thousand off that mark. “I hope I can stay healthy and ride good enough to get there. It could end tomorrow. I’ve been so blessed. No matter if I get there or not, I’ve been very fortunate. We’ll just count our blessings, try to ride good and see what happens.”
Billy’s been a crowd favorite since the first time he nodded his head. There’s something so endearing about his jockey-sized self (5’ 5” and 140 pounds), genuine humble manner and all-out attitude. His build—almost all legs—and tendency to take it to the edge every single time have always reminded my dad of iconic ProRodeo Hall of Famer Casey Tibbs in his prime.
Guys like Ty Murray used to elbow me in the ribs when Billy was about to ride, because one of two things was about to happen. He was either going to wow the crowd, load his sack and ride off into the sunset with fat saddle bags—or he was going down with both barrels blazing.
Decades of aches and pains later, at 47, he still hasn’t changed his style. When he pulls his pistols, he guns for first. If that results in a lawn-dart-style mouthful of arena dirt, so be it. Billy Etbauer will not be backed down by any compromising or conservative “businessman’s” game plan, no matter how smart some might say that would be in certain situations. It’s his gutsy way or the highway, thanks just the same.
When Wrangler National Finals Rodeo soundman Benje Bendele fires up Bon Jovi’s “Billy Get Your Gun” during the 10-round run of the NFR each December, fans scoot up in their seats and the cowboys run for the rail so they can see it for themselves. He’s conditioned us well in the record 21 straight years he’s ridden there.
Get this: Billy Etbauer has won a record 51 go-rounds at the NFR since his first Finals in 1989. That’s a pretty stunning stat, if you think about it. The five-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider also owns the record for most saddle bronc riding money won at the NFR with $120,775 at the 2005 Finals. That outdid his own mark of $117,745 from NFR ’04.
Billy’s done a lot of that when it comes to breaking his own barriers—and matching his own second-to-none marks. The highest NFR bronc riding score ever recorded is 93 points, and he set that bar not once, but twice. In both 2003 and 2004, Billy hit that high note aboard Kesler Championship Rodeo’s Cool Alley Dip. He won the 10-head NFR average in 1992 and ’96.
When I was a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association freshman media nerd back in 1987, the Etbauer brothers were gearing up to make their move. The rodeo world was reeling from the tragic loss of young saddle bronc riding star Deke Latham to a car accident at 21 over the 1986 holiday season. Deke finished fifth in the 1986 world saddle bronc riding standings after riding at his first Finals that year. He was by all accounts a wonderful young man and a talented young bronc rider. I’ve since gotten to know his mom, Joyce, and little brother, Craig, and am certain it’s all true for him to have fit into that family.
Robert (who won the bronc riding gold buckles dated 1990-91), Billy and Dan Etbauer are the only three brothers ever to qualify for the NFR in the same event the same year. All three rode at the Finals from 1989-92, and 1994-97. Somewhere in my bunker of rodeo boxes, I have some really fun photos of the Etbauer Brothers fanning out all their Finals checks for me right there at the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas.
Their reign of bronc riding terror also included a fourth, honorary brother, Craig Latham. He and Billy were rookies together in 1988 (the year Robert, who’d traveled with Deke, and Danny, who’d rodeoed some with Craig, made their first Finals), and Craig earned that year’s PRCA Saddle Bronc Riding Rookie of the Year honors just ahead of Billy. They lived the “all for one and one for all” life, and even went so far as to share a bank account.
“When Craig and I were rookies in 1988, we did all have an account together, so as long as somebody was winning we were good to go,” Billy recalls quite fondly. “That’s what kept our rig going. After everybody made the Finals in 1989, we opened our own accounts. Craig and I were nip and tuck as far as making the Finals in 1989. I remember one time we needed a jet to get from Ellensburg to Pueblo, and it cost $5,000. All we cared about was how to gather up the money to get there. We covered all the costs first, before we worried about what to do with the leftovers.”
A true brother, Craig handles Billy’s entering business to this day. “I give Craig a lot of credit,” Billy says. “He’s entered me forever. He entered us when we were rookies. I think I’ve maybe entered two rodeos my whole life myself. Red Lemmel entered me one year. But besides that, it’s been all Craig.”
Since hanging up his bronc saddle, Danny has served as an NFR pickup man. I had the personal privilege of presenting Robert and Sue’s son Trell the 2008 PRCA Linderman Award buckle last summer at the “Daddy of ’em All” in Cheyenne. We’re having another buckle made now in honor of his prowess at both ends of the arena again in 2009. Trell, who was born a few short years before his dad and uncles’ domination days in 1985, is a pretty handy saddle bronc rider, tie-down roper and steer wrestler.
Trell’s also a true Etbauer, in terms of looks, talent, try and humility. If he can have half the longevity of his Uncle Billy, he’ll be in big business. I’ve often philosophized that maybe Billy’s body type has helped him bounce back a little better than the bigger guys who leave a small gully when they hit the ground. But nobody goes that many miles without a bump or a bruise.
“In 1992, after I won my first world title (the others followed in 1996, ’99, 2000 and 2004), I ruptured a disk in my back,” Billy remembers. “The doctors and therapists told me I’d be lucky to have five more years left in me. That’ll humble you in a hurry, when you finally get to the point where you want to get and people tell you it’s about over. It gives you an appreciation for every day. There have been umpteen times I wasn’t sure I could get back from injuries.
“Your career can end today. I’m going to do it like I’ve done it forever, and that’s day by day, and horse by horse. We’ll just take it as it comes.”
In addition to his possible size advantage, Billy’s fitness standards have stayed steady. “I’ve always wanted to be physically fit, but not a muscle man,” he said. “I wanted to be able to handle my body weight. I’ve never been a big weight lifter. I want to be strong enough to do my job, but if you get too strong it works against you and you can lose mobility. Being limber really helps. I walk two to four miles a day, and do crunches to help my back stay together. It also helps my abs stay strong, and is good for my posture. Doing leg lifts and dog points (you point one hand straight forward and the opposite leg straight backwards at the same time) helps my balance. A physical therapist has had me balance a broomstick on my back while doing that.”
So I had to ask. Might you still be sliding us up to the edge of our seats when you hit 50? “God’ll give me the sign when I need to quit,” he said. “I don’t plan on leaving the game being too crippled to do anything. The kids and Hollie are going more with me this year. She’s going to run some barrels. It’s definitely not about making it to a certain age. I feel blessed to have my health and my family and fans. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
A little digging and light dirt work turned up the fact that Billy has $1,335 career team roping earnings, so again, I had to ask. “I’m no master team roper,” he laughed. “I heeled for a guy from Oklahoma by the name of Don Hall at Denver in 1989, when his partner couldn’t get there, and we tangled one up.”
Back to the really big impending news about becoming only the second cowboy ever to cross the $3 million mark in career earnings, and the first in one event, well, Billy is his usual “aw shucks” self. “Thank God for the ability and to be able to keep rodeoing,” he said. “And thanks to Express Ranches for helping me stay out there. There have been times when having them behind me gave me the time to stay home and heal up when I needed to. There’s no telling what that kind of support has done to extend my career.”
You’d think this guy would be out of gas and goals by now, but he seems to have a one-track mind for racking up records and winning. “The goal is always to get back to the Finals,” he said. “As long as I’m riding broncs, that’s what I want to do. And I want to feel I have the capability to still be in contention to win a world title.”
Like Brazile, Billy is also an award-winning husband and dad. If you really want to light him up, just ask him about Hollie and the kids. All the friends and fans along the way are another source of happiness and gratitude for the guy who’s just now noticing a couple gray hairs at each temple.
“I can’t say enough about all the great people who’ve crossed my path in my career,” he said. “I’ve had people stop me everywhere I go to say good luck, and ask if they can help me out. All that support is one of the biggest parts of making it fun and keeping me going. We have friends everywhere we go. There aren’t enough thanks for all the cards sent and comments made. You can’t put words on what that means to me. And it’s not only how important those people are to me, but to my whole family. I can’t thank everybody enough.”
Billy rides a saddle that used to belong to an all-around cowboy from South Dakota by the name of Tigh Cowan. Tigh’s dad, Pat, who bought the saddle Billy rides when it was new, owned the late, great stud Sun Frost. Sun Frost sired such industry icons as Kristie Peterson’s Bozo and Billy’s stud, PC Frosty Bid (he’s one of the barrel horses Hollie is hauling this year).
“I grew up on an old buckskin grade ranch horse named Dusty,” Billy remembers. “After all the history in this saddle, I now have a Sun Frost, and he’s a buckskin to boot. That’s pretty cool for me.”
I never run short of breath when it comes to bragging on Billy Etbauer. Have I mentioned that he’s the only cowboy ever to cross the $1 million milestone in NFR career earnings? “That’s unreal,” he grinned. “Shoot, that’s pretty neat. I love getting on the good ones. It used to be I didn’t mind getting on anything that bucked. Now that I’ve got this many miles on me, it’s all about those great horses. Call me crazy, but that’s my idea of fun.”