I first met George Michael in 1987, when I was digging into my first full-time career job with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association just out of college. Back then, I really didn’t grasp how big a deal George was in the mainstream media world. All I knew at first sight was that I was suspicious of any man who obviously spent more time on his hair and makeup than I did. I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with a guy who used hairspray, and anyone with a hat shaped like his just had to be a dude. Man, was I wrong.
The book I found beneath that bad-hat cover was solid gold. George Michael was big time on the Major League sports stage, but he didn’t lean on his legendary broadcasting fame or fortune. When I went to his Maryland horse farm, he never once mentioned or even glanced at the 40-Emmy salute to his broadcasting excellence on the mantle. We might have arrived in a limo, but he was happiest down at the barn with his horses. NBC’s longtime "George Michael Sports Machine" superstar picked out lucky people like me and mentored us absolutely unselfishly. He offered up priceless professional and personal advice, but above all heartfelt support of whatever we went ahead and decided to do.
George also linked a group of us—some of whom have little more in common than a shared passion for driving progress in our respective worlds and a love of George Michael—with a for-life bond that will never break, or even bend, ’til death do us part. It’s a little pact he put together with another of our fallen brothers, 1987 World Champion Bull Rider Lane Frost. George took an immediate interest in a couple young-gun bull riders—Lane and his best friend and fellow World Champ Tuff Hedeman—when he first hit the rodeo scene. That friendship lit a passion in George to help move this rodeo world forward, and he took that passionate commitment very seriously.
I first heard the news of George’s passing, at 70, last Christmas Eve with a call from Lane’s mom, Elsie, who’d just gotten word from Tuff. Those two calls kicked off another great round of phone calls and e-strolls down memory lane within this great group I mentioned. There were stories we relived because we were there, of the July day George interviewed Lane and Tuff just before the short round at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. George and I left "The Daddy" that day with swollen eyes and broken hearts, and hurried back to our desks to share the devastating news with the rest of the world.
George put together a tear jerking tribute to Lane for his "Sports Machine" broadcast the following Sunday, and I wrote stories for about every publication in the Western world and then some. Those were stressful, sad times. But Tuff drew the shortest, most painful straw. He left Cheyenne on a small Oklahoma-bound plane chartered by the Frontier Days Committee, and took his best friend back home to Clyde and Elsie in a body bag. No one—not even a guy named Tuff—should ever have to be that tough. True to form, Tuff made the January 21 journey this year to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. for George’s memorial service, as did a couple of Cheyenne committeemen.
It’s interesting and ironic that we lost our dearly beloved George the same year we recognized the 20-year anniversary of losing Lane. George is the guy who came up with perhaps the most well-known description of Lane there is. He wrote of Lane as "A Champion in the Arena…A Champion in Life" in a card to Clyde and Elsie, who in turn had the words carved into Lane’s headstone. George was instrumental in negotiating with the Hollywood crew to get Lane’s life right in the movie "8 Seconds," in which he and John Growney played
George was also the guy who commissioned the Tony Chytka bronze of Lane on Red Rock that graces the ProRodeo Hall of Fame gardens in Colorado Springs, Colo.—the very statue Elsie, Tuff, Growney and I gathered around when we flew in for an event at the Hall this summer, when David Wittkower’s documentary, "The Challenge of Champions: The Story of Lane Frost and Red Rock," was shown. The entire crowd had a great big conversation about Lane and those good old days at movie’s end.
George proudly displayed a small replica of that bronze on his mantle, as do Clyde and Elsie, Tuff and Growney, who with Don Kish owned Red Rock, and was the mastermind behind the 1988 seven-ride match between the 1987 world champion bull rider and world champion bull. Tuff said George’s service was a great tribute, and was in awe of the National Cathedral. "It was built back in the stone age, and you have to wonder how they built such amazing places back then," he said.
The love of George’s life, wife Pat Lackman, had a huge hug for Tuff and was deeply touched by his attendance, as I know George would have been. The guest list read like a sports icons’ Who’s Who, and George’s sports world included rodeo.
Those of us who were there to see George work his magic promoting rodeo will never forget that he got our sport on prime-time network television back when that was unheard of. It was with great pride that I presented the PRCA Media Award buckle with George’s name on it at the 2007 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. Growney stepped up on stage on George’s behalf. We didn’t know then that George was suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and that’s how George wanted it. Pity parties were definitely not his type.
George’s idea of a difference-making good time was pulling money out of his own pocket to upgrade a herd of bulls at an early day bull riding when the producer couldn’t or wouldn’t, and sharing with the professional sports world just how special and different our cowboy athletes are. I learned to love the stories behind every story from watching guys like George work. George found character, strength and fun in sports like ours and car racing, long before they hit the big time. We owe him so much for taking the time and extra effort to exit the beaten path and go so far out of his way to notice—and love—rodeo.
Like Tuff said, "George did things back in the day that no one else in his profession dared to do. He covered cowboys before it was cool, and started covering NASCAR when the rest of the national media thought they were just a bunch of rednecks transporting moonshine. George was basically broadcasting Sports Center before there was a Sports Center. He found stories in sports that no one else knew about, and made fans out of people by showing other sides of players. He was a very loyal guy, and stood up for what he believed in and people he believed in."
So true, and I will always admire and appreciate George for it. "The suits at the network questioned why in the hell he was covering rodeo," Tuff remembers. "George didn’t care. If he thought it was a good story, he put it on his show, regardless of what anyone else thought. He treated us like a sport instead of a Wild West show, and exposed us to millions of people who’d never seen us before. He educated us on how to use the media to help grow our sport, and how television makes or breaks sports.
"George loved Pat, sports, horses and music. He was very passionate about everything he did. Whether he was doing radio, television or raising paint horses, George was ‘all in,’ giving 110 percent of effort and energy to do his best. He had the guts and the ‘try’ that are the common denominator with all champions."
Tuff first met George at Cheyenne in 1984. George was the first media type with the guts to "school" Tuff and Lane in the art of not sounding like complete hicks on-camera or in print. Tuff and Lane looked forward to hanging out with George every year at Cheyenne and the NFR. After Lane died at "The Daddy," Tuff didn’t want to go back. It’s been said that "it’s easier to win the lottery than the bull riding at Cheyenne," because of all the components that have to come together to get it done. Tuff won back-to-back Cheyenne bull riding championships before he walked away and closed that chapter of his life. George was right there with him, smile on his face, tears in his eyes, microphone in his hand and cameramen at the ready, both times.
I was reading just the other day about the eventual demise of the "George Michael Sports Machine" on NBC after a glorious decades-long run. Basically, the brass told him he’d have to cut his crew in order to make budget and continue. George wouldn’t have it. The 27-year sports director for WRC-TV, which is NBC’s D.C. affiliate, took the first bullet and walked. Vintage George. Loyal to the last drop every time.
"George was one of the last people Lane talked to before he died," Elsie said. "He sent us the nicest hand-written letter pouring his heart out a few days later. He told us Pat put on a white blouse the evening Lane died, because she knew he was going to Heaven and angels wear white. George became a really big part of our lives, especially during the filming of the movie. He acted as our agent, with the only difference being that he didn’t get paid. When we had a problem, we called George. He was a busy, busy man, but he took the time to help us because he wanted Lane’s story to be told right. I always wanted to do something special for him to try to repay him.
"George and Lane really hit it off. When Lane was rodeoing, George would call me every once in awhile and ask me what I was going to do if Lane got too big for his britches. I’d tell him that I’d just have to turn Lane over my knee if that happened, and we’d laugh. The last time I talked to George he told me not to worry about him. I believe he’s up there with Lane now."
George was a second-to-none Washington Redskins football fanatic who also hosted such popular TV shows as "Redskins Report" and "Full Court Press." My old Colorado Springs roomie Patty Daly was reminiscing the other day about the first NFR she worked with George, at Oklahoma City in 1981 (she first met him earlier that year at Cheyenne). The Redskins were playing the Dallas Cowboys that weekend, so all the cowboys put together a pool in which to place their bets. All the rodeo cowboys put their money on the Cowboys, so George was the lone Redskins ranger—until Patty declared, "I’ll take the Redskins!" George was thrilled to find one kindred spirit in the cowboy crowd, but was curious and asked her why. "Because I’m from Oregon, and Washington is our neighbor," she said, dead serious. George got a belly laugh out of the deal, and never did let her live that one down.
There are so many things most people will never know about George, like the fact that he worked hard behind the scenes way back when to help the NFR make its move to Vegas; and that 1982 World Champion Bull Rider Charlie Sampson recovered from his near-death experience at the 1983 Presidential Command Performance Rodeo, which was put on for President Reagan in George’s Maryland backyard, at George and Pat’s house.
"George was like a sponge," eight-time World Champion Bull Rider Donnie Gay (the guy who won the 2008 PRCA broadcaster buckle) said. "He absorbed the rodeo heritage and lifestyle faster and more completely than anyone I’ve ever met. We learned a lot from each other, from how to ride, travel, television commentary, filming different venues and dealing with television politics. When he first came to Mesquite, Texas to meet Neal Gay and the first bull with a fan club, Joe Kool, George had no idea how big a rodeo fan and friend he would become, nor did we. My family and I will miss George Michael, the most famous real rodeo fan and benefactor."
"Long before cable and satellite TV, there was George and his crew, running to airports to ship canisters of film overnight and racing to catch planes to get back for Sunday night’s ‘Sports Machine’ broadcast, so they could show the world that professional rodeo is indeed a sport," Patty added. "People started becoming spectators and fans of a sport they never could understand before, and it was because of George."
Growney’s link in our little gang’s email chain was short and sweet and right on the money. (I call him Growney, and not by first name like the rest of them, for no reason other than that he’ll always be "Growney" to me.) "The PRCA and rodeo in general benefited from George and all he did, but the real beneficiaries were this little group of us, especially Lane and Tuff," Growney said. "With the loss of Lane, we all became closer than anyone could imagine. Now, with the loss of George, it draws us again. I’ll miss his smile, his love and those big hugs."
Thank you, George, for making us all feel so special. You were our go-to guy and our glue. You greeted my every question and request with, "Anything for you, my dear," and I’ll not forget it. Rest in peace, my friend. And please give Lane our best.