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This cowboy's hat
North Star Stampede Rodeo
by Erin Suhonen  |  August 9, 2005

I don’t usually like to work on the weekends, but for this event, I volunteered. Someone from the paper was to go to Effie, Minnesota to cover the 50th anniversary of the North Star Stampede Rodeo. Since some of my family was already going all I had to do was hitch a ride. So, I grabbed my hat, put on my boots and off I went. Yeehaw!

It wasn’t too long before I found myself a interview, of course. Randy Johnson, a mechanic from Kettle River, Minnesota has been around the rodeo circuit for 15 years. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject; he’s a former professional bull rider now turned steer wrestler. It got even better; it was in Effie that he rode his first bull, Old Mildew. “He put a big old paw print on me,” Randy remembered. The injuries (and there were many) didn’t stop him, though; he drove all around the country spending thousands of dollars for the opportunity to ride a rampant bull for eight seconds.

A few hours in the car and a long detour later my family and I made it to Effie (the hometown of Leo Dahlberg, who also made it back for the rodeo) and met up with our friends who arrived there the night before. Since this was the 50th anniversary, they held a special bullriding night on Thursday for all the retired bull riders, to see if they could still hang on for the entire eight seconds. This was also a unique year for the rodeo because on Saturday there was a cowboy wedding and a proposal. We eventually made it to our campsite, which consisted of a few campers, a bunch of tents and a whole herd of kids running around.

I needed to find out where the office was and figure out how this rodeo was set up so that I could take some pictures. Lane (Randy’s son), who was wearing a feather in his hat and claimed to be named after the infamous Lane Frost took it upon himself to show me around. He obviously had been here before, as with his twin sister Jessie, to watch their dad compete.

The next person I met was Renee, Randy’s girlfriend. She had come along for support with her two children, Breanna and Brennan. The rodeo seems important for these two and their families. Last year on the day Randy and Renee were to leave for Effie, Renee got caught between a jeep and a fence post, tearing her leg open. A quick trip to the ER and a few hours of sleep later, she was on her way to Effie to watch Randy wrestle the steers. “Oh yeah, they got a chair for me and I sat right there next to the roping box,” she explained as if it were no big deal.

After the rodeo was over for the night it was back to camp. I noticed a couple of the kids were roping on a dummy so I decided to see just how rusty my lasso-ing skills were. Brennen (Renee’s six year old son) just smiled when I told him he was making me look bad.

A few beers and the constant music of Chris Ledoux in the background kept us occupied for the rest of the night. I did, however, meet my second cowboy of the weekend. Fred Johnson of Finlayson, Minnesota, had been icing his leg half the night because he competed in the saddlebronc riding event for the first time. Fred is Randy’s younger brother and has been in the rodeo scene for a few years now. He had the worst bruise I’ve seen in years from the saddle horn colliding with his leg.

The next morning I stole Randy for a quick interview. He had many stories to tell and soon it was not just him and I talking, we had an audience listening. Many people enjoy the stories, especially Renee, who added, “I just love listening to your stories.”

Randy was a part of the International Professional Rodeo Association and then the United Rodeo Association. He didn’t just jump from Effie to professional, though. He actually went to bull riding school. He went to a few in Effie, led by Larry Kaczar, and one in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma school was four days long. “We rode 20 bulls a day,” exlaimed Randy. “Then they would keep us up ‘til midnight with class.”

There are many sacrifices a bull rider must make. They go beyond superficial things like time and money, and touch on personal well-being. As in the movie Eight Seconds, it’s not ‘if’ a bull rider gets hurt, it’s how bad. Injuries are just a part of the game. At one time Randy stopped getting nervous about riding, so he took a couple of years off. “When you’re not scared anymore, that’s when you get hurt,” Randy explained.

If you ask me, he has every right to be nervous. “I’ve been lucky, in all my years I’ve never broke nothing,” he mentioned. However, he has had his fair share of injuries, numerous dislocations in his shoulder, bulls stomping all over him, a hole in his head, and many others. He was knocked out for ten minutes once but when he came to he walked out of the arena on his own.. right into the ambulance to take him to the ER, “I made it to the gate and the ambulance came and off we went.” One other time a bull stepped on his ankle; his ankle swelled so big that he couldn’t get his boot on, but it didn’t stop him. Randy says that all the injuries just fed fuel to the fire; they just made him want to do it more.

In the last couple of years Randy has moved from bull riding to steer wrestling; it’s a bit easier on the body. This weekend Randy didn’t successfully wrestle down a steer, but I have a feeling he’ll be back next year and get another chance. As for me, I had such a good time I’ll probably go back, too.

This article first appeared in the August 9, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.