Richard Connor: Not-quite-lookalike aside, rodeo great Larry Mahan was one of a kind

Larry Mahan (AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ron Jenkins)

Being Larry Mahan was simple.

Much easier than staying hooked on a bucking bull, dug in like a tick on a dog’s back.

Now, I’ve never bucked a bull, but I’ve ridden horses bucking like broncs and the closest I ever came to riding one in a rodeo came during a Grand Entry at the Fort Worth Stock & Rodeo. The big black gelding took his best shot at me, and I bucked him out and doffed my hat to the crowd just before my heart kicked back into beat. “Nice ride,” said my late friend Marty Richter, an authentic former rodeo bucking horse man. “If one ever gets you throwed either fake a heart attack on the arena floor or get up, walk tall out the back gates and keep on trucking. Do not come back.”

Marty did not realize I was actually Larry Mahan – or, rather, that many people thought I was. Bucking horses and hero-worshiping fans don’t scare me.

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Mahan himself loved me being him. Took the pressure off, he said.

The most visible and best rodeo all-around athlete, rodeo Hall of Famer and marketing star in the sport’s history, Mahan died May 7 at 79 at home in Valley View, Texas, surrounded by family. A two-day visitor before Mahan died was the man who surpassed his title of six all-around cowboy PRCA titles, Stephenville’s Ty Murray, who won seven.

Mahan died from cancer, the bull he rode for a long time but could not ultimately defeat.

He was as Texan as Texas can breed but grew up in Salem, Oregon.

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Mahan, always with an eye for talent, spotted Murray when he was a teenager and brought him to his ranch at 13 to work for the summer. He mentored Murray mostly on how to handle fame and crowds and the pressure of being a star. Murray said that Mahan never offered advice on how to ride but allowed him to break colts on his ranch.

Larry Mahan and I looked nothing alike except for being short and stocky in build but when my gray hair was long and sticking out from under my cowboy hat his fans would mistake me for him. We both showed cutting horses at the same time and became friends. That’s when “you’re Larry Mahan” kicked in like a West Texas wind.

Being his friend was not unusual. Mahan made friends with just about everyone he ever met, remembering to ask about their children and their parents, and asking to give them his best.

There were contradictions: he was cocksure but humble and without affectation; his energy and creativity knew no bounds, but he was incredibly laid back with a surprising laconic streak.

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“Hey, Larry,” strangers would call out to me.

This happened so often I ceased explaining I was not Larry Mahan and began acknowledging the greetings.

It was hopeless trying to convince them I was a newspaper publisher in Fort Worth. Before long, I relented to the point of writing an autograph or two … or maybe a lot more. “Keep bucking. Stay in the saddle. Hold on tight. Love, Larry Mahan.” My favorite fabrication: “ When you’re face down in the dirt, saddle up again.”

It got to the stage where a handwriting expert could not tell the difference between our scribbles.

Mahan knew this and loved it. We howled many a time when I would tell him of the most recent incident.

The most notorious occurred one night in a Stockyards bar.

I had competed in a charity team penning event where Mahan was scheduled to appear but had to cancel. After I rode, I repaired to a bar for a beer with a friend. The first time I walked to the restroom I overheard someone sitting with a group in a nearby booth say, “Hell. That’s Larry Mahan. He’s here for the team penning.”

My ambling walk turned into a trot.

The next time I passed the group, someone called out, “Hey, Larry!” I moved even faster; the trot became a gallop.

On a third pass by the table, I heard the group grow offended and belligerent.

“Damn it, Larry,” one of them said. “You’re our hero, walked by here twice, ignored us and you won’t even stop to say hello.”

Protective of our/his/my image I stopped, and they piled out of the booth to shake hands. I explained I was not Larry but had been in the team penning.

They would have none of it and demanded a handshake and autographs on bar napkins.

I obliged but as I turned away the tallest in the group – a big, bellicose man towering over me like Hoss Cartwright looking down at Little Joe – grabbed my shoulder and spun me around.

“Not so fast, Larry,” he said. “We want a group photo and a special autograph for my wife.”

We took the photo (Kodak Instamatic, no iPhones in those days) and then he presented the-not-so-little lady. I noticed that neither of them had a piece of paper. I said I had nothing to sign.

“Oh yes you do!” he said, pointing to his buxom bride. “Right here.” Whoops, I thought to myself, steering a bashful gaze away from … from, well, I averted my eyes from her, um, physical attributes.

As Bob Seger sings in Night Moves, her “points all her own sitting way up high.”

He handed me a soft-tip pen and, yes, you guessed it. I signed on her “right top side.” Like a Nolan Ryan fastball, high and to the inside.

When I told Mahan about the encounter, he quipped, “That’s one I would have preferred to sign myself.”

Back at my barstool, I told my friend that the autograph hounds on Monday morning would be as angry as the last bull at a rodeo night, the one they let out alone, pawing and snorting and trying to maim the clown. Sober, they’d get the photos back from Walmart and exclaim, “Well that lying SOB! He’s not Larry Mahan.”

My life as Larry Mahan could not compare to the real Larry Mahan. He was truly a gifted athlete, and unique in ways that will never be matched.

Great athletes, of which there are precious few, are like the wealthy described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, when in that novel he wrote, “the rich are very different from you and me.”

So accurate. But the rich just have a lot of money. The truly great athletes have more than wealth and transitory fame. More of everything. They have depth and a gypsy moth air of grace, power, and confidence that floats invisibly above them. They have a supernatural quality about them that you can sense, feel, and comprehend but is hard to describe.

Their exploits in the arena of sport are pure athleticism that few possess but their true greatness is off the court and outside the arena. Mahan had it all and he marketed his sport and himself with clothing and boots and television commentary like no other in his sport. He was ubiquitous, charming with a warm smile and eyes that would melt an iceberg. He even sported side-to-side dimples.

If there is a prelude, a precursor to who Larry Mahan would become take a look at the photo when he was presented the 1969 All-Around Champion Cowboy award. Posing behind the championship saddle, he is dressed in a double-breasted blue blazer and not wearing a hat. No shirt with multiple advertisers. No big-brimmed and oversized hat. Just him, impeccably dressed and dishing out that big smile.

He was establishing himself as unique and different.

Mahan won the All-Around Championship five years in a row, 1966-70, and then again in 1973. He rode in the most challenging and difficult and dangerous events – roughstock, which include bareback riding, saddle bronc, and bull riding. He was Bull Riding Champion in 1977 and won Saddle Bronc in 1979.

Years ago, he would post on Facebook a photo from his ranch taken by his late wife, Julanne, and with it he would add a Bible verse. It was nothing for him to get over a thousand “likes.”

He was unique and even quirky.

Once we were warming up our horses for a “celebrity cutting demonstration” during a horse show for worldwide jumping horse competitors at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. We were there to introduce the crowd to cutting on behalf of the National Cutting Horse Association. By the way, snobs that they were, the jumpers were unimpressed, until it came time to dance at an after-party.

Larry was the cowboy envisioned in Toby Keith’s Should’ve Been A Cowboy and Willie Nelson’s My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,  all wrapped up in one dynamic package.

He had a high class, in-depth intellect.

Walkman cassette players were the rage then and I noticed Larry had one with earphones plugged in as he jogged his horse. I stopped him and asked what he was listening to and why?

“Andreas Vollenweider,” he replied. “His music puts me in the zone.”

I bought a tape, and the music was somewhat otherworldly to me. Vollenweider is a Swiss harpist who won a Grammy in 1987.

Huh, I thought? The most famous cowboy in the world, the bucking horse and bull riding phenomenon, listening to new age music by a harpist? Larry might have thought while growing up in Salem that the only harp was a harmonica but he soon learned the difference.

Mahan had his eccentricities but not when he meant business. He was all business in life outside the arena, just as he was when coming out of the chutes on a horse or a bull.

His famous autograph is now writ in the sky among the brightest of stars. My pen, put sadly away.

Adios, my friend. I am listening to Andreas. We will not see another like you again. My autograph days have arrived at sundown.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at