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Michael Gaffney and His Fellow Bull Riders Took a Chance— and It Paid Off

By Brad Moore
Journal Staff Writer
    Michael Gaffney had just won $1,100 riding bulls that afternoon in 1992 and he didn't want to part with it when he and 11 other bull riders sat down in a hotel room in Scottsdale, Ariz.
    But fed up with high entry fees and small payoffs for perilous bull-riding risks in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Gaffney and his bovine brothers decided to take a buck of faith.
    The daring dozen, some of whom had to hit 80 rodeos a year to make ends meet back then, each threw $1,000 in the pot. The Professional Bull Riders organization was born.
    "At that time, I really needed that money," said Gaffney, a New Mexico-native and Corrales resident who retired from riding in the PBR last month. "But I knew it was something we had to roll the dice on to have a chance at a better life and a better existence for bull riders.
    "We were paying big-time entry fees and we were putting up all the physical risk for jackpots of six or seven grand."
    Two years after forming the PBR, they held their first PBR World Finals at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev.
    "I think the prize money then was $125,000," said Gaffney, who was laboring to put his wife, Robyn, through medical school back then. "One of my buddies won $27,000 and I couldn't believe it. I was so envious and so glad."
    The decision to write that check 13 years ago spurred a star-studded cowboy career that continues to pay dividends for the 35-year-old Gaffney, the popular 1997 PBR World Finals champ who will become the 21st to be enshrined in the PBR's Ring of Honor in October at the World Finals.
    "If the PBR never came along, it would really be hard to say I'd be where I'm at now," said Gaffney from his adobe-style home while scanning a room lined with autographed pictures of his cowboy buddies such as Ty Murray and J.W. Hart. "I think I'm one of those lucky few who got to live out a dream I had since I was a small kid.
    "I'm a fortunate soul who got to do what I wanted to do."
   
Treasured asset
    Although he's no longer riding bulls, which earned him $856,000 of career PBR earnings, Gaffney is still riding the wave of PBR popularity as a founding shareholder, a member of the board of directors and a color commentator for television broadcasts.
    PBR chief executive officer Randy Bernard says the good-natured Gaffney is one of the sport's treasured assets.
    "He's definitely done as much for the sport as anyone," Bernard said. "He's personable, honest, classy and he has a lot of integrity. He's an ambassador and a leader we want our younger guys looking up to."
    The PBR is looking up also, claiming to be the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country. Scarborough Sports Marketing says PBR's audience, according to live events and TV viewership, has grown from 10.8 million in 2002 to 16.4 million in 2004.
    Gaffney credits good ol' "cowboy common sense" for the success of the company, which is owned by its athletes.
    All 31 stops on the PBR's Built Ford Tough Series this year are aired on NBC or Outdoor Life Network. And prize money has soared in a bull market. When Gaffney took the 1997 PBR world championship, he earned a bonus of $40,000.
    The champ this year will cash in a $1 million bonus.
    "We never fathomed this kind of growth," Gaffney said.
    Gaffney returned Monday from Uniondale, New York, where he did color commentary for a PBR event in Nassau Coliseum for OLN.
    "It's a little tough going in the booth and talking about it while my buddies are still out there having fun," said Gaffney, who grew up near Tularosa where he was first bucked off a shetland pony at age 5. "But hey, everyone's gotta grow up sometime."
   
Life after
    Gaffney, who suffered many broken bones and a 5-inch horn puncture in his right buttocks, says he'll keep some adrenaline pumping. He's adding rock climbing to hobbies of skiing and snowboarding.
    "I may not be quite as crazy as I was in my early 20s, but I still like to get out and get physical," said Gaffney, whose father was a jet fighter pilot at Holloman Air Force Base.
    Gaffney said he knew he could retire with peace of mind after his ride of a lifetime in 2004 in Nampa, Idaho, where he stayed on one of the most ornery bulls in the history of the sport— Little Yellow Jacket— for all eight seconds.
    The ride was scored at 96.5, which tied the PBR's all-time best mark. It was the first time Gaffney had ridden the legendary, three-time bull of the year for the duration. A bronze statue of that ride, which his wife had made for his retirement party, sits on the living room coffee table.
    "It was kind of like the period that was put on my career," said the 1987 Cloudcroft High School graduate, gazing at the statue. "I finally hit that place where I was not only content with what I had accomplished in my career, but I was also healthy."
    Photos of two of his friends who lost their lives riding bulls, Brent Thurman and Glen Keeley, hang on a wall.
    Gaffney and his wife, a surgical pathologist for Presbyterian Hospital, adopted a family member's child— Destyn— three months ago.
    Right now, Gaffney's plenty busy with the PBR, raising his daughter and his occasional cowboy-for-hire side jobs. This week, he doubled for actor Jason Connery, Sean Connery's son, aboard a horse in a movie being filmed on Zia Pueblo.
    Thanks to that $1,000 venture 13 years ago, the cowboy success story gallops on.
    "I feel like I've hit the lottery in several different ways," he said. "I've been an integral part of something I can be proud of and I've reaped financial benefits."