Just 70 miles east of Tulsa, on U.S. Highway 266, lies the little town of Checotah, Oklahoma, population 3,481. A quintessential slice of Western Americana, it is home to an assortment of antique shops and Country music singers, one Civil War battlefield and a festival honoring okra.
Dubbed the “Steer Wrestling Capital of the World,” Checotah has also served as hometown and training ground for six world champion bulldoggers, including ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Duvall.
Though this steer wrestling icon officially retired from competition in 2007, he has no intention of steering clear of the rodeo arena any time soon. At age 65, he has another generation of Duvalls to train, and it’s a matter about which he’s quite serious.
THE YOUNGEST SON of a rodeo father and a working mother, Roy didn’t set foot inside a rodeo arena until he and his older brother, Bill, were well into their teens. Family problems at home when Roy was only 12 separated the boys amongst family members for a time. Roy went to live with his aunt and uncle in Wainwright, and Bill stayed with the boys’ paternal grandparents in Hichita.
Even though the brothers attended different schools nearly 20 miles apart, they remained close. And, when they were reunited in the same home with their mother several years later, junior rodeos quickly became their shared interest.
Already a 6-foot-3, 179-pound high school junior, Roy decided he just wasn’t built for rough-stock events and, upon Bill’s advice, pursued steer wrestling instead.
“Bill rode bulls and bulldogged,” says Roy. “I got into the bulldogging and liked it, so I stayed with it.”
With four steers, a gelding they had purchased, and an ex-race mare their grandpa Duvall had given them, the pair set their sights on making a run at the big man’s sport of bulldogging. There was one small problem: neither Roy nor Bill knew anything about jumping steers. Undeterred, each young man jumped freely and often from his speeding mount, eating a fair share of ground before actually catching a steer.
Learning what to do with a steer after you caught him, Roy recalls, took even more work. Luckily for the Duvalls, friendships struck with seasoned bulldoggers Everett Crandall, Nathan Hailey, Jim Smith, and soon-to-be world champions Billy Hale and Willard and Benny Combs, helped answer this and other questions.
Roy put these hard-learned lessons to use at his first junior rodeo in 1961.
“My first [rodeo] was in Sallisaw, Oklahoma,” he recalls. “Bill had talked me into entering the bulldogging. There weren’t 10 cowboys in it, and I placed third. It cost me $20 to enter and I won back $21. Back then, I thought that was just great. That’s what started me really wanting to rodeo.”
DRAWN BY THE ALLURE of being paid for only a few seconds of work, Roy and Bill purchased their International Professional Rodeo Association cards in 1962.
“We would take our horses to work with us [both worked at local feed mills] and tie them in an alley by the railroad tracks,” says Roy. “As soon as we got done working, we’d rush to a rodeo.”
The youngest Duvall was a quick study and finished his first year just $74 shy of winning the championship title. Not satisfied with his second-place rank, Roy hit the rodeo trail hard, capturing IPRA steer wrestling titles in 1963 and ’64 before moving on to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1965.
“I waited until I felt like I was ready to compete with bigger guys,” Roy explains.
The decision proved wise. At his first PRCA outing, the rookie placed third in a round against the likes of veteran bulldoggers James “Big Jim” Bynum, Tom Nesmith and Willard Combs. The year ended on a disappointing note, however, when Roy suffered a sidelining injury.
“I missed a steer at the Joplin [Missouri] Rodeo,” Roy recalls. “The arena was on a grass football field, and I flipped around backwards and hit right on my thumb—broke the bone. That was the only time I was out of competition during my entire career. It cost me three months and a trip to the National Finals.”
With Bill on his bulldogging team, Roy came back strong, finishing third in the world in 1966 and earning the first of three world titles in 1967. Other world championships followed in 1969 and ’72.
At the hazing whip, helping to train horses, or practicing alongside his brother, Bill Duvall was an integral part of Roy’s nearly 50-year career. An injury early in Bill’s own career put him in the role of hazer.
“I never worried [when Bill hazed],” Roy says. “I never even bothered to look next to me, because I knew Bill would to be there when I needed him. He gave me confidence. You need that to be a winner—confidence in yourself and who’s helping you.”
And, when rodeos or life took his brother off in another direction, Roy enlisted Bill’s sons, Sam and Spud, both NFR qualifiers, as hazers. Arena mishaps through the years left the two missing teeth, and the men opted for gold replacements that they sport to this day, a symbol of the bond they still share.
Roy’s uncanny soundness and longevity in a sport riddled with back, knee and shoulder injuries, has yet to be matched. To this day, he holds PRCA records for the most National Finals qualifications (24) in steer wrestling, including 21 consecutive from 1966 to 1986. And, though he made his final trip to the NFR in 1994 at the age of 52, Roy continued campaigning in professional and amateur competition well past the average bulldogger’s prime.
“It’s hard to stay sound 21 years straight,” Roy asserts. “But, I never ran a steer without giving it 110 percent. If you go out there and you just half get off, you’re not ready for the hit or the ground, and you’re liable to hurt yourself.”
Last April, despite rotator cuff issues, the veteran downed the final steer of his career in 5.0 seconds to tie for first place at the annual Duvall Steer Wrestling Jackpot.
“It was time,” says Roy. “When you’re 64, you’re not likely to beat 20- to 30-year-old boys. That’s why most guys quit in their 40s. You just don’t see many tough enough to continue.”
To this day, aspiring bulldoggers seek help from the Duvalls. Extended-family members include four-time world champion and neighbor Ote Berry and 16-time NFR qualifier Rod Lyman.
“When we were growing up, different people helped us,” Roy says, “so we’ve tried real hard to pass the tradition along.”
THINGS WERE A LITTLE DIFFERENT in the sport of steer wrestling when Roy and Bill began their respective careers. The steers were bigger, many of the contestants were ranch-raised cowboys, and the event didn’t seem to cost so much.
“When I started out in PRCA, cattle would weigh 700 to 800 pounds,” Roy says. “A five- or six-second run would win the round, and an 11- or 12-second run would place. The cattle they used at my first NFR were fresh from the feedlot. When you got done running one, you might have a shirt on you, you might not. It wasn’t unusual to go 30 seconds on one, or bounce off the bucking chutes.
“Today, most cattle weigh between 450 and 500 pounds, and just flop over.”
Many of the bulldoggers Roy competed against had a strong ranch background and equally strong work ethic, he says.
“It’s a different breed of cowboy these days,” notes Roy. “Instead of coming from the ranches, they come from town. I’ve also noticed a lot of guys work out, but they don’t practice like we did. I dropped off some steers at a rodeo the other day and watched the short go. I know a lot of those boys would be a lot tougher if they worked at it harder.”
Roy found the same to be true in his steer wrestling schools.
“I could tell the very first day which ones needed to go home,” he explains. “Out of every 25 students, I might get five that really had the desire to learn and do the work it takes to be the best. The others would tell me, ‘This is different than I thought. It’s work.’ I quit having schools on account of that.”
Roy, who set a record in 1967 with more than $30,000 earned in steer wrestling, laments that today’s bulldoggers need to spend increasing amounts of money to stay in the game.
“In 1967, I could buy a new truck for $2,400, a good horse for $2,000, and spend 18 cents a gallon for fuel,” he explains. “Sure, bulldoggers might earn $100,000 a year now, but when you consider the way everything has gone up, those boys aren’t making as much money as we did.”
A WHITE-FACED CALF streaks toward the end of the arena with a freckle-faced boy and his bay horse in hot pursuit. After a few swings, the loop finds its target, settling across the calf’s neck for a split second before the breakaway honda releases its catch. A smile flashes across 11-year-old Mason Carter’s face as his grandfather nods in approval.
“He’s a roper,” Roy says, “and a pretty good one for his age.”
Mason and his cousin, Riley Joe Duvall, are the next generation of Duvalls poised for rodeo greatness. And, thanks to the combined coaching efforts of family veterans Roy, Bill and Sam, so far the boys seem to be living up to the challenge. Sans the golden grin of the Duvalls that have gone before them, each has found early success in roping events at local junior rodeos.
For Roy, roping well is one step closer to being a good bulldogger.
“The hardest thing to learn about steer wrestling is timing,” he explains. “I don’t care how big and stout you are; if you don’t have a little bit of timing, then you’re not going to win a whole lot. If you rope when you’re young, you’re that much ahead of the rest because when you get big enough to bulldog, you’ll have already mastered riding and scoring.”
Roy’s rules for the boys are simple: take care of your horse, work hard and stay after it.
“A lot of kids don’t work at it like we did,” he comments. “They want to run two steers and then head to the Dairy Queen for a snack. You have to be dedicated if you want to be the very best. You have to work harder at it.”
At 15, Riley Joe is just beginning to jump a few steers under the watchful eye of his elders. But for Mason, it will take a few more years and a little more size before he can follow in his family’s footsteps.
“He really wants to bulldog, but he’s not big enough yet,” Roy says. “He tries to pull them down and they pull him down. I guess we’re going to have to put some lead in his back pocket.”
Jennifer Zehnder is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.