Behind the chutes at La Fiesta de los Vaqueros in Tucson, Ariz., a group of bull riders stretch their sore muscles and get pumped up to tangle with a nasty pen of bulls.
Blending effortlessly into that 20-something crowd is Jim Leatherberry (Phoenix, Ariz.). From the back, he looks like one of the kids. His tall, well-built frame appears perfectly suited for the world's most dangerous sport.
Straight on, Leatherberry's wisdom and experience show up in the lines on his sun-drenched face.
Leatherberry turns 53 in May. It's just a number to the Turquoise Circuit cowboy, who shows no signs of slowing down.
"I'm not so sure I don't like riding them more now then when I was younger," said Leatherberry, after being bucked off six seconds into his Tucson ride.
Leatherberry is a three-time qualifier of the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo. In 2001 he was the only cowboy to cover his bull in the first round of the DNCFR, scoring a mammoth 89 points. His resume also includes a victory at the Calgary Stampede in the mid-1990s, as well as numerous Circuit Finals qualifications.
"I started riding bulls when I was 14 or 15," said Leatherberry, who grew up in Montana. "We rode everything. We'd gather the neighbor's bulls or anyone else who would let us ride them."
Leatherberry joined the PRCA in 1977, and like anyone else in the sport, he's experienced his share of injuries.
"I've had a lot of broken legs and arms, but nothing that's going to keep you out very long," he said. "I'd rather do this than anything else, as long as they let me win once in a while."
During the week, Leatherberry has a seven-horse trailer and hauls racehorses off the track in Phoenix.
Leatherberry's passion for bull riding, though, doesn't go unnoticed. A legion of young bull riders enjoy competing and hanging out with this father-figure type.
"You look at Jimmy and he's fit and healthy," said Wrangler NFR bullfighter Darrell Diefenbach. "He's still competing in what's regarded as a young man's sport. Guys his age are sitting on the couch, drinking beer and playing golf, doing all the lazy man stuff. Jimmy is out there riding bulls with 18- and 20-year-old kids."
Leatherberry's drive to win was evident in Tucson. After getting bucked off, he picked himself off the dirt and climbed back behind the chutes. He then analyzed what had happened with a young bull rider.
"Jim is still a strong contender to win the bull riding where ever he shows up," Diefenbach said. "To me, we set limits on ourselves and people can give you all the excuses in the world why they aren't doing something. But Jim just says it all right there. He loves riding bulls and he's still good at it."
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