Bruce Ford is a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. He has won five national bareback championships, dined with Ronald Reagan at the White House, won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and even had a movie made about his life.

Want to see him really light up? Ask about his family. His son, Royce, is 17th in the world bareback rankings and his daughter, Courtney, is an up-and-coming barrel racer. Two nephews are in the business, too, including Heath Ford.

“The Mannings play football, we rodeo,” Heath said. “It’s in our blood.”

Rodeo is as much a part of Western folklore as Wyatt Earp and the Colt .45. Rodeo as most people know it now dates at least to 1864, when cowboys from rival ranches met in Deer Trail, Colo., to settle an argument over who was the best at performing everyday ranching chores, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, the sport’s governing body.

The PRCA estimates nearly 7,000 cowboys participate in 650 sanctioned rodeos in 41 states every year. More than 24 million fans were in attendance last year at sanctioned rodeos, making it the seventh-biggest spectator sport in the United States.

As much as anyone, the Fords can lay claim to being rodeo’s first family.

“The Ford name is a very respected name around rodeos,” said Hadley Barrett, who has been an announcer for the PRCA for 40 years. “Bruce is one of the icons and you can tell the roots run deep in that family.”

Ford, one of the first rodeo stars to win $1 million, has nothing left to prove. Asked if he’d be as dominant among this generation of bareback riders, he took a moment to ponder the question.

“If I wanted to win, I could,” Ford said.

Why the hesitation?

“Well, I am 53 years old,” he said with a wink.

The elder Ford qualified for a record 19 national bareback finals in his career, the final one coming at the age of 46. He’s still ornery enough to believe he could compete.

“For a cup of coffee, I could ride a rattlesnake,” Ford said. “The rodeo has been good to me. It’s taken me places. I’ve slept in a sleeping bag in stalls to fancy hotels. I’ve experienced everything.”

Now, his career has taken a back seat to his family.

“I have a greater reward for watching them,” he said. “I feel their thrills and their pains. I’m proud of all of them.”

Heath is a spot ahead of Royce in the bareback standings and another nephew, Jarrod, is currently fourth in the Xtreme Bulls standings.

“He helped make a name for us,” Jarrod said. “Now we’re all trying to make our own names.”

Bruce knew it was time to end his rodeo days in 2000 when he was at an event and the announcer said of Royce: “He’s the son of five-time champion Bruce Ford.”

“I didn’t want him to have to live with that,” Ford said. “Now I’m just the father of Royce. He’s made his own trail.”

Bruce and his older brother, Glen, learned to love the rodeo from their father, Jim. He’d bring home a trailer full of horses, and the two boys would have them all ridden by the next morning. They’d also practice by grabbing the scruff of a burro’s neck and then hanging on.

Sitting under a tent, eating turkey with mashed potatoes and peach cobbler, Glen recalled meeting his wife, Jane, at the 1974 national finals. She was the reigning Miss Rodeo of Louisiana — they should have known their boys would be rodeo stars.

Heath was a bareback rider at the University of Wyoming. In 2001, a horse fell on his foot and doctors wanted to immediately put on a cast. Heath refused and competed the next day, finishing ninth.

“You’ve got to overcome a few bumps and bruises,” said Heath, who’s earned $145,950 in his three-year career.

Royce has qualified for nationals three times and has earned $454,212 in his career. He also raises bucking horses. Jarrod took a different path than the other men in the family: He wanted to ride bulls — and Xtreme Bulls. The difference? He draws one of the nation’s top 45 bulls — bulls have rankings, too — every ride.

Asked if it was dangerous, Jarrod laughed.

“Any time you climb on a 2,000-pound bull, it’s dangerous,” said Jarrod, who qualified for nationals last year and has won $241,881 in his career.

The younger Fords are constantly on the road, hitting different events. Heath said he spent 238 days traveling last season and Royce is in the midst of going from Greeley to Pecos, Texas, to Prescott, Ariz., to Springdale, Ark., to Cody, Wyo., and back to Greeley, all in a six-day period.

“This is what we call cowboy Christmas,” Royce said of the Fourth of July weekend.

In any other sport, the Fords would be famous. But rodeo stars don’t have the same name recognition as NASCAR’s stars.

“If we were Dale Earnhardt Jr., you’d know us,” said Heath, whose fiance rides on the college circuit. “Not many can name a pro rodeo star. I don’t know why, though. Rodeo has everything — danger, excitement and fear factor. There’s no script for rodeo.

“But we like not being noticed. I like the simple life.”

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