BILLINGS — Donnie Gay wanted to be the world bull riding champion at 5 years old. But not even the precocious kid from Mesquite, Texas could have predicted the success he’d have in the sport.
Gay won eight PRCA bull riding world titles by the time all was said and done in a rodeo career that began at the age of 16 in 1969. He won his first world title at 21 in 1974 and his last at 31 in 1984, breaking his father’s former roping partner Jim Shoulders’ all-time record of seven.
But Gay was far from finished with the sport after retiring from competition. He has been the general manager of the Frontier Rodeo Company since 2002 and was a lead commentator at the National Finals Rodeo from 2003-17.
Gay was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979, followed by his father Neal in 1993, becoming the first father-son duo to achieve the honor.
MTN Sports caught up with Gay when he was in Billings earlier this year attending the Montana ProRodeo Hall and Wall of Fame banquet, and the legend shared stories on topics from bull riding to flying, his two favorite passions.
MTN Sports: Donnie, first of all, you have to talk about Mesquite, Texas.
Donnie Gay: Well it’s still there. I drove by it this morning going to the airport. Mesquite Championship Rodeo, which is Mesquite, Texas to me, started in 1958. I was five years old, so I grew up in the world’s largest dirt playground. My dad’s partner was 16-time world champion Jim Shoulders, and that pretty well says it all. My dad provided the place and an opportunity, and Shoulders had set the bar high enough that there was some good goals for everybody.
MTN Sports: Was there anything else you ever wanted to do?
Gay: No. My parents were a little concerned I think about me because all I talked about was wanting to be the world champion bull rider. They said, ‘Well when do you want to do that?’ And I said I don’t know when – I just want to be it. That was just the way I thought. Along the way, I did everything kids do growing up – play football, baseball. Obviously with my stature, not much basketball. I had a reasonably normal childhood, except that my daddy worked us really hard. But we learned some really valuable lessons. In the rodeo business, you earn it every day. No days off. My dad’s favorite saying, I say it all the time – ‘You don’t halfway rob the bank. You either did or you didn’t.’ That’s just the way we operate. That’s Mesquite, Texas.
MTN Sports: You mentioned they asked you when you wanted that to happen. You were 21 when you won your first world title.
Gay: Just turned 21 in 1974. I was runner-up in ’73, and just continued on. Jim Shoulders won seven of his world titles in bull riding. He was riding in 2-3 events at these rodeos while winning these championships. I rode broncs and bareback horses pretty good, but I knew I wasn’t near tough enough physically to do those events and go – we ramped it up in the 70s, different from the 50s – they were going to 60 rodeos a year, working 3-4 events, staying at those rodeos. In the 70s, we did 160 rodeos a year and that’s where I fell in love with flying. I could rodeo as long as I didn’t get anything less than a C in school. I turned pro when I was 16 – it was before rodeo got over-lawyered like everything else. So I could go to rodeos but couldn’t miss a day of school or get anything less than a C. Larry Mahan was living in Dallas at the time and was flying an airplane. So I’d go to ride at Lake Charles, Louisiana, or Baton Rouge or Kissimee, Florida, and be able to get back to Dallas to get to Mesquite and not miss any school. I walked in a time or two with my riding britches still on, a little dirty, but I made it. I didn’t miss a day of school. The difference in 2019 vs. 1970? You went by the rules or you were punished. Period.
MTN Sports: Were any of those subjects ever close, having to maintain a C?
Gay: No. I was deathly terrified of that, but there was a story I’ll tell. I made a D in Algebra in the 7th grade. I passed the 7th grade except for my daddy went to the principal and I had to repeat it because I made a D, one in six weeks. The school said, ‘We can’t do that.’ My daddy said, ‘Yes you can.’ I was mortified until I found out that I went from 5th string quarterback to 1st string quarterback because I already knew the plays. I never had to crack a book after that. It was a year of maturity and my daddy knew it. He was just that way. I argued with him, but not very long because he was usually right.
MTN Sports: You were 21 when you first were the world champion. Montana has the youngest PBR world champion in Jess Lockwood. Have you followed him at all?
Gay: I have watched him some. I don’t watch a lot of the PBR since I was thrown under the PBR bus a long time ago, but a great bunch of bull riders, great events. Jess Lockwood can really ride and so can J.B. Mauney. I’m waiting to see if they can make it rodeoing. Some people are cut-out to ride just once a weekend, but to me that would have been the hardest thing to do for me. You can buy three knives – they can all be the same sharpness – but the sharpest one is the one that gets the strap the most. That’s just my opinion.
MTN Sports: Let’s talk about the PBR for a bit. It started three years after you retired. It sounds like you would still have preferred the PRCA route, or the Pro Rodeo route, over the PBR.
Gay: I’m the reason the PBR gained notoriety as fast as it did. I put it on television, national television, on TNN. We started playing them once a month on Sunday on Championship Rodeo on TNN in the early 90s, then we based it on popularity. It took two years before it went to two weeks a month, and then in 2000, it went to three weeks out of the four because of its popularity. Great event, I just felt like when the powers that be retired from bull riding, it went from being the best thing for the bull riders to the best thing for the PBR bull riding management. It’s always like that. Tuff Hedeman got it on the track, but if it weren’t for Allen Reed and his television wisdom, it would have been all dressed up and no place to go.
MTN Sports: Let’s talk about another guy. You mentioned Jim Shoulders. There’s a guy named Sage Steele Kimzey who just became the only other guy to win five straight PRCA bull riding world titles. How do you feel about him possibly breaking Jim’s record? Are you a ‘Records are meant to be broken’ guy?
Gay: Absolutely. I broke Jim’s record, and that’s what he told me, and that’s what I told Sage. Sage is after my record. He wants to win nine world titles in bull riding. If he can stay healthy and focused – I don’t know which one of those comes first – it’s just four more years, and I don’t even think he’s 25 yet. So he can have nine in the bag before he’s 30, and then if I could lay out his itinerary, you get nine, or eight, then you do your rodeos and the PBR. That’s what I would have done. At my peak, my very best, I would have been veteran enough, because there’s no day off. If you start riding bad in the PBR, there are no smaller venues, there’s no AAA to get back on even keel. You’re getting on rank bulls every time you go. For a bull rider with talent, you’re supposed to get rich. But even a bull rider with talent can get in a slump, and then you get hurt, and then it really begins to get tough, because the bulls don’t read your resumé. If they did, I’d still be riding.
MTN Sports: Do you have a favorite memory from your time competing? You’ve won so much – is there anything that stands out?
Gay: Yes. I was real angry at the rule change in 1976, that the world champion was going to be decided at the National Finals Rodeo, sudden death, like all pro sports. But rodeo’s different. They changed that rule because we were flying planes, going to 160 rodeos, and they were talking about buying the world championship. That would have been so if I would have sent my chaps to 160 rodeos and it got money, but you had to be in them and win. Winning the most money had always been the world champion. Win more money than anybody else and you’re the best. Well, they changed the rules – you were going to be the PRCA champion winning the most money, but you could win the National Finals, whic is our best rodeo, the best competition, the best quality of livestock, the hardest event to win – you’re going to be the world champion. And they ran a pretty good argument, but I said you’re going to have a really good world champion, you just might not have the right one. The first I won it. The second year we wound up tied. In 1976, I had to be over 90 points in the 10th go-round, win first in the go-round, first in the average, and Randy Majors couldn’t place any higher than third place in the go-round, and he had drawn the famous bull Oscar. I had been 97 points on that bull before. So the stage is pretty well set. I had that positive attitude – I told my dad, I’ll have Red One or Generalissimo. They’re the two I know can be over 90 on and win the thing. I said I’m gonna be the champ. I drew Red One – my dad couldn’t believe I drew him because I told him I was. This was before a draft. I rode him – 94 points. First place in the go-round, first place in the average. Randy Majors was 87 and won third. I won it both ways – I was the money-winning champion, I was the world champion. Then the next year, Randy and I right up to the end, the powers that be that did all this changing, they didn’t realize you could wind up tied. We would up tied. They didn’t have a tiebreaker in place. So the judges are standing in the arena saying, ‘What do y’all wanna do?’ I said, ‘Well we’re damn sure not gonna flip a coin.’ I said there are four re-rides back there. Let’s load them and ride them until one of us don’t ride one, and they said that sounds good. So Randy got on first and bucked off. I got on second and rode mine, so I won the only ride-off there’s ever been. So those two moments – ’76 and ’77 – and probably the most memorable. And people say, ‘What about winning the 8th world title?’ I was so beat up and so relieved. I knew I’d clinched the 8th world title after the 8th go-round in 1984. I won the eliminator pen,and I just remember the relief. The amount of pressure I had been putting on myself was pretty high, and I was relieved to get that over with.
MTN Sports: We have to talk about flying. Where did it start for you?
Gay: Jim Shoulders took us deer hunting. He had a student pilot’s license. My daddy sent my brother Pete and I off with him to South Texas, also looking for bulls because that’s where we bought the famous bull Tornado. That was my first plane ride. A little Cessna 170. Jim Shoulders was flying, and everything he did, I wanted to do it. He was my hero and like a second father to me. The next plane I was in was Larry Mahan’s. He was long-haired with fancy shirts and an airplane, the all-around the champ, the King, so I wanted to do everything he was doing. So I started taking flying lessons. Aurora, Oregon, right below Portland – I was up the first day and last day in the Pacific Indoor National Rodeo, and it lasted 10 days. So I rode my first bull and went to the airport at Aurora and found this long-haired kid who had hair down to his belt. Remember this is 1973. He’s a hippy. A little ol’ skinny thing, he took me out to the airplane. I told him I wanted to get my pilot’s license, so we look at this airplane and he says, ‘We’re going to fly this today if you go down and pay this doctor to get a physical. That will be your student pilot’s license.’ So I went. Doctor saw me right in, got a physical, came back to the airport, wasn’t 15 minutes we had it running and flew around the patch with him helping me along. I flew nine days in a row, one hour a day, and before I went back to get on my last bull at the P.I., I solo’d. I flew around the patch three times, touch-and-go’s that day. Then I rode my bull there, got in my car, drove from Portland, Oregon to Mesquite, Texas, and kept up with my flight lessons and kept on going. I was a licensed pilot in ’74.
MTN Sports: That’s a wild story when you think about what that would take today. Nobody could walk over and get a physical and go up in a plane an hour later.
Gay: You can’t even go with an appointment and get back to the airport in the same day anymore! And it rained every day. But it was 2200 feet overcast a little light rain, and it was maybe the most fun I’d ever had. I love it, and I’m still flying. I just got my type-rating for a Citation 5, the 500 series of Cessna jets. I went all the way up to a jet-pilot, man!
MTN Sports: Have you ever had any close calls?
Gay: Flying is hours and hours of sheer boredom, and then a few seconds of sheer terror. Most of the time, sticking your head in further than you should with Mother Nature, because just about the time you think you’ve got her figured out, figure again. It can be really dangerous, really scary. But I’m going to tell you – nobody loves Donnie Gay more than Donnie Gay, so Jerry Nelson, my boss, he’ll fly anywhere with me. I’m as good a pilot as I was a bull rider, that’s because of my decision making. And when you’re in a tight spot, and you will be in some, you react properly. That’s a big part of the learning curve, and most people get over it. But I’m gonna tell you – flying is so much safer than driving. You used to worry about drunk drivers, but at least when they looked up, they saw four lanes maybe instead of two. But now when they’re texting, they don’t see nothing – they just run over you. It’s just ridiculous the way people drive anymore.
MTN Sports: What got your adrenaline going more – Mother Nature moment in a plane, or the head-nod when the gate opens?
Gay: Oh, Mother Nature far and away. I knew I was in control when I nodded for the gate, or least I believed I was in control. With Mother Nature, you don’t need to be fooling yourself there.