'Wolfpack' bull-rider Clint Branger steps down at 36

2000-04-11T23:00:00Z 'Wolfpack' bull-rider Clint Branger steps down at 36By JOE KUSEK, of Montana Lee Newspapers Montana Standard

ROSCOE — The phone call was like a punch to the stomach.

Clint Branger had just stepped into his house after working out side with some young calves. The message from Butch Bratsky relayed some tragic news. Canadian bull rider Glen Keeley had died after being stomped on after his bull ride in Albuquerque.

The message also solidified a decision Branger had been mulling over the past two months.

Branger gathered himself and walked into the bedroom. On the bed were his wife Amy, and their son, Jake Douglas, all of 17 days old.

As Branger watched his son breath gently, others from his past … Lane Frost, Brent Thurman, Ronnie Rossen, and now Keeley '85 whispered in his ear from up above.

Branger spoke softly.

“ Daddy's not going to ride bulls any more,” he told his only child.

With that, Clint Branger retired as a professional bull rider on March 25.

Branger, who just turned 36, decided at the first of the year that this would be his final season of bull riding.

“ Amy and I talked about it a long time,” said Branger, sipping coffee in his log house. “ I wanted to put everything I had into it and go out No. 1. Who doesn't want to finish with a world title?

“ But it didn't work out that way. Physically and mentally, I don't have it any more.”

Branger, long considered one of the world's best bull riders, got nudged toward his decision during the first few months of Professional Bull Riders events. He is a founding member of the PBR.

Branger, known as “ Roscoe” by his rodeo friends, struggled and was bumped from the top 45 after the Bud Light Cup event in Phoenix in mid-March. Only the top 45 are allowed to compete on the high-paying Bud Light Cup tour.

Branger would have to compete in smaller Copehagen Series events to be among the top 45 again. Amy Branger admitted that her husband showed the stress of trying to maintain his world-class level of bull riding.

“ As the year went on, I never got comfortable,” Branger said. “ I never got in the groove. I could still go out and make a 90-point ride. But now the chance of that was one in 50, maybe one in 25. I didn't have the consistency.”

He canceled entries in Fort Smith, Ark., and Pasadena, Texas.

Branger began riding calves on the family ranch during branding time as a child. He also stopped to pay attention every time the bull riding was on during the television broadcast of the National Finals Rodeo.

“ I never did think about making a living at it,” said Branger. “ I did it because I loved it.”

After graduating from Absarokee High School in 1983, Branger attended Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., for two years. He won the national collegiate bull riding title in 1985.

It also in 1985 when he began competing in earnest at PRCA rodeos, traveling with friends Scott Breding, Brent Powell and Mike Lenning. It was a minimal existence.

“ We hit it hard in 1985. Well, we thought we hit it hard,” said Branger. “ We slept in the car and ate at McDonald's. I won $7,500 that year but I wasn't broke.”

He finished 24th in the PRCA standings the next year, helped by a $3,000 check from Houston.

Branger hooked up with Joe Wimberley in 1987. “ I needed somebody that had been to the NFR because I didn't know how to get there,” Branger said. Wimberley qualified in 1984 and both qualified in 1987. It was the first of eight NFR qualifications for Branger.

After a rodeo in Hayward, Calif., in 1988, Branger was on an airplane to somewhere else when Lane Frost sauntered up next to him. Frost, the charismatic 1987 world champion, asked if Branger wanted to partner in with him, Tuff Hedeman and Jim Sharp. Cody Lambert was leaving the group to ride bucking horses and bulls.

Branger, the shy kid from a tiny town in the Beartooth Mountains, jumped in boots first and kept on running.

“ I threw in with them and it worked,” said Branger, remembering those days with a smile. “ They weren't afraid to spend money to get somewhere. We spent the money and made the money. I was totally overwhelmed.”

The rollicking foursome, nicknamed the “ Wolfpack,” by rodeo writer Kendra Santos, did everything in a big way. The group would flip to see who paid for the rental car, flip to see who would pay for dinner and then flip again to see who would pay for the hotel that night.

“ And we didn't use just any rental car. We got a Lincoln,” Branger said. “ One time, we flipped for dinner and I lost. We flipped for the hotel and I lost again. We then flipped for the bed because there were like six of us in there. And I lost. The next morning, after sleeping on the floor, I went to take a shower and there were no towels.

“ I paid for the whole thing and never even got a shower. Looking back on it, it was pretty fun.

“ We would go ride, then party all night.”

In July 1989 Frost was killed at Cheyenne Frontier Days. The next day, Branger found himself in Great Falls, preparing to ride again.

“ I can't tell you how the hell I went to Great Falls,” he said. “ I didn't know what to do. I was confused.

“ Maybe I wanted to show myself I wasn't done. Maybe if I didn't get on right away and waited a month or two, I might not have gotten back on again.”

Hedeman did not ride for a month. He rode again in Casper, Wyo., and after his ride, he went behind the bucking chutes and broke down in tears.

“ After Lane's death, it brought us closer together. Like brothers,” Branger said. “ We rode to keep it going. Is it corny to say we wanted to keep the Wolfpack going?

“ But I never thought about quitting.”

During the 1990s, Branger battled a series of serious injuries. He broke an ankle in 1992, broke his leg and re-broke his ankle in 1993. He shattered the bone around his eye at a rodeo in Denton, Texas, in 1994. He suffered his most serious injury in the fall of 1995 — a broken neck — and missed most of 1996.

“ Love of the sport. That's what it was,” said Branger of what kept bringing him back.

In 1992, Branger was one of 20 bull riders who met in Scottsdale, Ariz., to form the Professional Bullriders. Each tossed in $1,000 to get it started. The PBR is now a multimillion-dollar industry with 29-event tour that culminates in a World Finals in Las Vegas. The PBR will pay out $6.2 million dollars this year.

Branger qualified eight times for the NFR and is a four-time qualifier for the PBR World Finals. He has never won a world title. He was asked if that bothered him.

“ No,” Branger replied. “ Like I've always told the school groups I've met with, not winning has made me a better person. I've done everything but win a world title.

“ The riding speaks for itself. I'm a champion inside.”

Branger has been close. He finished third in the final PRCA standings in 1990 and 1992. The bull Outlaw Willie bucked him off in the final round of the 1990 NFR to keep him away from the gold buckle.

In 1994, Branger led the PBR world standings most of the year. The PBR title is based on points earned. That World Finals had triple points being awarded. The career-ending bull Bodacious bucked Branger off 7.8 seconds into the ride, allowing Adriano Moraes to claim the year-end championship.

Branger got his revenge, riding Bodacious in 1995 for 92 points at Bullnanza in Guthrie, Okla.

“ To ride him made me personally feel good because he took so much away from me the year before,” said Branger, one of only five bull riders ever to complete an eight-second ride on Bodacious.

Branger has won the $50,000 bonus round at the Calgary Stampede, along with bull riding titles at Houston (1991), the Pendleton Round Up (1988), Denver (1990, 1997) and San Antonio (1990, 1994 and 1997), along with many others.

Now he will stay home year-round. His stunning log house, with a basement full of rodeo memories, has the East Rosebud River in the back and a large pasture full of cows in the front.

“ That's why I'm retiring. I don't have time to flyfish,” he said with a laugh. “ Now instead of packing a rigging bag for a rodeo, I'll be packing my boy in there.

“ It's funny. I used to always talk bulls. Now I just want to talk about cows.

“ I'm happy.”

AP-WS-04-04-00 1642EDT

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