Wild, Wild Wade -- Hard Times Don't Stop One Cowboy From Climbing Back On The Bull

MOSES LAKE - In the first hours of a Sunday morning last year, Trishann Leslie let the telephone ring until it rousted her in-laws, who were asleep in their double-wide trailer near George.

"I thought you might want to know what your son did," Trish told Judy Leslie, who relayed the news to a groggy Shirley Leslie that his 27-year-old son had scored 100 points bull riding in Central Point, Ore.

Unheard of. Nobody in the history of rodeo has ever marked a perfect score. What it means is the judge on one side of the ring gave Wade Leslie all 25 possible points for a perfect ride and gave the bull all 25 points for being the most unridable bull he'd ever seen. Across the arena, the other judge saw it exactly the same way.

"Oh, baloney," said Shirley Leslie, who makes his living on horseback in one of the few ways left to an old-time cowboy, rounding up feedlot cattle.

More believable was that Wade Leslie, at age 5, had wet his pants riding his first steer. Even then he'd maintained style, holding on to the rope with one hand as the steer bucked. He rode his second steer all the way across the corral.

Could it be possible? Shirley Leslie asked his wife to call back and confirm.

The phone didn't rest again. Shirley called his own dad, and then his best friend. By daybreak, he concluded that if it wasn't true, he was going to be awfully embarrassed calling them all back.

But it was true. One of the brokest, most diminutive cowboys on the circuit had just carved a path to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. "Him and the bull both," said his mother.

"It makes the rough times you had going seem worthwhile," said Wade Leslie, 28, who at 5 feet 2 inches and 125 pounds has biceps that bulge, not from weight lifting but from work.

A video of the perfect ride sits in Trish and Wade Leslie's trailer, near the saddle Wade won for being Columbia River Circuit champion in 1991. None of it pays the bills. But like the white desert soil of the Columbia Basin, which is worthless without water and is a flourishing fruit bowl with it, sometimes the icing is worth more than the cake.

If you stack up the rough times, it would block from view all reason to rodeo. But underneath the dirt pay for highly dangerous work there's glory and a cohesiveness that gives meaning to the hard scrabble of life.

There are dozens of Wade Leslies living at the end of dirt roads in the dusty flat land of central Washington that for much of the year is either too hot or too cold. But not many are rodeo stars.

"A guy gets hooked on it," said Leslie, who parcels out words as if each costs a dollar.

Even people who disapprove of rodeoing have some idea of what it's about. It's a nod to this country's heritage, perpetuated by mostly rural folk who still tend to look at animals as tools. It's one of the country's biggest spectator sports with a season that runs from January to December's National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

There can be big money in it, and that's part of the addiction. If a cowboy or cowgirl makes the finals, they may take home an income in six figures and commercial sponsorship. That added boost means that for a year, at least, everyone in the family won't have to sacrifice to pay for Daddy's gas, fast food and entry fees.

The young single guys and gals have got a definite advantage, says Leslie, his memories resonating of recent Sunday nights when he'd call to say he wouldn't be sending a check home again this week.

"My wife is pretty supportive, but it's hard to be supportive when the bill collectors call."

At year's end, only the top 15 money makers in each event qualify for the finals. Leslie was 28th last year and was in that position again this summer when he had to come home.

The higher the bills stacked, the more Leslie would tense up on top of the bull. Then his rope started to malfunction. He'd loop it around his hand all right, but as he flailed with the 1,800-pound bull, the rope would either hang up on him or he'd find himself with one end in his hand and the other end tied to nothing.

He's got two new ropes on order, at a cost of $125 apiece. He figures the last one cost him $20,000 in prize money. And now he has to come home to pay for staying on the circuit too long.

"I knew deep down I should've stopped, but you see your name in the sports news sitting 12th and you know if you win one big one here and a big one there, that's all it takes," Leslie said. "It didn't work."

He has a trade to fall back on. He went to school in Oklahoma for six weeks to learn horseshoeing, which can earn him $200 a day or more. His customers say he understands horses, which makes him especially valuable.

But if he's on the road, as he was all winter and spring, people have to go elsewhere. If his phone's disconnected for lack of payment, it's even harder.

"I can't blame them," said Leslie, who drives the endless roads of Grant County in a beater yellow truck, with a portable forge in the back and one son slumped against him and the other resting a forehead on the dash board, theirmouths wide open in sleep.

Dillon is 4 and Dallas is 3, not much younger than Leslie was when he begged to start rodeoing.

"Some older boys were riding steers and he decided he wanted to do it, too," his mother recalled. "His dad decided it would either make him or break him."

His father started bringing home young bulls from the feed lot for Leslie to ride. By 7, his dad made him chaps and spurs so he could do it right. By 12, Wade won the Northwest Junior Rodeo Association bull riding championship.

"I could see even then Wade had the determination," said Judy. "I knew he had the talent."

His dad rigged up a camper and drove Wade to rodeos weekend after weekend after weekend.

Shirley Leslie would like his son to switch to riding broncs. Even the wildest horse tries to avoid stepping on a man, whereas a bull gets a kick out of it. Riding bulls is the most dangerous rodeo event for the cowboy. The 1987 World Champion bull rider was gored to death in 1989.

Leslie's had a few broken ribs, a shoulder requiring surgery, a ripped-open lip, a broken nose, minor things that didn't slow him down. One night a bull snapped his head back into Leslie's face, and somebody propped Leslie up with an ice pack in one hand and a beer in the other and he awoke to see blood dripping into his beer.

The trick is to stay upright and "never get too big with your movements." The rider stays with the bull's movement as he would with a jumping horse, trying to keep his center of gravity in the middle of the bucking, spinning bull.

The faster and more powerful the bull, the higher the points. Leslie, who feels his size is an advantage because he has less to whip around on top, had his perfect score on a Brahman cross bull named Growney's Wolfman.

"He had a reputation for bucking people off and for being real fast," Leslie said. "Nobody was able to keep up with him."

Wolfman is not one of those bulls you can pet in the back pen before the event. That's why all four riders who've stayed on his back for the required 8 seconds have scored in the 90s. Before Leslie scored 100, the previous record of 98 had stood for 11 years.

Half of bull riding is being lucky in the draw. The Leslies know one rider who didn't hit the ground in 50 rodeos but never got a check because he'd drawn such docile bulls.

A good bull can spin 10 times in 8 seconds and has a natural urge to kick and buck. The bucking strap, considered a cruel device by animal rights activists, makes them kick higher, said Leslie, but it can't make a feisty bull out of a calm one.

When Leslie set his record, he told the rodeo announcer, "I'm a little bit excited," which prompted the announcer to hoot.

But Leslie comes from a long line of stalwart cowboys and was admonished early on by his parents that no one likes a braggart.

"We taught him to be that way," said his mother, "and he is. He doesn't argue if he doesn't agree with the judge."

His father will leap to his feet and cheer when Leslie does well, but it took him a couple of decades to show such emotion.

"He never did say much to him," Judy Leslie said. "Wade would ask me, `How come he didn't say something to me, that I did a good job?' He was always proud of him, but he was afraid he'd get a swelled head."

There's a sense of family in the rodeo world that made it worthwhile for Leslie's parents to pack up the barbecue and cooler and hit the road. Now the younger Leslies enjoy the same camaraderie. They never worry about the kids' safety because half the people in the stands know "those are Wade's boys."

One year, Leslie and his wife bought a new van and put 80,000 miles on it in six months. Sometimes there are two and three rodeos in a weekend, a thousand miles apart.

With the extra expense of the kids and with Trish working, it's easier for Leslie to go alone these days so he can bunk up in a motel with several other cowboys, who can pitch in for gas and food.

If a cowboy's rig breaks down, a competitor will trailer his horse to the next event. The Leslies have given their last $20 and a place to stay to cowboys enduring hard times, and they know others would do the same for them.

That trust is what drew Trish to Wade. They were both 18 and danced together at the Roy rodeo. She found him open, almost old-fashioned in his honesty and faith in other people.

"It was so different from what I'd known," she said. "To me, the rules of life were that you always eat your salad with your outside fork and that you only drink white wine with fish."

She soon discovered what it was like to live on the edge and that it, too, can be addictive.

A favorite family story concerns the time the young couple got stuck near Yellowstone with only enough money to buy two-for-a-dollar hot dogs for three days at the nearest "Stop 'n Rob," road lingo for a convenience store.

Their VISA was maxed but at the next rodeo they found a steakhouse that didn't have a machine to check VISA balances and so they gorged. Leslie earned a check for $600 that day and off they went again.

The sacrifices are worth it, said Trish Leslie, because "Wade knows he can be the best in the world."

"Cowboys have to be easygoing and their families do, too. We've given up a lot of things so Wade could rodeo and it's just . . . oh, you know, you learn to be flexible."