By Mike Kays
Measuring the impact Jim Shoulders had on rodeo couldn’t be done without the input of Bobby Clark of Warner.
“I owe my career to him,” said Clark, a professional rodeo clown for 30 years, about Shoulders, who died Wednesday in his sleep at his Henryetta home. He was 79.
Shoulders won 16 world championships, the most of any rodeo cowboy, and was a charter member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. Alongside him a good part of that way was Clark. It was on a tip from Shoulders when the two were at a rodeo in Arizona in 1951 that Clark, then a calf roper, got his start as a rodeo clown.
“(The clown) got his eye put out and Everett Colburn (rodeo promoter) wanted to know who he could get to work the rest of the rodeo,” Clark said. “Jim told him there wasn’t any use in bringing in slim pickings, that we had a guy here roping calves that could do that job. I finished there and was on my way with them to Madison Square Garden.”
Shoulders, who lived in Henryetta, had a longtime heart ailment, son Marvin Paul Shoulders said.
“He was the Babe Ruth of rodeo,” his son said. “Besides being one of the greatest rodeo cowboys, he was a great man.”
Shoulders, who was born in Tulsa in 1928, was 14 when he entered his first rodeo and 21 when he won his first world title in 1949. He ended up with five world championships in all-around, seven in bull riding and four bareback. Years after riding his final bull, Shoulders starred with former Yankees manager Billy Martin in popular ads for Miller Lite.
Shoulders was “the best rodeo cowboy ever,” said Jim Bainbridge, a spokesman for the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Shoulders was also reserve champion 10 times, including four second-place finishes in the all around.
“He had no pain level,” rodeo announcer and longtime friend Clem McSpadden said. “He was impervious to pain.”
Tommy Combs of Checotah grew up around Shoulders and his family. Combs, dad, Willard, like Tommy, were professional steer wrestlers. Willard died three years ago.
“I retired when I broke my leg 10 years ago,” Tommy Combs said. “Jim had probably every bone broke in his body. But he could ride bulls, rope calves and ride bareback horses awful good. When I was in my first national finals in 1959 I remember he rode a bull that had never been rode before.
“He had a pretty good impact on me having known him all my life. I remember when he went into the stock contractor business. Jim and I always got along but he never liked bulldoggers because he had to always haul extra cattle for them.”
“He had more ‘try’ in him than anybody,” Clark added. “One time he came in the clown room in Iowa and he was down on himself and fussing. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he’d gotten bucked. I said, ‘Heck Jim, everyone bucks off every now and then,’ and he turned and said ‘well, that’s the first one for me in 2 1/2 years and on top of that, you’re not supposed to get bucked off a bareback.’”
Clark remembered one of those broken bones.
“A bull hooked him in the face and pulled his head back, breaking his nose and really messing up his face,” Clark said. “Jim went to see the doctor who told him he wouldn’t be able to compete the next day. Jim didn’t like that answer. Jim said he told him ‘Doc I don’t ride ‘em with my nose.’”
“He might have broke a bunch of bones but on average, he didn’t hit the ground many times.”
Shoulders was riding until a few months ago.
“He did not have to suffer,” his son said. “He wasn’t the kind of person who would handle that real good.”
He is survived by his wife, Sharon; son, Marvin, and daughters, Jamie, Jana and Marci.
Funeral services are set for 2 p.m. Sunday at Jim Shoulders Rodeo Arena in Henryetta under the direction of Shurden Funeral Home in Henryetta.
Material for this story also came from The Associated Press.