It is the money that moved Ote Berry to snap out of retirement, lose 50 pounds, and get in good enough shape to twist a couple of horned rodeo steers to the ground at this weekend’s RFD-TV The American.
“I can give a million reasons why I’m competing and they all have George Washington on the front of them,” said Berry, 51, a four-time world steer wrestling champion, referring to the prize money at stake at The American. The event, scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium, will offer the world’s top competitors $2 million, a record payout for a single-performance rodeo.
The rodeo will feature five contestants who qualified through the semifinals last week in Mesquite and exemptions, competing alongside the top 10 competitors in the world in each event. Each event winner will get $100,000. There’s a side pot for the qualifiers. If only one qualifier can win their event, they will earn a $1 million bonus. If more than one qualifier wins their event, they will share the $1 million.
Berry, who lives in Checotah, Okla., potentially can earn more than $1 million by snaring the steer wrestling title. He’s among numerous competitors who either have opted to come out of retirement or have elected to extend their careers in order to have a shot at collecting a share of the $2 million payout during the three-hour performance.
Some other notable athletes who’ve decided to ride again are six-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion saddle bronc rider Dan Mortensen, two-time Professional Bull Riders world champion Justin McBride and 11-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world barrel racing champion Charmayne James.
“It definitely has generated a lot of buzz,” Mortensen said.
Berry won his first PRCA world bulldogging title in 1985 and won his last of four gold buckles in 1995. He opted to retire in 2006 after sustaining an knee injury. But last summer, he was approached by The American organizing committee and was offered an exemption slot in the lucrative rodeo. That meant he didn’t have to earn a berth through the qualifying events within the past six months.
Berry went on a diet, started walking and riding a bicycle, making practice pen runs, and he’s served as a hazer for younger competitors, including his 19-year-old son, Denver. As a result, his weight dropped from almost 300 pounds to around 250.
“It was incentive to get off of the couch,” Berry said. “I spent 20 years trying to win $1 million during in my career, and now I have a shot to win $1 million for running a couple of steers in one afternoon.”
Berry said The American has created a big stir in the rodeo world.
“This is something that’s been a long time coming,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury that pro baseball, football and basketball players have, the big money and the big contracts. If this deal is a big success, like everybody thinks, hopefully it can lead up to a six-, eight- or 10-city tour. That would mean a guy doesn’t have to go to 80 or 100 rodeos a year to make money.”
Also drawn by the prize money is McBride, a Marquette, Neb., resident who won world titles in 2005 and 2007. When McBride retired in 2008, he had earned $5,124,418 in the PBR, the most of any competitor in a pro rodeo or bull riding association, a career earnings record that still stands.
Each time McBride won a PBR world title, he received a $1 million bonus. And if he wins The American, he also could receive a $1 million bonus, in addition to the $100,000 that will be awarded to the winner of every event. That means he could leave AT&T Stadium with $1.1 million.
“I wish there was some romantic story for it, but it’s because there’s a million dollars on the line,” McBride said. “In the PBR, there’s a million dollar bonus for winning the world title each year, but that’s for a body of work for a whole year. But at The American, a cowboy can earn that much in a day.”
When the concept of The American was announced last summer, McBride first decided he would remain retired from bull riding and attempt to qualify for the event in bareback riding. But after mounting a handful of broncs, McBride decided bull riding definitely was what he does best.
He also was invited to compete at The American by exemption. In order to prepare, McBride recently mounted a tougher bucking bull in Guthrie, Okla., and he stayed for about 6 seconds, only 2 seconds short of making the buzzer.
“I had a million things running through my mind about how it was going to feel, but it wasn’t as fast as I thought,” McBride said. “I came away feeling like I could sure do it. I’m not going to be like Muhammad Ali and guarantee a victory, but I feel like I’ll go in there and stay on two bulls.”
Mortensen, 45, stopped competing full-time in 2006 and rode sporadically through 2009.
When he was asked to compete in an exemption spot at The American, the Billings, Mont., cowboy began riding practice broncs and working on spurring strokes on a spur board. That means he places a saddle on a saw horse that’s topped with a rubber mat and simulates the back and forth spurring motion of moving his boots from the point of the horse’s shoulders to the back and the saddle and back to the bronc’s shoulders, jump for jump.
Mortensen has lost between 5 and 10 pounds to prepare for Sunday.
“The sport has a lot of levels and I came up through all of them,” Mortensen said. “But I’m at the point to where if I’m going to events, I want to go to only the good ones. But there’s very few events that are this quality and has had this much thought and effort that’s been put into it. It’s going to great for the sport of rodeo.”