Cowboy Dreams

Chris Harris Wants To Be A Champion

Chris Harris is a real-life Texas cowboy. When he’s not riding the range and raising horses, he's writing poetry about riding the range and raising horses.

Since he was a boy, Harris, 24, has dreamed of being a rodeo star. Steve Hartman reports on Harris' wild ride. Can he make it to the top?

Harris' event is bareback bronc riding. It's one of the most dangerous sports in the world. "I'm not worried about the dying factor of it, because if I worry about it, it's going to happen. And I know it's crazy. It's nuts. Everybody out there watching going 'Why would this guy do that?' I don't know. It's in my heart."

He is an unlikely cowboy. His father and grandfather were both lawyers; his mother, Tammy Harris, hoped her son would follow in those footsteps.

His father is also one of the most powerful state senators in Texas, and none too keen on bucking broncos. "I'm scared to death he's going to get hurt," said his father, Chris Harris, Sr.

"He tried to make me quit," said Chris Jr. "He said 'You're not going to ride those anymore.' I said 'If you're going to live my life for me, then you're not my father.'"

Begrudgingly, his mother went to every rodeo. She used to bring a book, not to read, but to put over her face when she got scared.

Eventually, the Harrises came around. They even help pay their son's medical bills, which are not minor. He has punctured his leg and his kidneys, broken his collarbone twice, and had lots and lots of stitches.

Chris wasn't worried: "I could get hurt and I couldn't be able to ride again. But I'm not going to let that destroy my life. You've got a life to live, live it."

Former rodeo champion Monty Henson might provide a Chris with a cautionary example. He lived Chris' dream.

"Anybody's willing to win and ride," said Henson, 47. "But am I willing for a horse to fall over the top of me? Am I willing to pay this price to win? If you're not willing to pay that price, you better be doing something else for a living."

Monty's parents did everything they could to keep him off bucking horses. Like Chris, Monty ignored every word.

"I always wanted the rodeo to be just exactly like a Roy Rogers movie. I wanted to get the money, the girl, and all," he said.

In the 70's and 80's, "Hawkeye" Henson was the best bronc rider in the world, a three-time champion, known for his trademark flying dismount. He lived for the rodeo.

But in bronc riding, there's a saying: It's not if you're going to get hurt, it's when. Henson was hurt in 1991. He tried to dismount, but ended up landing on his head and breaking his neck, ending his career.

For a few years, he did rodeo promotion. Then he sold Dodge trucks. Last year, he lost that job, canned for taking too many weekends off and going to rodeos. Now he's looking for a job.

But the way he sees it, all the broken necks and lost jobs in the world are still a small price to pay for those championship belt buckles. "I wore the frst world buckle I won upside down for three weeks so I could read it," he said.

Chris feels the same way. The main championship is the National Finals Rodeo, which takes place every year in Las Vegas. The top fifteen moneymakers in each event compete for the really big money.

Last year, Chris barely made the cut. After a year chasing qualifying dollars at rodeos around the country, he made the list by less than a hundred dollars.

For ten nights, rodeo was the hottest ticket in town. Each night was a chance to score dollars and win rounds. Champions walk home with a $100,000. The money has gotten much better since Henson's time.

"The first time I won the national finals it was back in '76 I won fourty-four hundred seventy two dollar, and two pennies," he said. "Hello! It's kind of changed a little bit."

He has no regrets. "The worst thing to me would be one of these days looking back and going 'I wished I would have tried. I wished I would have taken the chance,'" said Henson. "Well I don't have to say that. I did take the chance."

Henson and his girlfriend Peggy drove to the championships in their 1988 Fleetwood. During the event, he is treated as a hero. He even gets perks – a free hotel room and a limousine.

Bronc riding is part ballet, part train wreck, all packed into eight seconds. On the first night of the contest, Chris scored well. He also did well on the second night.

It was a good start, but because Chris barely even made it to the finals, he had to jump over 12 other cowboys to win. He knew he had to make a move.

"It's about time to really, really throw caution to the wind and make up some rides that make them get scared," he said.

On the third night, he did scare some people. He suffered a brutal fall, landing on his head.

What happens? Find out in Part 2.

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