When he was 16 years old, one dollar changed everything for Jim Sharp.
The Odessa, Texas, native was competing in the American Junior Rodeo Association, where bull riders needed to win at least one dollar to qualify for the Finals. Sharp had been on 30 to 40 bulls that year, and had covered only two. He didn’t win the required dollar until the last the rodeo of the season.
“They were too rank for me,” Sharp recalled.
Last week, with his friend Ty Murray sitting in, Sharp talked about his career as one of the greatest bull riders of all time at Murray’s ranch outside Stephenville, Texas.
“I didn’t know that,” interjected Murray. “I wish I would have competed against you then.”
Like many others, Murray is aware of Sharp’s accomplishments from the time he was 17 on. But it was that less-than-glorious 16th year that would prove to be a turning point.
At 17, Sharp began a streak of three consecutive AJRA titles, along with winning the Texas High School All-Around Championship (1984), two National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association titles (’86 and ’87) and the PRCA Rookie of the Year title when he turned pro at 20 years old. He even managed to finish fourth in the world that year.
“When I was 17, everything clicked, and that’s when I started riding really good,” Sharp explained. “When I was 16, I nearly rode a lot them, but I’d get bucked off right at the whistle. I just kept trying, and when I was 17, it just seemed like it clicked and they couldn’t buck me off. I think I got on 50 bulls that year and bucked off two.”
‘All I ever wanted to be was a bull rider’
“I don’t really know what made me want to be a bull rider,” he said.
His father, James Sharp, rode calves as a kid, but never thought about getting on bulls. And the youngster’s only firsthand exposure to the sport came when his parents would take him to the Odessa Rodeo and the Pecos Rodeo once a year. At the end of the season, he’d watch the final round of the NFR on television.
He grew up riding horses and learned to rope from his dad, but he said, “As far back as I can remember that’s all I ever wanted to be was a bull rider.”
He can’t remember the first bull he ever got on, but he does remember the first junior rodeo he entered in Pecos, when he was only nine. “I remember that rodeo because it lasted one jump,” he said.
By the time he was 12, he was regularly making the whistle, but then it was time to move up to the 13 to 15-year-old level, and he struggled for another year. “I won it when I was 15,” Sharp said. “When I turned 16 I went up to the big bulls and then I couldn’t ride those.”
Asked if the transition to the pro level also took some getting used to, he just smiled.
“No. I was already kicking ass by then.”
Four for the road
When he was 20, Sharp didn’t personally know Cody Lambert, Lane Frost or Tuff Hedeman, but he certainly knew who they were.
The first pro rodeo of the season was in Denver, and before the event was over, Hedeman asked the newcomer if he wanted to travel with them. Lambert said it made sense to have four guys traveling together, because at the time, you could “buddy two guys” when entering various rodeos, assuring the group that two of them would always be in the draw on the same night.
“We had other traveling partners that we really liked and stuff,” Lambert said, “but we felt like it was very important for us to be around the best guys.”
Lambert also pointed out that many new pros, himself included, would spend a year entering the wrong rodeos and missing the ones they should have been competing at, so just as he had helped Hedeman and Frost a few years earlier, he would now help the young Sharp.
“We saw Jim, we saw his potential and we saw that it would go to waste for a year or two until he learned the ropes,” explained Lambert, who would go on to help Murray two years later. “I think Tuff was the first one—I think he said something about asking Jim. Lane and I thought it was a great idea.
“We loved to watch guys do real well … and we wanted to be a part of that,” Lambert continued. “It’s such an individual sport, but we always felt like we were a team.”
“If you compared it to basketball, it would be like going and traveling with Michael Jordan,” Sharp explained. “They were the biggest guys on the tour. I thought I hung the moon when I got to rodeo with them.”
Murray laughed, “He never said anything. He just blinked all the time.”
“Yeah, I never said anything. I just blinked and rode,” said Sharp, who explained, “They called me Blink because I blinked my eyes a lot.”
It wouldn’t be long before Sharp rode so many bulls that everyone paid less attention to his eyes and began to notice his riding percentage. “For six or seven years, Jim rode over 95 percent of his bulls,” Lambert said. “That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.”
By that point, he shed the Blink moniker in exchange for Razor, and won two PRCA world titles (1988 and 1990). He claimed the first of those by becoming the first rider in history to cover all 10 bulls at the NFR. Even more impressive is the fact that over a span of three Finals – from 1987 to 1989 – he covered a record-setting 23 bulls in a row.
“Before he went, Jim said, ‘I want to win a World Championship, I want to win the average at the Finals and I want to ride all 10 bulls,’” Murray recalled, “so he just went and did all three at the same time.”
“That wasn’t that many bulls,” he added, “It was just 10 bulls.”
Only a rider as accomplished as Sharp can say, “it was just 10 bulls.” After all, his longest streak was 57, and he said on another occasion he covered 51 in a row.
What really separated Sharp from others, however, was how easy he made it look.
He made it look so easy that Pete Gay, Donnie Gay’s brother, once told Lambert that Sharp was boring to watch. Not only did he rarely get bucked off, but he always stayed in the perfect position.
“He epitomized how bull riding was supposed to look, in my eyes,” said Murray. “Tuff and Lane will go down in history as some of the greatest bull riders, but for me, they weren’t near as great as Jim. They won as much or more as Jim because they never made it look so easy that it took away from the bulls.”
Sharp said he’s heard fellow riders say that throughout the years, but he doesn’t worry about what could have been.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
“If Jim came along in any other era in bull riding…he would have won six or seven World Championships,” Lambert said. “The problem is, Jim came along in an era when I haven’t seen tougher bull riders.”
As far as Sharp is concerned, he was just doing what he loved.
“I think he has two different perceptions of his career,” Murray explained. “There’s his perception of it when he was 18 to 28 years old, and there’s his perception of it now. He was a freak about how good he was, and a lot of it was really natural. Then, later on in his career, he started seeing what all of us were so impressed with when it became harder for him. I think he realized later on how great his achievements early on were.”
“Oh yeah,” Sharp added. “He’s right about it. At the time, I was riding really good and I didn’t realize the accomplishments I did achieve. Then I looked back and thought, ‘I guess I was a pretty good bull rider.’
“In the ’80s, when I rode really good, it was easy for me … and then later on, like in 2002 when I had a really good year in the PBR, it was tougher to ride the ranker bulls than it was in the ’80s. … I just craved bull riding and that’s all I thought about. I’d get on a bull every day. I never practiced very much, but if there was a competition – I guess that was my rule – if there was a competition, I was going to enter. I just loved riding bulls and it didn’t matter if it paid a lot of money or if it paid $100, if it paid I was going to enter.
“I think if you love something that much and you want to do it that much,” he continued, “it’s a lot easier for you.”
The end of Sharp’s career stood in stark contrast to the way it began.
“Why do you think your career was so easy for you in the beginning,” asked Murray, “and so hard for you later?”
Sharp sat quietly, thinking. He never made eye contact when he answered, “Because I didn’t crave it as much as I did in the early times.”
“It’s weird to say this about a great friend like Jim,” Lambert added, “but if his career had lasted six or seven years there would be no debate whatsoever about who was the greatest bull rider. There would be no way to debate it. There would be nobody who would even come close.”
Beyond the bulls
Despite a reputation as a hell raiser, Sharp was and is a goodhearted man outside of the arena.
“He’s a kind person, and people don’t know that about him because he’s a legendary party animal too,” Lambert said. “People have seen that side or heard that side of him, but they don’t know Jim.”
In the years since Sharp has retired, he’s remained the same guy he was when rode. Lambert said, “He’s as honest and humble as any champion you could ever run into.”
This past February, he gave up drinking, and on July 3, his son Will Clay Sharp will turn one year old.
“He’s a great dad,” Murray said.
This weekend, Sharp will be in Pueblo, Colo., to be inducted into the Ring of Honor along with Randy Bernard.
At 44 years old, Sharp is fully aware of what it means to be associated with that select group of men – as of this Saturday there will have been only 32 members inducted into the Ring of Honor. Since Murray called to break the news a month ago, he’s sat down and thought about it a time or two.
“It’s one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve ever had,” said Sharp, who added that while no bull ever scared him, he’s nervous about the speech he’ll give on Saturday afternoon.
“I think it’s up there with being a World Champion bull rider. It’s neat because when I rode bulls, I had control over whether I was good or not, but I think it’s kind of neat that other people recognize you and put you in something like this.”
— by Keith Ryan Cartwright
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