When it comes to turning a bull back into a spin, it’s about anticipation.
And if you ask Shorty Gorham, there’s no one better at it than Frank Newsom.
Protection bullfighters are rightly praised for their ability to keep riders safe. But a lesser-known responsibility, particularly to newcomers to the sport, is “turning back” the bull – engaging the animal during the ride so that he will turn back toward the chutes and into a spin, garnering more points for both bull and rider.
As the quality of bulls on the Built Ford Tough Series has improved over the years, the need to step in and help them perform their best has lessened. But when the opportunity arises, Newsom is in his element.
“He’s just so calm, and he just moves so fluidly and kind of close to the ground,” Gorham explained. “If you watch him, he’ll get in that spot where he thinks that bull’s eyes are going to be looking, and then, sure enough the next jump, he’ll be looking right there.
“Then when he slides out of there, he just disappears. … It’s almost like someone threw a smoke bomb out between him and the bull.”
Being able to vanish is the trick.
When Newsom first started out, very few bulls were good at turning back on their own. The challenge was knowing where and when to step in to make the bull commit.
“The way he sees things, it’s like he speaks the language,” Gorham said.
Turning bulls back requires a thorough understanding of livestock. Newsom, like most fledgling bull fighters, learned the hard way.
“When I was younger, you just struggled to find that fine line where you knew exactly where to be and how long to be there and when to leave,” Newsom said. “A lot of what we do is just being able to disappear…being able to be five steps from a bull and have him not see us.
“The guys I was around when I was growing up, if you weren’t doing it right, they were chewing on you. If you were doing a great job, you didn’t hear anything.”
‘Scared to death but loving it’
When he was 10 years old, Newsom worked at a local sale barn just outside of Granbury, Texas.
His father Jim was between jobs, and they’d go together once a week to earn extra money. Father and son would work at opposite ends of the barn – the older men “would keep secrets from (his) dad,” because they knew the younger Newsom liked getting in the pen with the cattle.
He’d climb in with Holstein and crossbred bulls, and every once in a while there would be a mean one who would “get all fired up.”
The younger Newsom, who had already fearlessly wrestled calves by that point, would dart in and out of the pen. He’d climb the fences and make noise. If that didn’t work, he’d go ahead and let them chase him from one pen to another, while ducking around fence poles.
“(It was) just being scared to death,” he recalled, “but loving it.”
Eventually Jim took a job 30 minutes north in Weatherford as a feed salesman, and the family moved there for five years. The younger Newsom would tend to his own show calves in the mornings, and then work for professional bull rider and local rancher Jay Cochrane after school and on weekends.
Newsom hauled hay, worked cattle and mended fences until his junior year of high school, when he stepped inside a practice pen to fight bulls for the first time.
‘That’s me right there’
Cochrane’s nephew Dan Brown would join his uncle and Newsom in practice sessions on occasion, and they’d alternate as rider, gateman, and bullfighter.
One day, Brown got on a big yearling steer, while Cochrane worked the gate. Newsom was the bullfighter.
Not far into his ride, Brown got jerked down over the front end of the animal and was hung up. Although he admits “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Newsom instinctively stepped in and freed Brown.
“I was like, ‘Man, that’s me right there,’” said Newsom, who described his own riding skills as terrible. However, with Cochrane’s encouragement, Newsom, then only 16, kept improving his skills as a bullfighter, despite his father’s misgivings.
He remembers getting advice from a man he remembers now only as “Chico.” Chico wasn’t very good, but he had been around bull riding long enough to help.
Eventually, Newsom befriended Bud Jackson and Curt Guy. They’re still friends. “There were always other guys around. Some of them good and some them not so good,” Newsom said.
“You just gradually move up to different sets of bulls,” he continued, “different crowds of people.”
There wasn’t much of a crowd to witness Newsom’s first paid experience as a bullfighter.
It was about 150 miles south of Weatherford, outside a small town called Chappel, in the middle of a pasture. There might have been 50 people in the bleachers – a number that probably included the participants. Newsom was paid $25 for the job, but he still remembers it as “the most exciting (son of a gun) in the world.”
“I can remember it to this day,” said Newsom, who recalled being overly aggressive. “I got run over three or four times and probably didn’t even need to, but I was just so excited to be there.”
‘One of the greatest bullfighters who ever lived’
Newsom’s mentor was Rex Dunn, a man whose effortless style earned him the nickname “Mr. Smooth,” and three trips to the National Finals Rodeo as a bullfighter.
In 1985, during his second trip to the NFR, he was named the PRCA Clown of the Year. In 2010, Dunn was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Newsom calls Dunn “One of the greatest bullfighters who ever lived.”
As for Dunn, being hospitalized with cancer didn’t stop him from calling to talk about a man he still affectionately calls “a good kid.”
“There was an electricity that made him stand out among everything,” said Dunn. He went on to share a lesson he ingrained in Newsom: “Don’t ever let yourself forget where you been. Don’t ever forget. Don’t ever forget where you’re going, and by golly, don’t ever forget you climbed those stairs or how you climbed those stairs. The people you work with need to be taught the same way, and you don’t ever make them look up at you.”
Dunn said he never wanted Newsom to be as good as he was. He wanted him to be better. Outside of the arena, he made Newsom a better man. Inside, he taught him how to be one with the bull.
According to Dunn, reading a bull requires complete concentration in order to learn styles and patterns.
“I had the bulls,” Dunn recalled of his work as an instructor. “It wasn’t nothing for us to go through 50 head of bulls a day.”
Newsom said it was the relentless work he was put through that taught him how to look at a bull and figure out where he needed to be. It was Dunn who taught Newsom how to anticipate a bull’s intentions and how to recognize whether a bull wanted to run off or run him over.
Dunn also taught his protégé the art of turning back bulls.
“God, I learned so much from him,” Newsom said.
Today Newsom is married and living in Paoli, Okla.
He and his wife Dea Pearson have two kids – Hunter, 12, and Kadence, who turns 7 next month – and a third child on the way. They live on a ranch and raise cattle, and this year they’re building the house they plan to call home for the rest of their lives.
It’s a simple life. As Gorham said, “It’s like going back in time to the old time … true grit, tough guys … but you know they love you. Frank is one of those guys who would give you the shirt off his back, even if it was the only one he had. He’s one of a kind.”
Newsom recognizes that he’s not an easy person to get to know. “I’ve been down a lot of different roads and I’ve heard that all my life,” he offers. “I’m 36, and I’m still getting to know myself.”
At home, he knows the kids don’t always like to hear about his bullfighting adventures – “they’re just glad dad’s home.” But on the road, “Frank’s a very interesting person,” said Gorham. “He’s seen a lot of things in his life, and through his experiences he can teach you a lot.”
Between Newsom, Gorham, Joe Baumgartner and Jesse Byrne, there’s a chemistry that Newsom said he’s never experienced with any other bullfighters.
“When we step in that arena you have to leave everything else outside,” Newsom said. “You have to slap each other around a little to get each other where you need to be.”
“If he feels like you screwed up, he’s going to let you know,” said Gorham, “but at the end of it he’s going to tell you, ‘Hey, I love you man.’ It’s hard to let a guy like that down.”
Kind, compassionate and caring, Newsom has been described as “tough as boot leather” and a lot like John Wayne. “He can take a punch, get up and laugh it off,” Gorham added.
“There are a lot of times that, maybe if you were around me in an intense moment, you might hear me cussing and I wouldn’t sound like a Christian,” said Newsom, with a laugh, “but I am, and I have a lot of faith in God.
“My family does too, and God comes first in our life and I would hope people would know that about me – even if they saw me in a moment where I didn’t sound like a Christian.
— by Keith Ryan Cartwright
© 2014 PBR Inc. All rights reserved.