FORT WORTH, Texas — He’s known throughout the bull riding and rodeo community as “Fearless” Frank Newsom, but on this particular night a man many describe as the toughest person they ever met was frightened.
“Scared to death,” on the run from authorities and nowhere to hide, Newsom thought of the one person who would help. It was just after midnight when he called Rob Smets from a truck stop in downtown Shamrock, Texas.
They weren’t particularly close friends.
It was 2001 and Smets was at the top of his game as a professional bullfighter, while Newsom’s career was in shambles. In fact, Newsom said his whole life “was in a bad place right then.”
On the phone, Newsom wanted to know how to get to Smets’ house. Less than an hour later, Smets “couldn’t get any straight answers” out of Newsom, while a strange man — neither have seen since that night — backed a horse trailer into his driveway.
“It was not a pretty sight,” said Smets’ wife Carla. “Frank was rough around the edges.”
“When the chips were down I would always say, ‘If you need anything holler,’” recalled Rob, who was not prepared or, according to Carla, equipped to truly help Newsom with his problems. “He unloaded a horse, two bags and a dog — a pregnant dog — and he was running.”
Newsom added, “They were going to send me to prison and I didn’t want to go.”
He had been to jail enough times to know.
In spite of Carla’s worries and concerns that night, the Smets’ opened their door and took Newsom in.
“There’s no telling what might have happened,” if they hadn’t, Newsom said. “I might not even be alive.”
Frank Newsom grew up in Granbury, Texas.
His father, Jim, is an animal nutritionist and his mother, Connie, is a retired school teacher. Jim was in the Navy and served in Vietnam and his father — Frank’s paternal grandfather — was in the U.S. Army. His maternal grandparents met in the Navy, where his grandmother worked as a nurse.
“That whole family is about serving and protecting,” said Frank’s wife, Dea.
Newsom describes himself as a typical country boy.
He started playing organized football in the eighth grade and was an active member in Future Farmers of America throughout his childhood. By the time he graduated high school he was an all-conference standout on both sides of the football — inside linebacker and center — and was drawing interest from various colleges to continue his playing days. He had also earned a few FFA scholarships that would have paid for his college education.
The 17-year-old had other plans though.
Newsom intended to pursue a career as a bullfighter. That didn’t sit so well with his parents, especially his dad, who was so upset about his son’s plans that he forbade him from fighting bulls during his senior year. Frank set out the day after he graduated in the spring of 1993 and didn’t speak to his dad again for nearly six years.
Jim Newsom had taught his son to work hard and, according to Frank, his dad thought he was wasting time and subjecting himself to injuries when he should be busy working.
“It was like, ‘The hell with you’ and that just kind of put a wall between us,” Frank said. “Over a period of time I proved to him that I was really serious about it and that’s really what he wanted to see. If I was going to do this he wanted to really see how serious I was about it. Was I really going to do it or was I jacking around?
“It wasn’t anything he did that put the wall between us, it was what I did. He was just being a father and I was being a kid who thought he knew everything.”
Old timers who lived in Granbury in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s still watch videos of Newsom playing high school football, but he was equally talented in the bull riding arena.
PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert first heard about Newsom from a friend named Jay Cochrane. The Texas cowboy introduced Newsom to the sport and taught him the art of understanding cattle and the importance of reading bulls.
“He got everybody’s attention right away by how athletic and fearless he was,” Lambert said.
Newsom made his rookie debut in 1996 in the PRCA and met his future wife at a rodeo in Ardmore, Okla. He was fighting bulls and she was singing the national anthem. Both are quick to point out that neither of them had God in their lives, and within a year the relationship ended badly, said Dea.
“That same passion we have now was there then,” Frank said, “but we didn’t know how to handle it.”
Unfortunately, he had bigger issues and he didn’t know how to handle those either.
PHOTO GALLERY: Frank Newsom defines toughness for the Dickies Bullfighters.
A year into his professional career — the first of two consecutive years in which Newsom was voted to fight bulls at the National Finals Rodeo — he was working on a near-daily basis with a full-time slate of rodeos and PBR events.
Rundown and worn out, Newsom heard four words that would forever change his life.
“Here, try this dope.”
“It wasn’t like my intentions were to screw up my life,” said Newsom, who lost everything over the next five years because of methamphetamines. “All I could think about was getting to that next rodeo and then it just got to be a habit — an addiction. That’s when things started to get really out of control. I just started getting further and further away from my roots.
“I was just a dumb country kid. That’s the reality of it. I was dumb in that area and to me it was just a way to go to more rodeos. It lies to you. You’re thinking you’re winning and doing great because all you can see is this little picture of getting to another rodeo and that’s all you can focus on.”
In reality, his life was spiraling out of control.
If only he had turned to his dad things might not have gotten nearly as bad, but instead of listening to those who really knew him, he turned to the same people who were pointing him in the direction of more drugs.
He was in denial, even in 1997 when he went to jail for the first time and “started dealing with the court system.”
“It’s hard to remember all the details because it was such a crazy time in my life,” said Newsom, but he remembers 1998 was more of the same. “It’s really hard to remember a lot of it because it was just such a mess.”
At one point he was sentenced to a court-mandated rehab program and got out just in time to catch a flight to Las Vegas for the PBR World Finals. He was barely there for two days before he relapsed.
“I just remember that feeling,” said Newsom, recalling the power it had over him, “and looking at Joe Baumgartner and then I ended up relapsing that night.”
A day later all Baumgartner could do was put his head down. He was disappointed.
“I was living moment to moment,” Newsom added.
Shorty Gorham was only 18 years old the first time he met Newsom at a rodeo in Reno, Nev., where he was roping bulls with Julio Moreno, and the up-and-coming bullfighter was looking forward to watching his heroes — Baumgartner and Newsom — work the bull riding.
“My first impression was, man, this guy is wild,” Gorham said. “It was pretty off the wall. I had an inclination that that was the way things were at the time, but, yeah, I kind of remember being half in shock.”
Dumbfounded, it would be another couple years before Gorham saw Newsom again.
“He was a really good guy,” Lambert said, “but he was living a wild, out-of-control life I didn’t see that because I’m older than Frank and I wasn’t running in the same circles that he was. I saw him at the rodeos when he was fighting bulls and that’s about all.”
Lambert heard the stories, so he called Cochrane and said, “I’ve heard pretty bad stuff.”
“I don’t even know if Frank remembers that or not, but he was in denial at that time too,” Lambert added.
The next time Newsom saw Lambert he confronted him.
As a matter of fact, by then, Newsom confronted anyone who questioned him.
“There were lots of guys who tried to tell me what I needed to hear, tell me the truth,” Newsom said. “I didn’t want to hear it. Until I was ready to hear it, they were wasting their breath. You can’t tell somebody the truth until they’re ready to hear it.”
Like Lambert, Ty Murray was one of those people who spoke up.
Murray pulled Newsom aside on more than one occasion.
Frustrated, disappointed and worried about his friend, Murray said, “I felt like I was watching a ton of talent get pissed down the drain.
“I think every addict is probably in that position. Until they’re ready to hear it, they’re not going to hear it. I’ve seen that movie over and over, but I still felt better — I don’t know why — but it made me feel better to feel like I said what I could say about it — just because I knew he was a special, special talent. He was a really special talent, especially back then because he was young and quick, and I just knew that it was a ton of talent that was going to get pissed away forever.”
It wasn’t until October 2000 that Newsom finally felt like he had enough.
He should have been in Las Vegas for the PBR World Finals. Instead, he was sitting in another jail. This time he was in Waurika, Okla., on a probation violation for failing a drug test.
“I was so mad that I was in there and I thought somebody would come and get me out of there,” Newsom remembers. “My dad actually drove up there to make sure nobody did. He knew it was the only way I had a chance because it was the only way I’d be away from the drugs. I was really mad at him, at the time, but now I really admire him for that. It was a real humbling experience and a slap in the face.”
Sitting among a room full of inmates, he watched the Finals on TV.
Newsom added, “That’s when it first hit me, I need help.”
It was a vicious cycle.
“I would do good for a really long time and then something would happen and I would fall backwards into that,” Newsom said. “Then I would have to start again and try to change.”
Then came the night in 2001 when he called Smets.
The next morning, Smets said, “Frank told me some Wild West story that he was going to work on a ranch.” That proved to be a lie, but Smets added, “I made up my mind — I had always told him if there’s ever anything you need, holler — that I ain’t going to turn my back on a brother.
“We had both been through similar situations. I had been there done that. The only difference between Frank Newsom and myself was I didn’t get caught. I could relate and I could relate to the need.”
Newsom wanted to keep running. Smets convinced him otherwise.
A month later — a point which Carla calls a crucial moment in Newsom’s life — they introduced him to a friend of theirs who had a great deal of experience dealing with fellas like him.
“I think that God had a plan and there was a path that had to lead to Randy Stalls,” Carla said. “It was a process to get Frank to Randy Stalls.”
Stalls and his wife, Bobbi, live in nearby McLean, Texas, just off Interstate 40—about 20 miles west of where Smets lived at the time.
Carla’s parents had met the Stalls family at the Heald Methodist Church — “an unbelievable little church out in the middle of ranch country” — years earlier. If the church was unbelievable, so too were Randy and Bobbi.
For years the couple had been taking in struggling drug addicts as a last option before going off to prison. Randy knew every police officer and lawyer in the Texas Panhandle, and local judges would often sentence inmates to go live with the Stalls as a last hope to, perhaps, serve God before serving hard time.
Randy and Bobbi were Newsom’s last hope.
“They just can’t get off that dope,” Randy said with a tone that was as matter of fact as the one he uses with addicts.
Randy said he didn’t know if Newsom would make it. He never knows who will make it until they actually do and that intuition comes from personal experience. Stalls never dabbled with drugs, but he started drinking a lot in his teens and as a young adult he was a full-blown alcoholic.
He’s been sober now for 34 years “with the help of God.”
“He has things for people to do,” said Stalls, who was responsible for starting a local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in McLean, “and, I think, I went through some stuff that allowed me to know the hurt and the craving of the people who do drugs and alcohol.”
The day Newsom arrived he had little more than the clothes on his back.
“I didn’t have anything good going in my life,” Newsom said.
Stalls said all Newsom needed was a Bible.
Randy and Bobbi introduced Newsom to God, they went to church any time the doors were open and Newsom went to AA meetings three times a week. Other than that, all Newsom and Randy did was work on the ranch and whatever other chores needed to be tended to “out in the middle of nowhere.”
Within a few months, Stalls said Newsom was showing signs of making progress, but he still had one more court hearing regarding a parole violation — the failed test that sent Newsom on the run.
“I was on the stand, and the judge asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Stalls remembered. “Frank had already been with us, heck, six or eight months, maybe more, when he had to go to the court. I said, ‘You know what, I think he’s worth saving.’”
While the judge appreciated Newsom’s progress, he sentenced him to 45 days in the county jail.
“It killed me,” Stalls said. “I thought I had made a deal with the judge and I was pretty put out when it happened, as a matter of fact I bawled, but Frank said it would be OK. It was and it probably was a blessing.”
Newsom said, “I didn’t fight bulls for a year, and I just started to learn how to live again and live right. That’s when things started to turn around for me. Randy is one of those guys who has a lot of compassion and he just does what God tells him to do.”
“I don’t pick and choose who gets to come,” Stalls added, “it’s God’s deal.”
There was a lot of anxiety the first time Newsom fought bulls again.
He wondered if he would have the same courage now that he was clean and sober. He wondered if he still possessed the natural instincts and ability to fight bulls. He really wondered if fighting bulls would lead to a relapse.
Newsom’s first experience was at a practice pen just north of Amarillo, where the owner didn’t recognize him or, at least, wasn’t going to let on that he knew who Newsom was.
He asked if he could work some bulls that night and, according to Newsom, the man replied, “Yeah, yeah, just try not to get in the way.”
It was a humbling experience.
He suited up, put his faith in God and stepped in front of his first bull.
Two or three bulls in Newsom knew he could still do it and by the end of the session that night he had regained his confidence.
“I felt like a million bucks,” Newsom said.
Maybe so, but he still had a long road ahead of him and Stalls literally made Newsom start over and work his way back from the amateur ranks.
With Stalls by his side, Newsom worked little amateur events and local high school rodeos, as well as semi-pro jackpots around the Panhandle, long before he thought of doing any pro rodeos or PBR events.
By this time, Newsom was feeling better about himself, and Stalls was encouraging him to share his personal story in private settings on Wednesday nights as part of his ongoing AA meetings.
“I remember the first time I tried to talk about my life,” Newsom said. “It probably sounded like a big ole mess because it was. I remember struggling through it.
“I’m telling people some private stuff and you’re wondering how they’re going to take it. You kind of just have to take a chance and trust.”
However, the key to the entire exercise was allowing himself to be vulnerable.
Like his slow, gradual return to bullfighting, it got easier to share his story. Each time it became a little more focused.
Newsom was beginning to establish a new life. He had new friends and a new way of approaching each day and he was thankful for the opportunity.
“He can’t go back,” Smets said. “The thing about it is, you can’t go back to the place you came from because the devil is going to work on you. He’s going to pull you. We don’t realize how much of a walk the devil has in our life until we try straightening out.”
Stalls added, “I’m the very last end for most of them. They’ve tried everything else and nothing worked, so I just tell them straight up, ‘I can’t fix nothing for you, but I can show you a better way to live.’ We just try to make sure God is in their life and they know him on a personal basis.”
With a heart the size of a lion, Newsom humbled himself.
He developed what Stalls refers to as “rigorous honesty” in order to maintain his sobriety.
He was working alongside Stalls doing day work on the ranch, and then on the weekends Stalls would accompany Newsom to bull riding events – where he was barely earning $100 for a night’s work. He remained focused and determined to regain his once promising career.
Stalls credits his wife’s compassion. He’s known for being straightforward — “I don’t beat around the bush about none of it” — whereas Bobbi has been described as having a softer side and a calming influence.
Her patience was never more evident than the first time Newsom traveled to an event by himself.
He’d been living with them for nearly two years and had become like a son to them when Stalls recalled Newsom telling the couple he thought he was ready to go out on his own.
The first night he called home.
“He said, ‘I’m in the arena and the beer tent is between the arena and my pickup,’ and Bobbi stayed on the phone with him until he finally got in his pickup,“ Stalls recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know if I can get by it,’ but he called somebody to help him get through it.
“I knew at that point he had a really good chance of making it. If he hadn’t called anybody he might not have made it, but he at least had the sense to pick the phone up and call the house. … That was a pretty big turning point.”
Having missed out on the past four World Finals — 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 — Newsom worked enough PBR events in 2004 to earn an alternate spot at the Finals; but it wasn’t until 2005 that he was once again voted by the top riders as one of the best bullfighters in the world.
“It meant a lot,” Newsom said. “I earned my way back. At that point, they knew they could trust me again and I was going to do a good job.”
That same year Newsom returned to the site of one of his more embarrassing moments.
In 2000, he was scheduled to work an event in Burwell, Neb., but he showed up a day late and the producers of the event had to tell him he was no longer welcome.
It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“They had to fire me, right in front of everybody,” Newsom said. “It was just a real shameful moment.
“When I got a chance to go back and I could look everybody in the face and they could see that I was doing right, I got to step in the arena and do what I do, that was a big moment for me. I had done wrong, you know, I got to go back and make it right.
“I started over and it was real humbling,” he continued. “I have a lot more love for what I do because I lost it all.”
Newsom was a changed man.
“I almost think about it every time I see him out there,” said Murray, a nine-time World Champion. “We were kids when he was having that trouble. … He was talented in spades and drugs were robbing him of everything. Not just his professional career — everything. It was robbing everything — his whole life.
“It still crosses my mind every time I look at him out in the arena, on TV, when I see him saving somebody, when I see him in the locker room, when I see him walking down the hall — I have a good feeling now every time I see him.”
As a show of appreciation for what he has learned, prior to each Built Ford Tough Series event all three bullfighters along with Flint Rasmussen lock arms, form a circle, take a knee, and, in a private moment shared only between them, Newsom leads the group in prayer.
His life has a purpose now.
Sure he’s reclaimed his stature as one of the greatest bullfighters in the 20-year history of the PBR and, at some point in the future, he’s a shoo-in to eventually earn the Jim Shoulders Lifetime Achievement Award, but, more importantly, he’s paying his redemption forward.
He mentors youngsters, speaks regularly at various churches and is active with Riding High Ministries at PBR events all across the country where he openly shares his testimony.
“He’s a huge man and to swallow his pride and to share all that stuff with everybody is even bigger of him,” Gorham said. “Just to see him climb out and go to the top is awesome.”
“It’s been 10 years since I’ve been around it and I haven’t had a drink in three years,” Newsom admits. “On the other side of that 10 years, it was two and a half years since I touched it. It was a long process to get away from it.
“I’ve fought some of the meanest, toughest bulls that ever lived, but getting away from that stuff was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and it wasn’t without God’s help and his guidance that I was able to do that and good people that helped me through all that.”
Life today is about family for the 39-year-old.
He and his dad have mended their past differences — “we have a good relationship now” — and this past August Frank celebrated 10 years of marriage.
In the spring of 2003, one of his bullfighting mentors Rex Dunn had a bull get him down on the ground and nearly kill him. Dunn was in a coma and Newsom went to stay at their house to help look after the ranch.
Dea, who met the Dunn family the year she dated Newsom, heard about the wreck and called the Dunn house to check on Dunn’s wife Sis. Through what Dea said was “an act of God,” Frank answered the phone.
One conversation led to another and finally Frank and Dea got together in-person.
In the middle of a restaurant, Frank got down on his knees and told Dea he had already asked for God’s forgiveness and that now it was time to ask for hers. He wanted her to know he was sorry for the past.
Four months later they were married.
“We all know how tough he is,” Gorham said, “but there’s a soft side to Frank.”
He and Dea live in Paoli, Okla., where they’re raising three kids — Hunter, Kadence and Regyn — and looking after their extended family. Frank wakes up at 5:30 a.m. each day, pours everyone a glass of orange juice opens the Bible and selects a verse for that day.
He’s extended a helping hand to those in need and mentored bullfighters at various bullfighting schools — namely an annual bull riding and bullfighting school held in honor of the late Lane Frost — where he’s worked with Lyndel Runyan and Cody Webster.
Runyan is the fourth member of the Dickies® bullfighting team at BFTS events, while Webster will make his NFR debut next month and is focusing on expanding his rodeo schedule and working more Touring Pro Division events for the PBR.
Webster, 21, has been influenced by Newsom since he was 11 years old.
Newsom has also served as a father figure for Webster, who was raised by a single mother.
“I don’t know if I was a father figure, but I was definitely a part of his life,” said Newsom, who has attended father-son events with Webster and paid a few visits to his school back when he was growing up.
Without hesitation, Webster proclaimed, “He’s definitely my father.”
“That makes me feel good more than any buckle I could put on,” Newsom said.
“It’s going to be pretty neat when we’re sitting at home watching Jesse and two of Frank’s protégés work the bull riding,” Gorham said. “There are not a lot of guys with the courage and willingness to say, ‘OK kids, here are the keys to take my spot.’ That’s pretty cool and it says a lot for Frank.”
Lambert added, “From the time he gets up to the time goes to bed, he’s a role model for people. As a bullfighter he’s a role model and outside the arena he’s a role model. People look up to Frank because of his character and he’s so humbled. He’s one of the best of all time, as far as bullfighters go, no doubt about that; and he’s so tough, but he’s completely humble about it and just a genuine good guy.”
Today, Newsom feels like he can face any situation, including annual trips to Las Vegas for the PBR World Finals.
That’s the good thing considering he’s been voted to the World Finals every year since 2005 and 11 times overall in a 15-year career. The Sunday before the 2013 World Finals he was speaking at a church gathering in Texas when a man he never met before walked up and said he had Newsom’s jacket from the 1998 NFR.
Just a few days earlier Dea had remarked about how it was too bad they didn’t have more memorabilia from her husband’s two years of working the NFR.
Frank smiled and told the gentleman there was no telling where that jacket wound up, but 15 years later there was no way it still existed. He thought it had to be gone. The man handed it back to Frank and sure enough it was his.
A man he never met, and one whose name he doesn’t know, held onto that jacket all these years hoping to have a chance to meet Frank and give it back to him.
It was just like new.
He’s been to hell — “the devil took everything away,” Dea said, “and God gave it back” — but all that matters is the fact that Newsom finally found the Promised Land.
His struggles made him the man he is today.
“I have a good relationship with God and I want to please him,” Newsom said.
“I’m proud and I’m really not ashamed of it like I used to be. Now I can tell young kids the truth about it and if I can help them stay away from it then I can see the purpose in it. I feel like God has a purpose for everything we have to go through.
“To me, it’s who I am,” Newsom concluded.
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC
© 2014 PBR Inc. All rights reserved.