Fascination and family in the life of a bullfighter
June 21, 2007
RENO – Rowdy Barry’s fascination with bulls started at a young age, and he has parlayed that interest into a successful 25-year career as a professional bullfighter.
Barry is making his 16th appearance at the Reno Rodeo. It’s the biggest rodeo he works, and he’s become somewhat of an icon at the event, which completes its 88th season Saturday.
“I love coming here, and my family loves coming here,” Barry said. “My son (Miles) is always asking me when are we going to Reno.”
And, he’s popular with the riders, fans and association members alike. It’s the main reason why he was given a new two-year contract with the Reno Rodeo last year.
“Integrity. He’s as honest as the day is long,” said Reno Rodeo President Kevin McKee, who was instrumental in bringing Barry back for his 16th year. “He’s a great family man. He has a beautiful wife (Laura Lee) and two great kids (Miles and Clay). They are wonderful people.
“He’s a great bullfighter. He’s doing a good job. Under no circumstances did I want Rowdy to leave this year. If I had my way, Rowdy would be here as long as he wanted to come. He has enough integrity that if he felt he wasn’t doing the job, he’d be the first one to say so,” McKee said.
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What McKee likes about Barry is his work ethic. Each and every night, Barry gets out and into the arena and does a dangerous job in workman-like fashion. If you looked up blue collar in the dictionary, you might see Barry’s picture alongside the definition.
Barry has been selected to three National Finals Rodeos in 1992, 1999 and as an alternate in 2000. He was in the top five in 2006, but only three make the NFR each year. Voting for bullfighters is like voting for football’s Pro Bowl. Many times it’s the popular bullfighter honored, not the best, and it’s not Barry’s style to glad-hand cowboys to get some votes.
“(The NFR) is definitely the goal,” Barry said. “It’s the highest honor a bullfighter can achieve.”
And, the 40-year-old former high school football star doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, or stepping away from the sport.
“I have a two-year contract, so I will be here at least through next year,” Barry said. “Four, five or six years, I have no idea. I can’t see quitting anytime in the near future. When they quit voting for me for the finals, or people start telling me I’m not doing the job, that’s when I’d stop. I love doing this.
“Many people think I’m crazy because I fight bulls. It’s something I love to do, and I get to do it for a living. A lot of people are put in situations where they have to do certain things. The positives outweigh the negatives.”
This is the first time in several years that Barry hasn’t teamed with Joel Baumgartner, who opted to go to the Pro Bulls Rodeo Tour after last season. Instead, Barry finds himself working with 25-year-old Tim O’Connor, who is working his first big rodeo.
“I never have worked with Tim (before now),” Barry said. “I used to work with his uncle, who was a great bullfighter. Tim is doing a great job. He has to be good because this rodeo only hires the best of the best. The big thing is having trust in the guy who is on the other side of you. You put your trust in them and you want trust from them, too.”
“Things have gone pretty good,” O’Connor said. “There’s always a feeling-out period, and getting used to how the guy on the other side works. Rowdy moves around pretty good.”
Expect Barry to parcel out a lot of knowledge to O’Connor, because that’s the way he is. In fact, Barry puts on one or two bullfighting camps every year in Washington.
“Gary Leffew (former bullfighter) has come up the last couple of years,” Barry said. “I like teaching. It helps keep me grounded.”
RESPECTING THE ADVERSARY
One of the reasons Barry is so good at his job is that he doesn’t take things for granted, and he has a tremendous amount of respect for the animals he deals with.
“I’m still learning from them,” Barry said. “It’s a challenge for me day in and day out. There’s a mental game you play with yourself and the bulls.
“(The bulls) are very agile. They are strong animals. You don’t know how awesome they are until you are at dirt level. They are aggressive, strong animals.”
And, it’s Barry’s job to touch, rush, push at or kick at a bull to keep it away from a fallen rider. Quite simply, a bullfighter does whatever is needed to keep the bull away and the rider safe.
“My job is to go in there and put the situation back in control,” Barry said. “You have to be willing to sacrifice yourself. There are bulls I know I can show up and make a little show out of it.”
Part of that is knowing the bulls, and Barry does his homework. He scours the day sheet before each performance to see if he knows the riders and the bulls in action that night. He’s always looking for potential mismatches – an inexperienced rider on a dangerous bull.
The bullfighter’s life is rarely injury free, and Barry has had his share of bumps, bruises and serious injuries.
In 2000, Barry was hooked by Punk, a Western Rodeo bull, and spent five nights at Washoe Medical Center with several broken ribs and a punctured lung.
“He had no horns and was very aggressive,” Barry said. “I was coming down sideways and took the full brunt of it in the ribs. Injuries are part of the game. It’s something you don’t dwell on.”
Barry blew out his knee once, which cost him 11 months. In fact, he still wears a brace for performances. One time he got clipped by a bull so hard in the nose that it pushed his nose cartilage up to his brain stem.
IT’S NOT JUST RODEO
Barry owns a 7,500-acre ranch in Washington, and he’s a devoted father. He’s also a sculptor and artist.
His family always comes to Reno with him. Since the rodeo is nine days, the family takes little day trips. One of the kids’ favorite places is the water park in Sparks.
At night, 6-year-old Miles spends a lot of time in the chutes until it’s time for dad to get stretched out and go to work.
“Miles is the wild spit and Clay, his daughter, who is 8, is definitely the teacher’s pet,” Barry said, laughing. “He lives on the edge. He worries about pain and consequences later. I used to pick Miles up after school and we would go ride, work the stock and check the fences. He’s a pretty good hand.
“Time away from the family is tough. I was gone one time in January for two weeks and it seemed like forever. I try to stay as local as I can.”
The family and being on the ranch is what keeps Barry close to home. He certainly has the skill and credentials to work other big rodeos, but doesn’t want to be gone for extended periods of time.
Keeping close to home also lets him build a life outside the arena and keep him close to his other love affair.
Barry’s interest in art began at an early age.
“I was a daydreamer,” Barry said. “I’d sit and draw and sketch.”
Barry became so good that he did commissioned paintings to help put himself through college.
The sculpting started when Barry was nursing an injury. Laura Lee purchased sculpting lessons through Jeff Wolf and Barry went two different times. Several of his projects are cast in bronze.
No doubt it’s something he will pursue with more passion once his career in the arena is over.
• Contact reporter Darrell Moody at email@example.com, or by calling 881-1281.
The Barry file
Style of dress: No make-up, white shirts, and red and yellow striped socks
Height/weight: 6-0, 175
Birthrate: Dec. 30, 1966
Residence: Kennewick, Wash.
Education: Walla Walla Community College and Blue Mountain Community College
Achievements: Voted to National Finals Rodeo three times and to the Columbia River Circuit Finals 16 times
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