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Larger Than Life
"Horse laid down on me," Phil offers as a simple explanation.
Since the days of the Cowboys Turtle Association, Phil has been a mainstay in the sport of rodeo, making a name for himself as a steer wrestler and team roper. In the 1940s, he became one of the most active cattle traders in the world, brokering a quarter-million head a year out of Mexico. And, rodeo-history buffs still talk about the 1950 fistfight between Phil and Hollywood cowboy Slim Pickens.
In 2004, in recognition of Phil's decades of involvement in rodeo and ranching, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum presented him with the Chester A. Reynolds Award, which is given to living individuals "perpetuating the ideals, history and heritage of the American West." Other recipients have included Wyoming saddlemaker Don King and natural-horsemanship pioneer Tom Dorrance.
Born in 1920, Phil has lived on the same 400-acre ranch in California's Central Valley since 1931. He began bulldogging in the 1930s, hitting West Coast rodeos and competing in the days of long scores and 700-pound steers.
"Today's rodeo cowboys are athletes," he comments. "We did it just for a hobby, for fun."
In the late 1930s, Phil began venturing into Mexico, hunting for horned cattle he could bring north to sell to stock contractors as bulldogging and roping stock. The venture began with a $280 loan from the Bank of America, and mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar concern. At the height of his cattle-trading days, Phil would fly his own plane to Mexico to buy cattle on a handshake.
"We'd write out the contract on the back of the check," he recalls, "and that was the only contract I had for many years. I never got beat out of any money until many years later, when there got to be too many middlemen."
In those days, Mexican cattle were often sold by age. To ensure he was getting his money's worth on those cattle-buying trips, Phil occasionally put his bulldogging skills to work so he could take a quick look at the teeth on a few head.
"I'd bet with the sellers - a dollar or two - then bulldog a few and 'tooth' 'em," Phil says. "The seller would lose a couple of times, give up and go ahead and sell. If they disagreed about the age on any others, we'd bulldog 'em."
Phil rodeoed until the 1970s, and continued to compete as a team roper past the turn of the 21st century.
At the 1993 California State Team Roping Championships, Phil, then 72, passed out, coming off the back end of his horse, and was taken to the hospital. By the day's end, he was back in the arena, horseback and roping again, having simply told the doctor, "I gotta go rope."
Phil doesn't recall the doctor's diagnosis, but does remember winning some go-round money the next day.
Following leg surgery in recent years, Phil gave up roping. He still keeps horses on his place, and does some horse-trading via satellite and video auctions.
Of course, no chronicle of Phil's life and career would be complete without telling...
"Guys like Everett Colburn and Harry Knight (early rodeo stock contractors) were really showmen," Cotton says. "I've tried to pattern myself after those guys. California is the toughest entertainment market in the world. We've got to compete for those dollars that people could be spending at Disneyland or Magic Mountain or all these other types of places they have today.
"A lot of people will tell you that if you've seen one rodeo, you've seen them all. I don't think that's a bit true - especially when it comes to our rodeos. There are so many guys out there today who want to be stock contractors, but they don't want to be rodeo producers. They just want to show up with some stock, have the rodeo and then take the stock home."
Another difficult factor in selling rodeo to the general public is the cowboys themselves, Cotton says. "You can't sell world champions to the public because you never know if they're going to be there or not. Sometimes they're supposed to be there, and then they turn out at the last minute. So you've got to sell the show itself, things like the specialty acts, the announcers, the bullfighters and all the other stuff we try to do with our rodeos."
For 10 years after the WranglerÂ® National Finals Rodeo moved to Las Vegas, the Rosser family produced the opening ceremonies each night at the Thomas & Mack Center. They used everything from a 20-foot cowboy boot to spaceships to horses standing on turntables in an effort to give the crowd a good show.
"Our barns are full of that stuff," Cotton admits. "We've built so many contraptions through the years all in the name of entertaining the fans. My old partner, Lex (Connolly), was really good at putting words and music to these types of things."
As she got older, Cotton's daughter Cindy Moreno took over the role of coordinating rodeo productions. "I told my dad once that about the only thing he hadn't done is shoot me out of a cannon,"Cindy recalls, hoping that Cotton wouldn't g...