Longtime stock contractor John Growney has a theory about the late world champion bull rider Lane Frost.
"This guy, maybe he was already an angel," Growney said this week from his home in Red Bluff, Calif. "Maybe he was sent here to write this story."
It has been more than 20 years since Frost, Growney and his legendary bull Red Rock teamed up to write one of the great stories in rodeo history, but Growney remembers it like it was yesterday.
It was an idea that came courtesy of the late rodeo legend Jim Shoulders, who suggested to Growney at a rodeo in Poway, Calif., in 1987 that Growney pit Red Rock, the newly-named Bucking Bull of the Year in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, in a series of match-ups with a top bull rider.
When Frost, of Lane, Okla., won the 1987 world championship later that year, it was "a no-brainer" who Red Rock's opponent should be, Growney said.
Frost, who died at 25 in 1989 at Cheyenne Frontier Days after taking a horn in the back, was as popular a cowboy as Growney had ever met.
"People just gravitated to him," Growney said. "Everywhere he went, he had this contagious smile and personality and he had time for everybody."
Growney and Frost talked and the Challenge of Champions was born a best-of-seven match-up between the two champions that would play out over several weeks at seven different rodeos in the spring and summer of 1988.
The story of the match-up, which Frost ultimately won 4-3, is the subject of a new documentary: "The Challenge of Champions: The Story of Lane Frost and Red Rock," which will premiere on Oct. 24 the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The world premiere of the documentary kicks off a weekend of public activities, including the induction of Frost and eight others into the Rodeo Hall of Fame on Oct. 26.
The 80-minute film by Lighthouse Productions is the work of award-winning film maker David Wittkower, who interviewed numerous key players in the "Challenge of Champions" duel, including Growney; Frost's parents, Clyde and Elsie; Frost's traveling partners Tuff Hedeman and Cody Lambert; sportscaster George Michael and several others.
Reliving the scene from 20 years ago was both heartwarming and heart-wrenching for Growney.
Red Rock was the bull that helped establish Growney Brothers Rodeo Company.
"We didn't really have a bull program then," Growney said, who along with partner Don Kish, is now known for the quality bulls they produce.
In 1984, Growney was approached by Mert Hunking of Sombrero Rodeo Company in Oregon, who offered to sell him Red Rock, a red brindle bull that had become a local legend bucking in rodeos around his birthplace in Sisters, Ore.
"He said 'I like the way you take care of your animals,' and he wanted to sell him for $10,000. At the time, $10,000 was the most ever paid for a bull."
Growney asked if he could make payments through the summer and Hunking agreed.
At the time, Growney was amazed at how gentle the bull was outside the bucking chutes. The story he was told is that Red Rock's mother died when he was born and the family raised the bull on a milk cow, with the children often feeding him by hand.
Outside the bucking chutes, people could pet the bull, sit on him and pose for photos.
Inside the arena was another matter entirely. In 309 career outs, Red Rock was never successfully ridden. In 1987, he was honored as the PRCA's Bucking Bull of the Year.
"We bucked Red Rock 50 times the year he won it, 1987," Growney said. "A lot of guys had a lot of shots at him. Every performance, somebody that was getting on him was a pretty good bull rider."
In his career, Red Rock bucked off a who's who of professional bull riding, including world champions Tuff Hedeman, Cody Snyder, Ted Nuce, Charlie Sampson, Cody Custer and Frost (twice). In fact, Frost would have won his first world championship and been the first to ride all 10 of his bulls at the NFR in 1986, but he drew Red Rock in the 10th round and was bucked off. Frost wound up third in the world behind Hedeman and Nuce.
The "Challenge of Champions" started at the Red Bluff Roundup and Red Rock continued his dominance, bucking off Frost in two seconds. A week later in Clovis, Calif., the result was the same, a quick victory for the bull.
The match-up, however, was starting to get national attention. Sportscaster George Michael was promoting it on his weekly show "Sports Machine," and USA Today also began covering the series.
"I remember picking up USA Today and opening the sports page and seeing the headline, Lane Frost 0, Red Rock 2," Growney said. "I just thought, this is amazing."
Then on May 20, 1988, Frost became the first cowboy to ever successfully ride Red Rock, doing so in front of a sold-out crowd in Redding, Calif., on a Friday night.
"Redding had never sold out their Friday night, but on this night, they packed the place," Growney said. "When Lane rode him, they just went nuts. They just roared. It made history right there and everybody knew they were witnessing history. For them, they were elated."
For Growney, though, it was bittersweet.
"I felt like I'd done something wrong to this bull," he said. "He'd gone his whole life without being ridden."
Frost rode the bull again a few weeks later in Livermore, Calif., and for a third time in Red Rock's hometown of Sisters, Ore., to take a 3-2 lead in their challenge.
On the Fourth of July, Red Rock returned to form and bucked Frost off in St. Paul, Ore., to square the match at 3-3.
The final battle was July 25, 1988 in Spanish Fork, Utah. Frost stayed on for the full eight seconds to win the Challenge of Champions 4-3.
Looking back on it 20 years later, Growney believes everything that happened was pre-determined.
In 1989, both Red Rock and Frost, who had died the year before, were inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"It was almost like it was written in heaven," Growney said.
Red Rock lived until he was 18. He died on June 8, 1994 and is buried on Growney's ranch in Red Bluff.
The "Challenge of Champions" documentary is available for $24.95 and can be ordered by calling the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum store at (405) 478-2250, ext. 268.