CHAMPION’S MEMORIES: Sullivan reflects on rodeo days

Published 10:38 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Scores of little kids lined the rails at the Pike County Cattlemen’s NCPRA Rodeo Saturday night at Cattleman Park Arena to watch the cowboys ride and dream their own cowboy dreams. Little did they know that one of the greatest local cowboys of all times was watching and dreaming too.

Jim Sullivan of LaPine is a former rodeo champion. But Sullivan is not “just a champion,” he’s a cowboy legend in the eyes of those who saw him ride.

Sullivan and his longtime friend, Richard Bartley, had front row seats at the rodeo Saturday night and neither took his eyes off the arena.

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“Look away for just a second and you might miss the best ride of the rodeo,” Sullivan said with a smile. “A split second divides the winners from the losers.”

Sullivan knows a lot more about winning than he knows about losing.

“I always liked to win,” he said. “Winning is all the fun and a little money goes along with it. Losing’s no fun. It gets you a long ride home.”

Sullivan got his first taste of rodeo when he was still wet behind the ears.

“It was in 1955 and I was 15 years old,” he said. “From that day on I was hooked.”

Sullivan didn’t have a favorite event. They were all his favorites.

“I entered every event,” he said. “I didn’t want to sit up on the fence. I wanted to ride.”

Ropin’ and ridin’ and rastlin’ were his three R’s.

He entered every event and he won every event.

“I’ve got a belt buckle from every event from roping to bull riding,” he said. “I wrestled steers. I did all the ropin’ events and all the ridin’ events. I liked all of them but my favorite events were bare back ridin,’ saddle bronc ridin’ and bull ridin’ – bull dogin’ is what I loved.”

When it came time for Sullivan to take a bride, he chose a rodeo girl.

“My wife, Virginia, ran barrels and she was real good at it,” he said. “We both loved the rodeo.”

Sullivan said he competed in about 25 rodeos every year and he won so often that he earned the right to be called a rodeo champion.

“Way back then, sometimes, I would go from rodeo to rodeo on an airplane. That way I could get in more rodeos,” he said. “In 1977, I was in an airplane crash and, after that, I couldn’t ride like I had been doing.”

On that dark night in Tuscaloosa, the pilot of the small aircraft couldn’t see and, in an attempt to land, hit a parked car. Sullivan’s injuries were not life threatening; however, they were serious enough to begin a downward spiral to the end of his rodeo career.

“There’s nothing like rodeo and there’s nothing like winning,” Sullivan said. “I had a good career and won a lot. I won because I rode with no fear. I never got on a horse or a bull afraid. You can’t win if you’re afraid. To be a winner, you have to ride with no fear.”

Sullivan’s rodeo career ended but his love of rodeo is just as strong. He enjoys seeing the young cowboys and cowgirls compete. It brings back memories.

“I still remember how it is to ride and to win,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”

His friend Bartley said Sullivan and his wife stayed close to the rodeo with their horses and leisure riding.

“When Jim lost his wife, he decided to get rid of their horses,” Bartley said. “He decided to give them to a group up around Montevallo that works with people with disabilities.” Working with horses can be therapeutic for people with physical and mental concerns, Bartley said.

“Jim Sullivan was one of the great rodeo champions and, to me, he is still a champion,” he said. “I enjoy seeing him enjoy the rodeo. He has never lost his dedication to rodeo.”