Note: This article first appeared in the December/January 2013 issue of American Cowboy.
Why Lane? It’s a question every one of us who knew and loved Lane Frost has asked countless times since July 30, 1989—the day he died at the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne, Wyo. Lane had it all. He was talented, handsome, young, and especially gifted with people.
Lane was just 25 years old when he left, so full of life and with so much more to do. He would have turned 50 on October 12, 2013, and we all wonder what Lane would have done with that second half of a life he wasn’t here for. Part of what amazes his family and friends the most is how legendary and popular Lane has remained. He’s not just never been forgotten. He’s unforgettable. To this day, when a cowboy kid (born long after Lane died) finds out any of us knew Lane, he’ll sit mesmerized for hours, asking for every detail of that smile and style this world will never get enough of. That’s leaving a lasting impression.
I got to know Lane and his best friend and fellow world champion bull rider, Tuff Hedeman, in 1987, back when the rodeo season ran the calendar year and I took my first full-time job out of college writing cowboy stories for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Lane had a way of making you feel like family about five minutes in, and I have fond memories of sharing rental-car rides in rodeo towns like Reno with them that year. I had the privilege of stepping out onto the Thomas & Mack Center dirt for Lane’s first world championship interview seconds after he clinched the gold buckle at that year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas. I love looking back on that night, because, to use one of Lane’s favorite phrases, he was “plumb tickled” and truly happy.
Lane’s popularity crossed over into the popular sports culture when our PRCA stock contractor friend John Growney came up with the renowned seven-ride Champions Challenge match in 1988. The match pitted the two 1987 world champions against one another: Lane versus Growney and Don Kish’s previously retired and unridden (in 309 attempts) bull, Red Rock. It was a simple yet brilliant concept that caught fire even with the mainstream media, and Lane called me like clockwork before and after every ride. Red Rock jumped out with the early 2-0 lead, but Lane rallied and they were even at 3-3 going into the final Champions Challenge showdown on July 25 in Spanish Fork, Utah. Lane rode Red Rock that night, and made headlines in places rodeo had never been before.
That next 1989 season had some injury-related ups and downs for Lane. But he always found a way to ride and win his way out of the occasional slumps. We were all laughing back behind the bucking chutes at the Cheyenne Frontier Days before the rodeo that day. Our late friend George Michael was interviewing Lane and Tuff for his George Michael Sports Machine show on NBC, and Lane was slapping his leg and laughing up a storm. The silver dental apparatus holding his teeth in tight (they were loosened in a bull riding wreck not long before) didn’t stop Lane from lighting up that dark and dreary day with his Hollywood smile.
I was running back and forth between the timed-event end and the bucking chutes, interviewing each event’s champion as short-round Sunday unfolded. I naturally stopped taking notes to watch Lane’s ride, and it was a great one on Bad Company Rodeo’s Takin’ Care of Business. Lane wasn’t known for pretty dismounts, so his landing was not unusual. The bull took a poke at him with a horn on the way by, but the give in that muddy arena seemed a good enough shock absorber. We’d all seen Lane walk away from much worse looking wrecks. What made me run was when he got to his feet and waved for Tuff to come help him before falling back down. Even Tuff revered Lane’s toughness. I took off running, sick that it looked like Lane would likely return to the injured reserves.
When I’d almost reached the medic tent behind the bucking chutes, where I figured they’d taken Lane, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of another bull rider sobbing with his head against a fencepost. I stopped and put my hand on his back. “They say Lane didn’t make it,” he managed. I whirled around in time to see Tuff jump in the ambulance by Lane’s side just before they slammed the door. I ran to my truck and headed for the hospital. I was met in the parking lot by Tom Reeves, a South Dakota saddle bronc rider who years later would win the world and be inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Like that bull rider leaned up against that fencepost, he, too, was crying. I was still running on adrenaline and denial.
What finally stopped me was the sight of Cody Lambert stumbling out the front steps of that hospital on the brink of collapse. Tuff stayed with Lane while they unplugged all the tubes and machines used to try and pull off a medical miracle. He gave Lane a hug and a kiss, told him he loved him and said, “See ya.” Tuff then had the terrible task of calling Lane’s folks, Clyde and Elsie, before flying Lane back to Oklahoma one last time.
Tuff knew the situation was serious from that first wave for help.
“Lane had the kind of toughness that if he had two broken legs he’d have walked out of the arena,” Tuff said. “His pain tolerance was very high. When we were in that ambulance, I was hoping and praying. A million things were going through my head, but I knew it was bad. They tried to revive him in the ambulance, and kept going in the emergency room. But Lane was gone before he left the arena.”
Losing Lane changed Tuff. But knowing him inside that brotherly bond they shared did, too. And all for the better. By the time Lane died, Lane and Tuff or Tuff and Lane, rolled off the tongue easier than either name on its own.
They first met at the 1980 National High School Finals Rodeo in Yakima, Wash., where Lane was the reserve champ. A year later, Lane won the National High School Rodeo Association national bull riding title at the finals in Douglas, Wyo.
“When we first met in high school, Lane was already the guy,” Tuff said. “When I met him I didn’t want to like him, because he was everything any of us wanted to be. But you really couldn’t help but like him.”
Compared to Tuff’s rough edges, Lane was naturally polite and personable.
“Lane changed me more than any single person,” Tuff says. “Just in the way he conducted himself and handled things. He was outgoing and just so nice. He never met a stranger. I, by nature, was pretty shy. And I didn’t have all of his social graces. He was one of those guys who always wanted to do what was right and what you’re supposed to do. He was truly a good guy.”
And cowboy to the core. Elsie tells of Lane sleeping through Clyde’s rodeos, but always rising and shining just in time for the bull riding.
“The first time I noticed it was at San Antonio a few months after Lane was born,” Elsie remembers. “When the bull riding started he’d wake up and get wide-eyed. I just thought it was the noise at first. But if I tried to leave during the bull riding, he would cry. And if I turned around to go back in, he would stop. There was just something about bull riding that fascinated Lane. As Lane got a little older and was a toddler, I had to get his attention to watch Clyde (who qualified for the first-ever NFR in 1959, among others) in the bareback riding, then he’d go back to playing in the dirt. But when the bull riding started, he’d be glued to that arena with both hands on the fence. It was just amazing.”
By all accounts, including Clyde, Elsie, and Tuff’s, bull riding great, family friend, and mentor Freckles Brown had a huge influence on Cowboy Lane.
“Lane always looked up to Freckles, and Freckles was the god of bull riders in his era,” Tuff said. “Freckles told Lane, ‘If you’re going to be a champion, you need to be a great champion and represent yourself and your sport in a positive way.’ Lane took that to heart, and he lived it. Back in the day, a lot of cowboys were viewed as a bunch of renegade outlaws who blew into town once a year, but Freckles told Lane that in order for rodeo to grow and be popular, he needed to be one of the guys who helped make it better. Lane listened to Freckles.”
He really did. Win, lose, or draw, he never disappointed a fan. So many parts of the movie 8 Seconds were fiction—number one being that Clyde was less than impressed by his son and impossible to please. But the part about Lane leaving his traveling partners waiting while he kissed babies and signed autographs was real. And he didn’t just sign his name. He engaged in complete conversations about the cattle market, hay crop, or whatever else people wanted to talk about. He looked those people in the eye and remembered them the next year. Five minutes and they were his friends and fans for life.
“Losing Lane changed how I look at everything,” Tuff said. “I never thought that could happen to one of the great ones. When I lost Lane, I thought, ‘Wow. This can all go away tomorrow.’ I’ve never really been one to hold back. I always lived for today. But losing Lane really reinforced that.”
In Lane’s absence, Tuff took the time for every last fan. They’re both Hall of Fame cowboys, but still today, Tuff signs every last autograph, looks each person in the eye, and goes out of his way to make others’ day. I asked Tuff what he thought Lane would be up to today, besides a lifetime leader of the bull riding pack.
“Lane knew he couldn’t ride forever, and we talked about what we needed to do while we were riding so that when we quit rodeoing we didn’t have to get a job working the stripping chute,” Tuff said. “Lane and the Gaylord family started it all for bull riding in terms of the best guys and the best bulls, when they put together the first Bullnanza at the Lazy E (Arena in Guthrie, Okla.) in 1989. That event became a tribute to Freckles and Lane after Lane died (Freckles died in 1987, and Lane spent as much time as possible by his side in the hospital). That was one of the first events that revolutionized bull riding, and made it possible for the best guys to ride for a lot more money.
“But Lane’s true love was being outside on a ranch. He loved cattle, and winning was how he was making that happen. He loved ranching and ranch work.”
After Freckles died, Lane leased his place from Freckles’ widow, Edith, and bought their cows. He was making payments on those cattle to get them paid off. When Lane died, Clyde asked Tuff if he wanted to partner on those cows, which he did. Tuff and Lane had also partnered on some yearlings as part of their cowboy diversification plan.
“We sure miss him popping in from the rodeos,” Elsie said. “When he got home he couldn’t get things done fast enough. He’d always have things lined out that needed to be done, and he’d jump up every morning and run to the barn. Clyde was already down there. It was almost like a little tornado came through and hit the house.”
Lane loved Elsie’s spaghetti and chocolate cake, and she loved how he’d dive into that spaghetti cold, straight from the fridge when she had it waiting for him. It’d be interesting to get a head count on the number of kids named Lane, but Tuff and I both proudly stuck that brand on our first-born boys.
“He must be blown away that he’s still getting so much attention,” Elsie said. “I can just see him grinning and rubbing his hands together. It still hurts, but we know where Lane is and that’s such a comfort. If we walked away from rodeo we were going to lose all our friends and all of Lane’s friends. Leaving rodeo wasn’t an option for us.”
So I guess it doesn’t surprise me to still see Lane’s parents there in their same seats right behind the bucking chutes year after year at the NFR, cheering for everyone else’s kids, even after the heartbreaking loss of their own. Still, I marvel at it every time.
And you haven’t heard the last of the Frost family in rodeo. Joe Frost, a son of Lane’s cousin Shane, won the national high school bull riding title in 2010, 29 years after Lane did it, and is making a name for himself in the professional ranks.
The legend of Lane Frost lives on.
“Lane had a great life,” Tuff said. “He did exactly what he wanted to do. Nobody gets out of here alive, and he made a pretty great exit. He kicked ass and took names at a great rodeo, then he left. Losing Lane is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my whole life. I still think about him every day.”