World Champions Take Similar Path
By JOE KUSEK
July 28, 2020
A seven-time world champion, Dan Mortensen has had his picture taken thousands of times.
And he has about the same number in bulging scrapbooks at home.
But one of those pictures, taken in August of 1983, is among his favorites.
The photo shows a teenage Mortensen aboard the bull Blueberry Hill owned by Dale Small. It was during the bull riding competition at the Northern Rodeo Association’s MontanaFair event in Billings.
Mortensen was awarded his card into the NRA after winning the Montana state high school bull riding title earlier that year. The NRA and Northern Women’s Rodeo Association has a long-established policy of awarding cards to the high school state champions as a way to promote growth in the sport.
“The NRA was a huge impact on my career,” said Mortensen, a 2009 inductee into the PRCA ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “It meant so much. It was a valuable stepping stone on my journey.”
Clay Tryan will join Mortensen someday in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. But the three-time world team roping champion is still competing and when not chasing a fourth world championship, is roping with his two older sons, Tyler and Braylon. A younger son, Dash, will get his opportunity to rope with dad when he chooses.
Tryan’s first experience in the NRA was also MontanaFair in Billings. Then 16, he roped this his father Dennis.
“I remember all of it,” Tryan said his time in the NRA. “I remember how it helped me.”
Tryan wants the same for his sons.
“I want my kids to start there,” he said.
Mortensen and Tryan were at different ends of the arena, their careers briefly crossing over.
But they, along with reigning world champion steer wrestler Ty Erickson, reigning world champion Haven Meged and two-time Professional Bull Riders world champion Jess Lockwood, share a common starting point:
All five spent their formative years with the Northern Rodeo Association.
“The competition was great,” said Mortensen. “It prepared you well.”
Mortensen is considered Montana’s world greatest cowboy. He won six saddle bronc titles – tying legendary Casey Tibbs for the most in PRCA history – along with the world all-around title in 1997.
A 17-foot tall bronze sculpture of Mortensen greets fans entering the First Interstate Arena in Billings.
But before Mortensen was winning world titles, he was earning NRA championship buckles.
“The NRA taught you how to rodeo,” he said. “What I remember is the bucking stock was excellent … so consistent. The first few years in the NRA I just plugged along. It took me a few years to get to the top level.”
Mortensen swept the NRA year-end saddle bronc and bull riding titles in 1988 and was in contention to do the same for 1989. But the PRCA had a rule back then a competitor could not qualify at the National Finals Rodeo if they had competed in another organization the same year.
The 1989 NRA Finals were held in February of 1990. Mortensen was the PRCA rookie of the year in 1990 and rode at his first NFR that December. The rule has since been eliminated.
“The NRA is a very well-run organization,” he said. “It’s a very hard organization to leave.”
With three world titles and 17 NFR qualifications, Tryan is making his name as Montana’s greatest roper.
He surpassed Mortensen for PRCA career earnings by a Montana competitor in 2019.
“The NRA helped me a lot,” said Tryan. “It taught me about being in the standings and trying to get to the top.”
Tryan even competed at some NRA rodeos in 2005, the same year he won his first world title.
“I loved going to the Fourth of July rodeos … Harlowton, Ennis … they meant a lot to me,” Tryan said.
He planned to enter Big Timber this summer but had a scheduling conflict.
“We couldn’t make it work. I really wanted to go,” continued Tryan. “I was going to rope with Braylon. I told him, ‘We’ll get to some next year.’ The NRA is a great place to get your start.”
Meged was a three-time NRA Finals qualifier (2015, 2017, 2018). His horse Beyonce, was selected the NRA Horse of the Year for 2018. Meged rode Beyonce in Las Vegas to the world title last year, becoming the first tie-down roping world champion from Montana.
Erickson won the junior breakaway roping title in 2005 before becoming a regular at the NFR.
Lockwood won NRA year-end bull riding championships in 2014 and 2015. Lockwood would go on to win PBR gold buckles in 2017 – becoming the youngest champion in PBR history – and again in 2019. He has earned more than $4 million in the PBR, all before the age of 25.
Even with his world titles and wins at almost every major rodeo, Tryan remains an outlier in his own family. He is the only one without an NRA championship.
His father Dennis is a three-time NRA team roping champion (header 1989, 1991; heeler 2000) while brothers Travis (2000) and Brady (2019) also have titles. All three are competed at the NFR.
And it goes beyond immediate family. His aunt Laurie won the NWRA breakaway roping crown in 1991 while uncle Rick is a two-time team roping champion (1995-96). Cousin Cee Cee also has two breakaway roping titles (2004, 2007) while cousin Chase won the junior breakaway roping in 2003.
“They have that on me,” said Clay Tryan. “Someday I have to come back and get that done.”