Pro Rodeo Cowboy Faced Down Bulls and Bias to Become one of the Best
by Becky Talley
How did a young black man from the East Coast town of Woodstown, N.J., with no ranch background become one of history's most influential bull riders? The answer is hard work, family support and a determined spirit that just won't quit.
Abe Morris rode his way into Pro Rodeo history by being one of the first - and still one of the few - black men to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). He bucked many hardships -such as injury and bias -during his career as a bull rider but managed to come away from the experience with only a few extra pieces of metal in his body and a lifetime of memories.
Abe's career as a bull rider began at the young age of 8 in Woodstown. At that time his cousins lived about 100 yards from the Cowtown Rodeo Arena, home of one of the oldest rodeos in the nation. It was Abe's oldest cousin, Gene, who first got involved in riding bulls. The owner of the rodeo arena told him that he was going to teach him to ride bulls and would take his winnings and save it to help him go to college. From there, Abe's cousins, Jimmy Lee and Willie Ed, began to follow in their brother's footsteps and soon they looked toward Abe to continue the family tradition.
Abe's first experience was on roping calves. It was clear from the beginning that he had the talent and the natural feel for the animals and his cousins did whatever they could to encourage him. Abe even remembers a time when they would bribe him with 25 cents to ride the calves, something that he would use to buy a candy bar and a soda, a pretty good trade for a young kid, he recalls. According to Abe, he really kept with it because he admired his cousins so much and wanted to be like them, not because he was interested in the bull rider image.
He was not only talented, but dedicated to the sport. Abe would watch bulls for hours to catch their movements and attitudes, just to understand the animals' behavior, following the cattlemen's philosophy that you need to think like an animal to understand what they are going to do next.
At age 10, Abe rode his first junior bull. In fact, the first time he rode for competition he won. He earned $7.50 for first prize, got to collect his money at the rodeo office like all of the cowboys that he idolized and became hooked on the sport. "I never faltered from that day. I wanted to be a bull rider."
Not that it was hard to get Abe interested in anything that was Western.
"When I was a kid I wanted to go out West," he said. He would watch Westerns like "Bonanza" and "Rawhide" and hoped to go out West someday; and he did just that. His cousin, Gene, had already made the trip to Wyoming and was attending Casper College on a rodeo scholarship, so Abe decided that was where he was headed too.
"He was one of my heroes and I just wanted to follow him," Abe said. "I figured if he had gone to Texas, I would have gone to Texas."
So Abe packed up his gear and headed to Wyoming. He attended the University of Wyoming on academic scholarships, but wasn't involved in the official rodeo team until his junior year, though he did rodeo at the college rodeos for four years. It was in this venue that Abe really got to show his talent.
In the culmination of all his years of hard work he won the bull riding at the college rodeo in 1978.
"It was my first buckle, it was located on campus and there was a lot of students there." He gained campus- wide recognition and won one of the most important things that a rodeo cowboy can have, a championship buckle.
According to Abe a buckle is more than a wardrobe accessory, it is a key to how good you are in the rodeo field. It is the first thing that cowboys look at and the first thing that many judge your talent by. Up until winning the buckle in college, Abe was wearing a buckle borrowed from his cousin at Christmas time, but by the following April he was able to give it back, winning one of his own. Abe still looks at that college win as one of the outstanding moments of his career.
Unfortunately, the belt buckle wasn't all that Abe was scrutinized for. At home in New Jersey there was a group of black men that would all ride bulls. But out in Wyoming, Abe was one of the few black people at the college and the only one on a rodeo team in the circuit.
His teammates in Wyoming accepted him and backed him throughout his career. "They embraced me, would come and pick me up and take me to practice," he said.
But not everyone was as accommodating or accepting. Abe recalls many times that he was cornered by cowboys that would try to beat him up, even after he was competing as a pro. The worst, however, was the discrimination he felt from judges while riding. There were times when he would have great ride on a good bull only to be beat by someone else who rode the same bull, but not nearly as well.
"I definitely felt discriminated against. I would never tell people I wasn't discriminated against. It was pretty discouraging at times," he said. But he never let that get him down or make him give up. He is especially proud now of his accomplishments and what they may mean to others that are different and trying to break into rodeo.
"I'm ecstatic, happy, no doubt. Someone like me can make it easier for the guys of the future," Abe said.
And his accomplishments are something to write home about. Abe has been a PRCA member since 1977; was an eight-time qualifier in the Mountain States Circuit Finals and the average winner in 1989; 1989 Wrangler Circuit Series Bull riding champion; two-time qualifier for the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo; 1990 Open to the World Bull riding champion and toured with the Bull Riders Only series for three years.
Abe rode bulls professionally for several years and fought not only bias, but the other obstacle that all bull riders face, injuries. He has had a torn groin, several broken bones - one break that required screws in his leg - hip injuries and, of course, has been knocked out a few times.
"Bull riding is a game of inches. It's not if you'll get hurt, it's when and how bad," he said.
Abe competed until 1994 when he was injured and retired. Everyone agreed that he was competing well and could have qualified for the National Finals Rodeo several times if he had competed in more rodeos, but by the time of this final injury, Abe had felt it was time to move on.
"I had always been a top bull rider and I wanted to go out on top. People always remember how you went out," he said.
After the injury, Abe went through months of physical therapy. He had toyed with the idea of coming back to bull riding, but decided he just didn't want to go back to the injuries and the traveling.
Since then, Abe continues to shine in everything he tries, just as he has always done. He earned his PRCA announcer's card in 1982 and has announced numerous college and pro rodeos. And he has announced the finals of the Cheyenne Frontier Days for Prime Sports Network and Fox Sports. He still does some announcing work, but has slowed down because he prefers to not travel as much as he has in the past.
Currently Abe is a licensed registered representative employed in the financial services industry. He works in the phone center for Fortune 500 pension giant TIAA-CREF in Denver.
However, as usual, Abe is still breaking down barriers and setting the standards higher for all those that follow him. He has just finished a book about his experiences in the rodeo world, a telling account of the good and the bad of his career. He writes on the subject of bull riding itself, the people he knew, and gives an honest account of the bias he faced from judges and fellow competitors. He was encouraged by many people, both in and out of the rodeo world to put all of his experiences down on paper and get that part of his amazing life out in the public.
When he first started writing he was just doing it for himself, to document his life and experiences. But after encouragement from several people he realized that he had written a gold mine.
According to Abe, after hearing his stories, his friend, Bryan McDonald, PRCA Bull Riding director told him " 'Someone up there is really looking out for you... I guarantee you that you are never going to have a problem getting this book published.' "
And he was right. So far it looks like almost every publishing house Abe has sent his book to has jumped at the chance to publish it. He has had many responses already and is excited to pick someone to help him get his book out to the public and the fans that will surely be glad to share in his experiences.
And his fan base is still out there and will no doubt continue to grow, be it those who followed his career, co-workers that have encouraged him to write, or his 3-year-old son, Justin Abraham Morris, who idolizes everything that Abe has done. Justin especially loves to watch tapes of Abe's rides and will mimic his riding technique every time he sees them.
"I dedicated my book to Justin because he is and always will be my biggest fan," Abe said. Like his role model, cousin Gene, before him, Abe has given Justin his first belt buckle so he will have something to wear; and it was none other than that first buckle Abe himself won in college. He really believes that Justin will follow in his father's footsteps.
"I wouldn't discourage anyone not to do it. If you're going to do it do it right. Learn from the best," he said.
If that is the case then it looks like little Justin has just the right teacher.