Colorado rodeo legend J.C. Trujillo rides into National Cowboy Hall of Fame

J.C. Trujillo, in his white straw cowboy hat, a long-sleeved Wrangler shirt and well-worn jeans, embraces the image of the American Cowboy as he stands in a tack room at his ranch near Dunckley Pass on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Trujillo will be honored this November when he is inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The soothing sound of water rolling down Bunker Creek surrounds cowboy J.C. Trujillo as he sits in the backyard of his home nestled in the shadows of the Flat Tops, recalling the first time he visited the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

“My dad and I were driving from our home in Arizona to the High School National Finals (in Watonga, Oklahoma),” Trujillo said of his stop at the hall. “It’s something that’s important to me now, you know, to see the cowboys and people that I looked up to in the rodeo business and in the Western way of life.”

For the 1981 world champion bareback rider, it feels overwhelming that he will be a part of the Hall of Fame at the National Western Heritage Museum he visited as a child. He is set to be inducted Nov. 10-11 at the Sam Noble Special Events Center as part of the class of 2023.

The journey

Trujillo’s journey as a rodeo athlete began when he started competing in junior rodeos at age 6. He went on to compete in college and then enjoyed a professional career that stretched from 1972 until he retired following his 12th National Finals Rodeo appearance in 1985 in Las Vegas.

“I always have to give credit to my mom and dad, who supported me as a young cowboy and even when I first started in professional rodeo and wasn’t winning,” Trujillo said. “My mom and dad were darn sure not wealthy, but they were hard-working people who helped me out mentally and financially.”

He attended both Mesa Community College and Arizona State University, where he competed on the college rodeo teams while working to earn his degree in elementary education. He won the Intercollegiate Bareback Championship in 1968 with Arizona State, and instead of heading to the classroom to teach after graduation, he hit the rodeo road, which led to a career filled with top finishes.

Trujillo won Prescott five times, Salinas four times, Ogden three times and the Pendleton Round-Up twice. He was also the co-champion bareback rider at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Rodeo in Washington, D.C.

He won in Calgary in 1982 and used the $50,000 bonus he pocketed to purchase a modest 50-acre ranch an hour-and-a-half away from Steamboat Springs, between Yampa and Meeker, in Rio Blanco County.

Chasing the dream

Through the ups and downs of his career that included big wins and painful injuries, Trujillo never lost sight of his childhood dream of being a world champion. He was a regular in the bareback events at the NFR, competing in Oklahoma City 11 times from 1972-83. He returned to the event in 1985 — the first year the finals were held in Las Vegas.

“One of my lifetime goals was to become a world champ, and in 1980 I was runner-up at the World Championships and I just barely missed it,” Trujillo said. “I got bucked off in the fifth go-round by a horse called Devil’s Dream, and that cost me winning the world championship that year.”

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Trujillo used the near miss to fuel his run the following year when he won the World Championship in 1981.

“Rodeo is like any other contact sport where a positive attitude is one of the most important things you can do,” Trujillo said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s football, rodeo or whatever, having a positive attitude and thinking that you can do it helps you reach goals.”

Finding Steamboat

Bareback rider J.C. Trujillo, who won a world championship in 1981, is at home with his horses on his ranch near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in Rio Blanco County on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Thanks to his good friend Larry Mahan and the Cowboy Downhill, the rodeo road brought Trujillo to Steamboat Springs.

Trujillo was one of the cowboys who traveled from the National Western Stock Show in Denver to Steamboat for a couple of days of skiing and to race down the mountain back in the early days of Steamboat Resort’s iconic event.

Trujillo said he missed out on the first one, but after getting an earful from his buddies in the days and months that followed, he was one of the first on the plane the following year.

Trujillo got a few skiing tips from newfound friend Billy Kidd and also became friends with local skiing legend Jim “Moose” Barrows. The cowboy said Steamboat had stolen a little piece of his heart, and before he knew it, he had a home — a condominium — in town and had made Steamboat his headquarters when he was not on the road.

“I fell in love with the sport of skiing, and I fell in love with Steamboat,” Trujillo said. “The attitude and the charisma that Steamboat and the people of Steamboat had was really appealing to me.”

Success continued in the years that followed, and winning the prize money in Calgary was a key in securing his ranch on Rio Blanco County Road 8 where he and wife, Margo, raised their two daughters in a modest home set on property that offered great views of China Wall and Baldy Mountain but had no electricity until he added solar panels a few years ago.

One of the first things Trujillo did on his property was build a roping area behind the main house where he invited his friends to come out for competitions and later introduced his grandchildren to the basics of bullriding.

“This was the smartest investment and the smartest thing I ever did,” Trujillo said. “I won at Calgary Stampede and invested it here and in these 50 acres that we got — and I can always look back at this and say, ‘This is what I got from rodeo.'”

Rodeo legacy

Bareback rider J.C. Trujillo is surrounded by memories as he looks over photographs from his professional rodeo career on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. His career stretched from 1967-85 and included 12 National Finals Rodeo appearances and a world championship. Trujillo will be honored this November when he is inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

These days Trujillo spends his winters in Arizona and returns to his Colorado home just as the snow melts off Ripple Creek Pass.

For 16 years he was the general manager for Prescott Frontier Days, before retiring in September 2020. During his career, Trujillo also ran rodeo schools with saddle bronc legend Shawn Davis.

Brent Romick, a local rodeo icon, said Trujillo’s impacts in Steamboat Springs, Prescott and in the sport of rodeo were huge. He added that Trujillo’s induction into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame is well deserved.

“It’s a wonderful thing being involved in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, but if you’re in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, it is the most elite status and honor that you can receive,” Romick said. “He deserves it because he epitomizes what cowboys are all about.”

Trujillo’s rodeo career is in the rearview mirror, but his love of the sport remains strong.

He still watches rodeo on television, travels to watch his grandsons compete in bullriding and is a huge fan of Hayden cowboy Keenan Hayes, who is the No. 1 bareback rider in the world right now.

The announcement that Trujillo will join the National Rodeo Hall of Fame is just the most recent accolade for the rodeo legend. In 1994 he earned his spot in the Professional Cowboys Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, and he said his induction into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame is special.

“The one in Colorado Springs, the Rodeo Cowboys Hall of Fame is just rodeo,” Trujillo said. “The National Rodeo Hall of Fame includes rodeo cowboys, but also every kind of cowboy. It’s the working cowboys, cow punches, horse trainers and people that have made a big impact on the Western way of life.”

Romick said Trujillo is a great pick for the National Rodeo Hall of Fame because he was a lot more than a competitor. He ran rodeos, taught the generations that followed him and represents what it means to be a cowboy whether he’s in the arena or on the ranch.

“It is literally the pinnacle of the Western honor that you could receive,” Romick said. “J.C. is a real cowboy. He still rides with me and comes and helps me even though he’s 75 years old and going on 76, but he was born a cowboy and always will be a cowboy. He just so happens to be a damn good bareback rider as well.”

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