Kenny Wilcox, the pride of Greenbrier

Rodeo king Kenny Wilcox, born in Conway in 1954, grew up amongst ponies, horses and cows on his family’s Greenbrier farm, but he didn’t get a saddle until he was 12. Having already clocked countless unsupervised hours riding bareback with his brother, his path to championship bull riding was set.

“It’s a reflex more than a big game plan,” he told me. He learned to rope at the same time and in a similarly organic fashion: “I’d probably roped my grandpa’s foot 50,000 times by the time I was 6 years old.” Since Wilcox never had any formal training, he attributes most of his eventual prowess to those years spent messing around.


After rodeoing his way through high school and college (for which he received scholarships at Arkansas State University Beebe and Oklahoma Panhandle State University), Wilcox started traveling the country to compete. “In the mid- to late-70s, I just got around the best I could,” he said. What he means is that when he wasn’t stealing rides from other competitors, he mostly hitchhiked. A reliable strategy involved digging an old tire out of a ditch, rolling it down the side of the road and waiting for a driver to pull over to help with the flat, only to bait-and-switch and say he needed a ride, at which point the driver had already stopped, so they usually let him hop in. In 1978, he got his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) card, available to those who have won $1,000 in prize money at PRCA-sanctioned events. 

During his first professional year, Wilcox knocked his shoulder out of socket and broke his collarbone in Atlanta, setting him back for the remainder of the season. When he re-entered the scene the next year, he broke his sternum. He took some time off to lease and run an Exxon gas station on I-40, but his mindset about the healing process was shockingly cavalier: “I got mended up” was all he had to say. With $2,800 in his pocket from a rodeo in Fort Smith, he called his father and told him to “do whatever you want with that service station, cuz I can rodeo all summer on this.” 


Kenny Wilcox

By 1980, he made it to the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), an annual championship popularly known as the “Super Bowl of rodeo,” which showcases the top 15 money-winners of the season. He competed in the NFR in 1981, 1982 and 1983. His absence in 1984 was due to a severe groin (pronounced “grow-in” by Wilcox) muscle injury that he never fully recovered from. “They don’t ever attach back,” he said.


With classic Kenny Wilcox resilience, he returned to the NFR in 1985. “I still don’t know how I did that.” Eventually though, once the injury and his natural aging was coupled with another big life moment a month later — his wedding — Wilcox decided to retire. 

In college, Wilcox competed in almost every event — bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, team roping and steer wrestling. But as a professional, he was best at bull riding. Counter to my suburban obliviousness, a good score in bull riding has nothing to do with how long you manage to hold on. You either successfully weather 8 seconds of bucking with your free hand whipping in the air, or you get a score of zero. If you make it, your score comes from judges, who evaluate the rider and bull for their control and intensity, respectively.

During his prime, Wilcox was competing around 100 times a year. When I asked if there’s any continental states he hadn’t competed in, he was doubtful: “There might be some little old state in the Northeast that I didn’t [ride] in, but I’ve been through there.” His greatest accomplishment might be winning “the average” at the 1980 NFR, which means he had the best combined results of anyone at the championship over 10 days of events. Through the years, he received buckles, spurs, watches, guns, rings, photographs and other memorabilia in celebration of all his wins, but the vast majority of it burned up in a fire at his parent’s house in 1983 or 1984.

Despite that loss, his legacy has not been forgotten. On May 20, Wilcox — who still lives in Greenbrier on his family’s land — will make a trek to Fort Worth, where he’ll be inducted into the Bull Riding Hall of Fame. In the presence of his family and friends, he’ll get to tell a few wild stories about his rodeo days. “When I was rodeoing, I always had a good time,” he said. “Travel was an adventure. The whole deal was like an adventure. I always had fun with it. It was the closest thing to nothing that I ever called a job. I was just living the dream.”