Friends remember Lane Frost and his giant legacy 25 years after his death.
There are moments in life, the importance of which, aren’t truly realized until days and even sometimes years later.
For Cody Lambert, one such moment was a conversation with Lane Frost that took place on an early-morning flight from Texas to Colorado the day before the 25-year-old’s untimely death on July 30, 1989.
The travel plans that weekend were meticulously laid out compared to those of other athletes on the rodeo trail in the 1980s.
Jim Sharp, Tuff Hedeman and Frost were in the Friday afternoon draw in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Sharp won the round and Frost was second before chartering a private plane down to Weatherford, Texas, for another rodeo that same night. They arrived just in time for the opening ceremony and joined Lambert and a young 19-year-old phenom named Ty Murray.
All five rode together that night.
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It would be the last time Lambert, Frost, Hedeman, Sharp and Murray were all in the same bull riding draw together.
On the morning of Saturday, July 29, they boarded a commercial flight from Dallas to Denver. It was a fairly empty flight, so Hedeman, Sharp and Murray each had a row to themselves, reared their seats back and went to sleep.
Frost did not like flying much.
Lambert was an early riser and not one to sleep on planes.
Despite the empty seats, they sat together and talked.
“We talked about a lot of things,” recalled Lambert, who often thinks about his last long conversation with Frost. “There were a lot of things going on in both our lives. We talked about our wives and my young son and we talked about Ty and I rodeoing together. Lane talked about how much fun it looked like we were having and how Ty looked like he had really matured in the year and a half since he had known him. It was just one of those slow, easy laid back, but serious at times, conversations.
“I had no idea it would be our last really good talk.”
After arriving in Denver, Hedeman, Sharp and Frost caught a second flight to Great Falls, Montana, where they met up with Clint Branger and drove up to a rodeo north of the U.S. border in Medicine Hat, Alberta, while Lambert and Murray drove Sharp’s van, which had been parked outside the Denver airport, to Cheyenne.
Lambert and Murray, both of whom entered multiple rough stock events, rode in Cheyenne that afternoon and then booked a room at the Little America Hotel & Resort on the outskirts of town along the Interstate. At the time, it was considered the nicest place to stay.
Lambert then called Hedeman’s wife Tracy to leave a message letting Tuff and the others know which room they were in that night.
On their way out of Medicine Hat, Norman Curry, who sat up front with Frost, hitched a ride south and the two drove more than 13 hours down to Cheyenne, while Hedeman, Sharp and Branger slept in the back.
“I had known Norman for a year or two,” Lambert said, “but it was the first time Lane had really got a chance to talk to him and Lane always liked to get to know the new guy.”
The two talked the whole night.
Frost was genuinely interested in who people were and where they came from, but he also knew well-and-good it put the newcomers at ease, made them feel special and eased the overwhelming intimidation of traveling with World Champions.
Hedeman had won the world in 1986 followed by Frost in 1987 and then in 1988 it was Sharp, who won the coveted gold buckle.
Curry was the last person to have any sort of sustained and substantial conversation with Frost.
Cody Lambert, Lane Frost and Tuff Hedeman in 1986. Photo by Sue Rosoff's Rodeo Photographs.
The five men arrived at the sprawling Little America about 7 a.m.
Lambert and Murray gave their beds to Frost and Curry, while they went to breakfast with Hedeman, Sharp and Branger.
“They took a good nap because they had sat up all night,” recalled Lambert. “When we came back we joked around like we always did and then it was time to hit the showers, clean up and go to the rodeo, so we went out there and it was just like any other time. We intended to win.”
That day – Sunday, July 30, 1989 – Lambert had only qualified for the final round in the saddle bronc riding.
“I don’t remember much about it,” Lambert said. “I remember not doing that good, but I remember the bulls the other guys rode. Tuff rode a bull called Ambush and made a really good ride and then Clint Branger rode a bull called Stinger … and all this time I was getting ready to pull Lane’s rope and we were talking.
“Everybody knows what happened after that.”
Frost was the second to last out on Takin’ Care of Business.
Murray was on horseback during the bull riding event.
Sharp watched through the slats of the gate from the back of his bull, while Branger was on the opposite side of the chutes – “crying in my milk” – after getting bucked off right at the whistle. The Montana native wasn’t watching closely, but saw the wreck from afar – Frost was unable to roll to safety in the rain-soaked mud – and said, “It looked like he damn-sure was hurt. He got up, took a few steps and then collapsed.”
Hedeman was the first man over the fence followed by Lambert and others before the medical team helped Frost from the arena.
Sharp said he had no idea the severity of the injuries – “I had seen him get in bigger wrecks than that nearly every week” – so he went ahead and pulled his rope and finished off a tough final round with a qualified ride.
“I went to see how he was and, shit, everybody was going crazy,” Sharp remembered.
Branger added, “When I went behind the bucking chutes it just hit me. Then, of course, everyone’s emotions—there was damn sure a different feel. It was like everybody got slapped in the face and some shit just really happened here and it’s not good. I think everybody kind of went into a state of shock.”
The crew, which years earlier had been dubbed the Wolf Pack by rodeo reporter Kendra Santos, grabbed their gear bags and headed to the hospital.
Hedeman was in the ambulance with Frost.
The others were following close behind in Sharp’s van.
“He died on the way to the hospital,” Sharp said. “It’s one of them deals that don’t seem real, at first, but it is. … It’s hard to believe. I don’t know. It seemed like maybe you were dreaming, but you weren’t. It was a tough day.”
Frost had been hit twice from behind. Only later did anyone realize that on the second hit he was gored with a horn that broke his ribs and severed an artery. He suffered internal bleeding and died within minutes of the wreck.
For whatever its worth, Marty Staneart won the round with a great effort on Mr. T, but years later Lambert, who has a near-photographic memory of bull rides, scores and event results, still doesn’t care to know who won the event.
“It just ruined everything about it,” said Lambert, who paused to think about his lost, but never-forgotten friend. “It doesn’t matter. It never did.”
Just like that rodeo – more specifically bull riding – had lost someone who was more than a champion.
The sport was without the sparkling smile of Frost’s inviting persona and the popularity of a charismatic young man continues to transcend well-beyond the reaches of the western way of life. He was everything bull riding could have wanted: young, good looking, personable and a winner.
In the ensuing years Frost has become something of an enigma.
Even in death, as the sport’s popularity continues to grow and reach foreign lands as far away as Australia (and, most recently China), so too has the legacy of Lane Frost.
He’s as popular today – if not more so – as he was at any point during his illustrious career. Less a pillar of what might have been, the icon’s accomplishments have become legendary.
By the time he graduated from Atoka (Oklahoma) High School, in 1982, he was a three-time state bull riding champion at the Oklahoma Youth Rodeo Association and won the inaugural Youth National Finals a year after claiming the National High School Rodeo Association title in 1981.
In 1983, he was the PRCA Rookie of the Year.
He then qualified for the National Finals Rodeo five years in a row beginning in 1984. In 1986, he finished second in the world behind Hedeman and was the top-money earner. In 1987, he accomplished a life-long dream of being a World Champion.
A year later, he competed in the Winter Olympics, in Calgary, where he won an individual bronze medal and claimed the gold as a member of the U.S. team. He also was famously matched up with Red Rock in a best of seven series dubbed “Challenge of the Champions.”
Frost got the better of the reigning World Champion Bull, riding Red Rock four of the seven times.
“Lane was 25 when he died,” Branger said. “He wasn’t even to his prime. He still had his best years left in him.”
His final season – though incomplete – was a challenging endeavor of another sort.
“He was having a tough time,” Sharp recalled.
Sharp and Branger both hated using the word “slump,” but, like all bull riders eventually experience, Frost had been struggling prior to entering Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“He was fixing to get on a hot streak,” said Sharp, who like so many others talked at length about Frost outside of the arena. “He was always smiling.”
Sharp added, “When we were signing autographs he’d stay until the last kid. He enjoyed everybody. He was there for everybody and it wasn’t just an act. He’d set and talk to a guy and get to know him.”
That part of his personality was a direct result of two influential moments as a young up-and-comer.
As a boy, his father Clyde Frost took him behind the chutes one day to meet his hero Donnie Gay. The eight-time World Champion was busy and didn’t have time for another in a long line of would-be autograph-seekers.
Frost was hurt.
He vowed to always make time for fans, especially kids, and years later admitted he was equally bothered by the fact that Gay was wearing tennis shoes and smoking a cigarette. Frost, who on another occasion asked Gay about a bull only to be told he had out-drawn his ability, but ought to try him anyway because that’s what cowboys do, always wore long sleeve, button-down shirts, Wranglers and cowboy boots.
For those wondering about the outcome, of course, he rode that bull.
Frost was a tried-and-true cowboy, who gave it everything he had in every aspect of life.
And to him cowboys tipped their hats when greeting women, offered the hand of a friend to fellow men and words of encouragement to young up-and-coming bull riders.
He was that way when he met then 11-year-old Mike White in Cheyenne the year before his death and he was that way, in 1987, at a rodeo in San Antonio, when he saw 12-year-old J.W. Hart.
Hart was waiting to get on a steer during the intermission break.
He was the only boy among the eight who was not from Texas and so he was excluded from a lot of the conversations among the other boys, who all seemed to know one another from various rodeos around Texas.
Hart, who had met Frost a year earlier, said they were all standing in a single file line quietly waiting their turn and he never realized anyone walked up behind him until he felt a slap on the chest.
“Of course, that was before the vest and it was pretty hard,” Hart said. “I was like, wow, what in the heck? I turned around and it was Lane Frost. All the other kids eyes looked like saucer plates. … I was like, ‘You all can’t beat me today. You all are shit outta luck and I’m way cooler than you all, if you ain’t already noticed.’”
Not only did Frost recognize him from his bull riding school a year earlier, but he remembered Hart’s name.
More importantly, he helped Hart out with his chute procedure that afternoon.
“That just meant so much to me,” said Hart, who was made to feel like they were travel partners. “As a kid trying to be what he was, he knew who I was and that’s hard to put into words.”
Looking back, many years later, and reminiscing about the stories like Hart and White shared as well as the trials and tribulations of life on the road, for Lambert, it all circles back to one coveted moment.
Pausing again to either collect his thoughts or spend a brief moment alone with the thought of his friend, Lambert nods agreement.
The 52-year-old is thankful he never reared his seat back, like the others, on their last of so many flights together for nap the morning before Frosts’ untimely death.
Life is precious.
However, the memories are priceless.
“I never really talked about it because I never felt comfortable,” Lambert said. “Everybody knew we were friends and stuff, but I never felt comfortable. I felt like I was exploiting his death, so I’ve done interviews and answered questions about him and stuff, but I never explained too much about that. We had serious talks now and then. We had good talks.”
Lambert continued, “There were lots of conversations we had that were great, private conversations and memories that I really treasure and that last conversation was one of those. It’s one of those things that’s priceless. Nobody else experienced it and nobody else knows it, but it was one of those good times when you know you have a close friend and you get to spend some quality time together. Ty and I have had a lot of those types of talks since then. My wife and I have those kind of talks all the time. My son and I have those talks. It might not be any important subjects and it might just be what’s going on in our lives, where we’re at, at that point in our lives, but it’s nice to have that memory.”
Photographs by Sue Rosoff’s Rodeo Photographs. Visit on Facebook here: http://www.facebook.com/SueRosoffsRodeoPhotography?ref=hl, and visit the Lane Frost Remembrances Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/LaneFrostRemembrances?ref=hl.