Back When They Bucked with J.C. Trujillo

by Lily Landreth

[ “Never did I think I would be that caliber of cowboy to be inducted into the hall of fame.” ]

“I think I was just cut out to be a bareback rider. I love that event and the attitude it took to be a bareback rider. And a bunch of my lifetime heroes ended up being bareback riders. It was what turned me on,” says J.C. Trujillo. When the Arizona-born cowboy nodded his head and burst into the sport of rodeo as a child, it swiftly became a way of life, presenting him with opportunities, lifelong friendships, and numerous accomplishments, which he rode to the buzzer and continues to enjoy today. One of these accolades includes his induction in November to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, an honor that J.C. says comes from the many people who stood behind him all his life.
Born May 10, 1948, in Prescott, Arizona, J.C. started rodeoing at age 6. He and his older brother and sister, Frank and Irene, were launched into the sport by their parents, Albert and Stella Trujillo. “My mom and dad were so instrumental through my whole rodeo career that I just wish they were here to see this also,” says J.C. of his recent induction. “They drug us around to rodeos, paid entry fees, bought horses and horse trailers. They were by no means wealthy people, but we pinched our pennies and got to all our rodeos. Every honor I receive is because of my mom and dad.”
J.C. and his siblings and cousin, Joe Vecere, who grew up with them, competed in all the events of the Arizona Junior Rodeo Association. J.C. moved into high school rodeo and won state his senior year in the bareback riding, traveling with his dad to the NHSFR held in Watonga, Oklahoma in 1966. On the way, they stopped at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and walked through the hall of fame. “Never did I think I would be that caliber of cowboy to be inducted into the hall of fame.”
J.C. took third in the nation at the NHSFR, and despite his rodeo successes, thought he wanted to be a football player. He joined the Eastern Arizona Junior College team in 1967. “Those were big guys. I was too little and too slow, and it was a good thing, because they were the ones who convinced me I wanted to be a bareback rider. I was only there for a semester and then I went to Mesa Community College and rodeoed on their team.” From there, J.C. competed on the Arizona State University rodeo team, winning the college finals in 1968. He had already obtained his PRCA card in 1967 and pro rodeoed while finishing his degree in elementary education, graduating from ASU in 1972. “But I went to rodeoing and never used it. But teaching runs in my blood, because I used what I gained there to do rodeo schools all over the country.” J.C. taught with his good friend and a fellow rodeo champion, saddle bronc rider Shawn Davis, along with champion bull rider John Davis, and later, Gary Leffew. “We did three or four a year while we were going down the road, sometimes more. I really enjoyed those schools. It was fun to get to know the kids and I could see myself in a lot of them, trying to learn how to win.”
Winning came to J.C. with hard work and the sacrifice of thousands of miles on the road. He crisscrossed the country, sometimes flying but more often driving. J.C. clinched more than 30 PRCA wins alongside his 12 qualifications to the NFR, including the Turquoise Circuit title in 1975, Mountain States Circuit title in 1985, four wins at California Rodeo Salinas, two at the Pendleton Round-Up, four at his hometown World’s Oldest Rodeo Prescott Frontier Days, and many more. One of his most unique achievements was splitting the bareback riding title with T.J. Walter at the Command Performance Rodeo in 1983, a White House invitation-only event. President Ronald Reagan awarded them their buckles.
J.C. won the world title at the NFR in 1981, a newlywed to his wife Margo, the backbone of their rodeo life, whom he married in 1980. They met through mutual rodeo friends, and Margo was no stranger to the rodeo world, having grown up with her brothers, John and Mike, who eventually founded Growney Brother Rodeo Company in 1979. Margo and J.C. welcomed their two daughters, Annie and Sammie, into the world, and the family traveled to as many of J.C.’s rodeos as possible, sometimes sleeping overnight in a van. There were not luxurious living quarters trailers at the time. They made Steamboat Springs, Colorado their home in the early 1980s. J.C. purchased a 50-acre ranch outside of town with his $50,000 winnings from the Calgary Stampede, won in 1982. “I had a friend that owned it, and when he was changing things around, I bought it. I’d seen so many people in the rodeo business that did well, but when they retired they ended up with nothing to show for it. But we were fortunate enough that we have a little to show for it, other than great memories.”
A year later, J.C.’s rodeo career took a hit when he got hung up on a bronc during the 1983 NFR in Oklahoma City. He was aboard Jim Sutton’s bronc Big Bud when he got hung up, dislocating his knee, breaking several ribs, and puncturing a lung. J.C. sat out much of the 1984 season as he recovered, competing in enough rodeos to land him in the top 20 that year. He contemplated retirement, but wanted to experience the finals one last time, which moved to Las Vegas in 1985. “I made the finals that year, but I was missing a pretty important part of raising kids and it was time for me to bow out. That year at the finals I was 36, the oldest guy in the bareback riding there. I won third in the average and about $28,000 and thought it was time to quit. It was pretty important for me to quit a winner.”
J.C. traded his bronc rein for ski poles after that, taking a job in the race department at the Steamboat Ski Area. Margo also worked there, teaching in the ski school. A few years earlier in 1982, J.C. had attended the second Cowboy Downhill after hearing what fun it was from all his friends who attended the year before. “I’d never been on skis, but I went to the Cowboy Downhill and started skiing, and it became a great love of mine.” Larry Mahan, who was one of the founders of the Cowboy Downhill, introduced J.C. to Billy Kidd, an Olympic skier who lives in Steamboat, and the two champions of their sports hit it off. As part of the race crew, J.C. set up courses and prepared the ski mountain for everything from world cup competitions to amateur races. “I got to hang out with guys who really skied well, like Billy Kidd, Hank Kashiwa, Dick Haller, and Jim “Moose” Barrows, who were pro ski racers. One of the reasons I liked it so well was that ski racing and rodeo had a lot of things in common. Both are a single sport, not a team sport. It was me and a bareback horse or me and the ski mountain, and I liked that challenge,” says J.C. who was even invited to a celebrity ski race in Vale, Colorado by President Gerald Ford.
Never one to let the grass grow beneath his cowboy boots, J.C. ran an outfitting business from his and Margo’s ranch for more than 20 years. He guided elk hunts, along with three or four other guides he hired, and Margo hosted and cooked for the visiting hunters, even packing a few elk out herself. “We had six mules and about ten saddle horses, and when they started getting old and I started getting old, we decided it was time to bow out. Our last year was in about 2017.”
While running the outfitting business, J.C. also divided his time between Colorado and Arizona, working as the general manager of Prescott Frontier Days from 2004 until 2020. He and Margo had moved back to Prescott, where J.C.’s parents were still living at the time. “I enjoyed it. It was being part of the rodeo business, and it was a whole different experience on the other side of the fence. We were there for 16 years and then we decided we needed to spend more time in our Colorado place. Now we spend most of our time up here.”
J.C. and Margo know the road between Colorado and Arizona well, however. They spend their winters in Aguila, Arizona, heading south in their RV before too much snow accumulates at their ranch, which sits at about 8,000 feet with the National Forest out their back gate. They load up their horses and stay at Silver Bit Ranch, owned by their friend Scott Whitworth. “We stay until the snow is about gone, which is late April or early May. Margo and I both team rope. She’s a really good header and a really good heeler, so I just do whatever other end. We jackpot a little bit but not much. We’re practicers, and we enjoy the camaraderie and being horseback.”
Their two daughters and their families also live in Arizona. J.C. and Margo’s seven grandchildren all rodeo, from the Arizona Junior Rodeo Association all the way up to the professional level. Their grandson JC Mortensen finished 21st in the PRCA bull riding this season, and his brother Jaxton Mortensen, competes in the PBR.
All of their children and grandchildren attended J.C.’s induction into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, along with his brother and sister, cousin, and members of Margo’s family. “I was thrilled in 1994 when they inducted me into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, and to be in the same halls as all my rodeo heroes I had in my lifetime is just unbelievable for me. It’s very surreal. Probably the biggest honor I have received is that my family can be part of it.”

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