In case anyone still thinks high school football coaches are infallible, Gay, since becoming a full-time pro rodeo performer in 1972 at 18, has won the world bull-riding championship six times. That's more than anyone except Jim Shoulders, an old family friend who used to baby-sit for Don. If the 27-year-old Gay, who last week led the standings, wins a seventh title, he'll tie Shoulders, but not disappoint him. "I've got more than pride," Shoulders says. "I brag about Donnie and I'm pulling for him as I would for my own son."
Gay's standard line is, "I've never been seriously injured," but he ought to smile when he says that. The cross-bred Brahman bulls he rides weigh anywhere from 1,200 to 2,100 pounds each (at 5'7", Don weighs 148), and they're bred to be mean. In 1979, en route to his fifth championship, Gay was hooked under the left arm by a bull with cracked horns. "Normally a bull's horns are blunt, like the end of a Louisville Slugger," explains Gay, "but these were sharp and he punctured me. They closed me up with 63 stitches." Don was back riding in the National Finals Rodeo 10 days later; he popped most of the stitches in another accident but, he says, "it just didn't seem right for me to back into the championship."
Earlier this month Don tore the ligaments in his right knee, but he competes with it heavily taped rather than opting for surgery. "You don't win a championship by sitting in front of a TV," he says. "Last year I won the title by $188. One rodeo might make the difference." (He won a record $60,639 in 1980, entering 137 events.)
Don's mother, a rodeo barrel racer, died shortly after he was born, and his dad, Neal, relied on buddies like Shoulders to help raise his two sons until he remarried two years later. Now Don earns $130,000 a year, including personal appearance fees and income from a rodeo equipment business in his hometown, and he pilots his own twin-engine Comanche and single-engine Bonanza planes. He lives in a five-bedroom, Spanish-style house in Mesquite with wife Terri, who works as a timer and secretary at her father-in-law's rodeo.
Both have accepted their life-style with equanimity. "You have to work at marriage," says Don. "Each has to make a hell of a lot of concessions, or there'll be a hell of a problem. You can't be married halfway." Terri concedes her husband is sometimes short-tempered, but adds, "He's not as bad as he used to be—he's really sensitive, understanding and open." Which is not to say that Gay can't hold a grudge. After he won his first championship in 1974, he found himself riding in a local parade right next to his old football coach. "We couldn't stand each other, but he said something about me doing so well," Gay recalls. "I said, That's not what you said three years ago, you lousy s.o.b.' "
Don Gay grew up in Mesquite, 15 miles from Dallas, where he helped his father raise livestock for rodeos and played high school football. Then, in his junior year, the coach decided he was falling under evil influences. "Suddenly," Gay recalls bitterly, "this guy says I can't hang around with cowboys. Well, hell, my family was in the business. I told him to take his football and shove it. Then he yelled out, There's a quitter! You're the scum of the earth! You'll never amount to anything.' "