General Manager of Prescott Frontier Days and Champion Bareback Rider
Interview by Ray Newton
James Charles “J.C.” Trujillo is a native-born Arizonan, who has lived in his hometown of Prescott virtually all his 70 years. As a youngster growing up on a ranch, he decided he wanted to be a rodeo cowboy — and more than that, a champion “bareback rider.” He achieved that ambition when he was a member of the Arizona State University intercollegiate rodeo team, and in 1968 won the intercollegiate bareback riding championship.
A member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) since 1967, Trujillo hit the professional rodeo circuit in 1972 and qualified for 12 national final rodeos. He still holds the World’s Oldest Rodeo Record for five bareback championships.
Now the general manager of the renowned Prescott Frontier Days, Trujillo is married to his wife, Margo, has two daughters and six grandchildren, including two grandsons, who compete in high school rodeos. Perhaps the best descriptors for Trujillo are that he has a captivating megawatt smile, loves to laugh and firmly believes that a positive attitude will win competitions.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Is it true you are a native of Prescott?
J.C. Trujillo: Yes, sir. I was born and raised here in Prescott, Arizona. Actually, my dad came here when he was 4 years old in 1919, so my family has been here since then. We’ve got a long history.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You’ve had a lot of success in your career in rodeo. You started when you were a kid. What prompted you to be a rodeo cowboy?
J.C. Trujillo: I guess that would be my dad Albert. He got my brother and me both started in junior rodeos when I was 6 and my brother, Frank, was 8. We started in junior rodeo right here at the Prescott Frontier Days arena. That was my first rodeo. I won $10.80 when I won second in the calf-riding. I thought I’d never see another poor day after that. My brother Frank and I went all the way through high school rodeos and junior rodeos. Of course, I went on into intercollegiate rodeos at ASU for the rodeo team. While I was there, I won the national championship in bareback riding. After I finished school, I started on the pro rodeo circuit and had a great time.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You mentioned you thought you’d never be broke again. Were you ever broke?
J.C. Trujillo: [Laughs] I spent most of my rodeo career broke. It’s a great sport, but it’s something that you have to really want to do, something that you want to and that you love to do. Now, there’s quite a bit more money in rodeo. When I was rodeoing, and winning there, shoot, I thought I was doing mighty well. And I had a great career. I really enjoyed the whole deal.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Were you ever afraid of being hurt?
J.C. Trujillo: You know, that never really crossed my mind very much until I got a little older. Toward the end of my career, after I had a family, you know I kind of worried a little bit about that. But you can’t worry really at all about that in the rodeo business and be successful, so I didn’t keep it in my head very long.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Were you ever injured?
J.C. Trujillo: Yes. I guess the worst injury I had came from a bronc in the national finals 1983. This bronc broke my ribs, punctured a lung, dislocated my right knee and broke a toe. Other than that, I was OK. Those were the worst injuries and probably the only kind of life-threatening injuries I ever had in the rodeo business. But as I look back at my whole life, I just feel like I’ve been a lucky person all my life. I was blessed with two great parents. I met a wonderful lady that became my wife. We’ve got two great daughters. I have great grandkids. My life’s great, and I just feel like I’ve been real lucky in my life.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You were a star athlete at Prescott High School.
J.C. Trujillo: Well, I don’t know about star. I really enjoyed sports in high school. I played football, and that was really my love. I wrestled a little bit and was on the track team, but football was the one I loved. I really enjoyed the sport and the camaraderie that I grew up with in high school, along with friends that I made here in Prescott. You know, all of that did prepare my body and mental self for the rodeo business. That’s what I tell both grandsons who are involved in junior rodeos and high school rodeos. They both participate in all the high school sports, too, because it doesn’t do anything but make them better.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You attended ASU on a rodeo scholarship and you won that National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association award in the bareback riding, right? Tell us about that.
J.C. Trujillo: Well, you know, it was in 1968. I had qualified in our region – the West Coast region, where ASU is – to go to the national college finals in Sacramento, California, that year. I got to the finals…and I was in the lead with points, and I just had a good finals, and it worked out really well.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How was competition then? Was it as intense as it now?
J.C. Trujillo: Oh, sure. The competition in rodeo has always been mighty intense, whether there’s been big dollars or not. That’s something that doesn’t really change, I don’t think, with the generations.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Where did most of the rodeo kids come from? My experience has been they’re coming out of probably rural communities.
J.C. Trujillo: When I was in college, Arizona had pretty popular rodeo programs around. There were a bunch of California schools, and there still are. Texas and Oklahoma – there are a lot of great rodeo schools there, as well as in Colorado and Wyoming. There are a lot of great opportunities now for young kids to get scholarships to go rodeoing in college. I’m really pushing both my grandsons to go that route. But you’d better have something to fall back on, and that’s why I’m trying to get them to make sure they have their education.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You went to ASU. Did you graduate from there?
J.C. Trujillo: I did, yes, sir – elementary education, believe it or not. I did my student teaching down there at Guadalupe, just south of Tempe. I really enjoyed that. And after I did my student teaching and finished, I hit the rodeo trail and never looked back. I never did teach school. I’ve taught a lot of rodeo clinics – bareback-riding clinics around the country – over the years. I’ve just been real lucky, and I’m glad I became a cowboy.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You were the Rodeo World Champion in 1981. Do you remember what that moment was like?
J.C. Trujillo: I was the bareback-riding world champion. Yes, sir. Well, you know, I had a lifetime dream of being a world champion bareback rider. I started thinking that when I started junior rodeoing here when I was 6 years old. Every aspect of my rodeo career, through the high school rodeos, into college rodeo, and into professional rodeo, all the time in the back of my head I had that long-term lifetime dream of being a world champion. And in 1980, in the fifth go-around, a horse bucked me off at the national finals right at the whistle. That cost me the world championship in 1980. And I think that moment just spurred me on. I hit the road the next year and rodeoed. I went to over 130 rodeos that year – border to border and coast to coast.
PRESCOTT LIVING: That’s one every three days.
J.C. Trujillo: I ended up going to the national finals. I was $233 behind Bruce Ford. He was the former world champion bareback rider. And he and I battled it out through the whole 10 go-arounds in the national finals. I ended up winning the world championship that year, and it was a dream come true for me. And, you know, after that, I really got to thinking that if a guy sets his mind to something, most of the time you can make it work right. If you really believe in yourself, and you really believe in your dreams, you can make things happen. It was a time in my life that I’ll never forget, and you know, after becoming a world champion, that name stays with you for the rest of your life, and that’s pretty cool.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What did you win? Did you win prize money?
J.C. Trujillo: The world champions are decided on the guy who wins the most money (Trujillo points to a saddle mounted on a sawhorse). You can see right there, I won that saddle. Of course, my world champion gold buckle, you know about. There were a lot of prizes involved in that deal. The national finals used to be in Oklahoma City. In 1984 was the last year they were in Oklahoma City, and then they moved into Las Vegas. That was the first year they had the finals in Las Vegas, and that was my 12th national finals. My last national finals (event) was in Las Vegas in 1985. See, these numbers are all national finals numbers (Trujillo gestures to numerous posters mounted on the wall above his desk).
PRESCOTT LIVING: Now, you’ve got the one up there that says “1980, best year of my life.” Explain that to me.
J.C. Trujillo: Well, my daughter Annie put that up there. That’s the year she was born. She was born during the national finals. She wasn’t there. Margo, my wife, was in California, in Red Bluff, and that’s where Annie was born. But the girls helped me put all these posters up. She put that up there (points to a photo). That’s a picture of her.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How many rodeo championships have you won? Have you ever counted them all?
J.C. Trujillo: No, I really haven’t. I was fortunate enough that my hometown rodeo was here in Prescott. In the 131 years they’ve had this rodeo, I won the bareback riding more than anybody has – five times. In Salinas, California, I won that rodeo four different times. That’s a giant rodeo. I never won Cheyenne. I won second at Cheyenne a couple of different times. But, of course, one of the biggest rodeos in the country, the Calgary Stampede, I won the bronze and $53,000 at that rodeo that day.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How many have you been in? Do you even know?
J.C. Trujillo: I couldn’t even tell you. I have a log book that I kept from 1968 until the end of my career. The year that I won the world championship, and the year after, and the year before I went, there were five or six years, I went to over 100 rodeos a year.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Shifting gears. What’s the appeal of rodeo? Why do people like rodeo?
J.C. Trujillo: Well, there are a lot of different reasons. One is, I think, every American kid at one time in his life has sat there in front of the TV or listened to, years ago, the radio with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and different cowboys, and every American kid, I think, no matter where they lived, dreamed of being a cowboy. And, you know, the game of rodeo is the only professional sport that was derived from an industry, the cattle industry. And the other thing is, the sport of rodeo is the only sport that competitors pay their own expenses and pay the entry fee to every rodeo. It’s really a unique sport. But the appeal of rodeo also goes into our heritage, I think, as Americans. And it’s truly an American sport. I think everybody in our country appreciates that, and we have rodeos now all over the country. There are over 700 professional rodeos in the United States. Of course, there are also high school rodeos, junior rodeos and also all kinds of amateur rodeos.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What’s the biggest rodeo in the U.S.?
J.C. Trujillo: The national finals in Las Vegas are the largest, but Rodeo Houston and those in San Antonio, Fort Worth and Denver are all big winter rodeos that have a lot of money in them. Of course, Calgary in the summer is popular.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Is rodeo pretty popular in Canada?
J.C. Trujillo: Yeah, it’s real popular.
PRESCOTT LIVING: In the scheme of things, where does the Prescott rodeo fit in?
J.C. Trujillo: The Prescott Frontier Days is ranked in the top 40 rodeos in the country. And the way they rank those rodeos, of course, is by total payoff. Some of those big rodeos, like Calgary, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Denver. Those rodeos, you know, are million-dollar rodeos. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve done in the last 15 years here at the Prescott Frontier Days. We brought this rodeo from a small rodeo with a great reputation to a great rodeo with a great reputation.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How’d that happen?
J.C. Trujillo: I know one of the main reasons is we have a lot of great volunteers here at the Prescott Frontier Days. Also the town of Prescott and all the businesses here in Prescott really support the rodeo. They know the importance of the rodeo, and that’s what helped this rodeo grow, is the support financially that we’ve gotten from all of our sponsors and supporters.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How do they support it? Tell me the kinds of things they do.
J.C. Trujillo: Here at the Prescott Frontier Days, we have a sponsorship program and it’s all built on dollars from sponsorships – $ 1,500 all the way up to $15,000. Of course, with each sponsorship, the more money you spend, the more advertisement you receive.
And we talk about signage in the arena and mentions by the rodeo announcer during the rodeo. There are a lot of different ways we try to advertise and get exposure for our sponsors. But that’s really the blood that keeps the Prescott Frontier Days running – the local and true sponsors we have who are dedicated to keeping this rodeo going.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Well, as you know, there’s a lot of pride in this town in this rodeo.
J.C. Trujillo: Oh, yes, there sure is. You know, a lot of times people say, “Oh, you’re from Prescott where that rodeo is. Oh, yeah, we know where Prescott is. We went to the rodeo.”
PRESCOTT LIVING: Prescott is known for having the “World’s Oldest Rodeo.” Define that for us. Were there rodeos before Prescott?
J.C. Trujillo: Sure. Prescott didn’t have the first rodeo, but Prescott had the first rodeo that put together a set of rules. Prescott had the first rodeo that charged admission creating a fan base, and Prescott Rodeo was the first to charge an entry fee to the cowboy. And putting all that together, we were lucky enough to meet all of the requirements. When we tried to trademark the name “World’s Oldest Rodeo®,” that’s how it all came about.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How much have you grown? How does now compare to 15 years ago?
J.C. Trujillo: Well, you know, our probably total payoff … I’d have to look…was maybe less than $100,000 15 years ago. Last year, we paid out $260,000 in prizes.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Over a quarter million.
J.C. Trujillo: $260,000. And this year in 2018, our board of directors has added some more money to our prize money, so we’re going higher this year. And that’s all because of the sponsors, of course. About every year, we break records in ticket sales here. We have a great marketing team. Tricia Lewis does all the marketing for us, and every year has gotten better. The deal with this – not in my generation – buy tickets online and print them at home – that thing has gone crazy for us.
PRESCOTT LIVING: That’s great.
J.C. Trujillo: Unbelievable. We started selling tickets Dec. 15. We do it every year just before Christmas because a lot people ought to buy them for Christmas presents, and it’s just gone nuts. We’re way ahead of last year right now on that pre-sale. It’s great.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Are you going to outgrow the facilities?
J.C. Trujillo: We’ve got plans to add some more bleachers, for sure. We’ve got the lease here for the next 25 years from the city.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What challenges do you see in the future?
J.C. Trujillo: In the rodeo business, there are always challenges. One pretty major challenge in the rodeo business in general is animal rights groups. They don’t understand the rodeo business and don’t understand that how all these animals are really treated. That has created a problem. But if we keep all of our congressmen and senators and everything supporting America’s only No. 1 sport, then we can keep it alive.
The other challenge in rodeo today is being able to bring in a new generation. You know, it’s real easy to pick up a ball and bat and a glove and go play baseball, but you can’t just go get on a bronc or get on a bull. That’s why we really support all these junior rodeo and high school rodeo associations. That’s where the next generation of cowboys is coming from, the rodeo athletes. We need to keep that thing going for sure.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Is that number growing or remaining stable?
J.C. Trujillo: Well, in the timed events, it’s growing, I think. In a lot of the rough stock events, it’s declining, because it’s a darn sure rough business. I went up to the high school national finals in Gillette, Wyoming this last summer when my grandson J.C. was riding up there. That’s the biggest rodeo, contestant-wise, in the world. Isn’t that something? There were, I think, 1,700 contestants in the high school national finals.
PRESCOTT LIVING: A couple of fun questions for you. Who’s your favorite cowboy star?
J.C. Trujillo: My favorite cowboy star? Holy cow, I’d have to say Gene Autry or Audie Murphy, maybe.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Audie Murphy? (Editor’s Note: Audie Murphy was a World War II veteran, who was the most decorated war hero of his time. He became a movie star in several award-winning Western films, including the autobiographical “To Hell and Back”).
J.C. Trujillo: [Laughs]
PRESCOTT LIVING: How many people even know who he is? [Laughs]
J.C. Trujillo: [Laughs] Right.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Came from Texas.
J.C. Trujillo: Yeah. And of course, there’s Roy Rogers. I have to tell you a story. One time, I was in college, and it was after I won the college championship. There was a western wear company called Prior Western Wear. They were having a big banquet with all their marketing people, and they had invited me to go to this dinner. I didn’t know it, but Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were going to be there. So they had, you know, 100 people there, or hundreds, and they had them sitting in different spots. I sat right across the table from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. And I’m just trying to be the best I can be, you know.
They serve a big wedge of lettuce. And it’s all sitting in front of everybody, and there they are, right across from me. I put my napkin on my lap and I went to cut that lettuce, and the whole thing slipped off on my lap. So here’s a whole table full of people, and they’re just starting to eat, and my plate’s empty. [Laughs] So I grab the lettuce and put it back up on the plate. I can just imagine what old Roy Rogers was telling his wife that night when they got home, “Did you see that goofball across the table from us, dropped his lettuce on his lap and put it back on the plate?” [Laughs]
PRESCOTT LIVING: Oh, that’s funny! What’s your favorite cowboy movie?
J.C. Trujillo: Tombstone.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Which one? The most recent one?
J.C. Trujillo: The one with Val Kilmer. That was a great movie. Plus, I had three or four horses and a couple mules in that movie, and they were needing some different animals, and shoot, it ended up being a pretty good deal, you know. That was a big deal.
PRESCOTT LIVING: How many kids do you have?
J.C. Trujillo: I’ve got two daughters.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Where are they?
J.C. Trujillo: Annie is right here in Chino Valley. Sammie Lou and her husband, they run the Long Meadow Ranch out here, so they’re here. I’ve also got six grandkids. Sammie and Ivan have two – a boy and a girl, and Annie and Judd have four – three boys and one girl.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Do they like rodeo? Are they following in your footsteps?
J.C. Trujillo: Well, I don’t know if I’d like them to follow in my footsteps completely, but, that J.C. Mortensen and his brother, Jaxton, they’re both in high school and junior high rodeos, and they’re both doing mighty good. (Editor’s note: The two are grandsons) They’re both competing, as I was telling you, in all kinds of different sports and whatever. They’re sure making their granddad proud, I’ll tell you that.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Another question. What do the initials J.C. stand for?
J.C. Trujillo: I was named James Charles Trujillo. My folks always called me J.C., so I’ve always been J.C. I remember in high school, somebody would say, “Well, is James here?” Nobody would answer. But J.C.? “Oh, yeah, that’s me,” you know. I had never gone by James very much, you know. [Laughs]
PRESCOTT LIVING: What advice do you have for people who come to a rodeo who’ve never seen one before? My wife and I bring visitors here. They’ve never seen one.
J.C. Trujillo: You’ve got to really explain it to a person who hasn’t ever really seen rodeo. And to begin with, you’ve got to tell them that this derived from working cattle ranches.
The calf roping and the team roping is where you were doctoring cattle. The steer wrestling, of course, is just a rodeo event. There are only two real rodeo events that were started in rodeo. One of them was bulldogging, (also called) steer wrestling. The other one was bareback riding. The saddle bronc riding was ranch-raised. Bull riding didn’t happen on ranches either.
I used to always laugh. My dad never liked me riding bulls because he was always afraid I’d get hurt and couldn’t ride bareback horses, you know. He used to tell me, “You know, if I was running a ranch,” he said, “and a guy come riding in on a horse, I might hire him. But if he come riding in on a bull, I’d run him off.”
JC Trujillo Timeline
- Age 6, started in junior rodeos at the Prescott Frontier Days arena
- Star athlete at Prescott High School
- 1967 member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA)
- 1968 ASU rodeo team (on rodeo scholarship) – won the national championship in bareback riding
- 1968 won the intercollegiate bareback riding championship.
- 1972 started the professional rodeo circuit
- 1981 World Rodeo Champion
- last national finals (event) was in Las Vegas in 1985.