CODY, Wyo. — Dan Mortensen has his own statue. It stands noticeably outside of First Interstate Arena at MetraPark in his hometown of Billings.
That’s what seven world championships and a PRCA Hall of Fame career will do for a guy.
Mortensen earned six of his world titles in saddle bronc, tying the late, great Casey Tibbs for most ever in the event. His seventh was an all-around world title, but now he’s living a full life after rodeo.
The legendary cowboy recently turned 50, is re-married and shares three children under the age of 7 with his wife, Kate. But he’s still involved with the sport that allowed him to retire well before 50. Mortensen helps coach the rodeo team at one of his alma maters, Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., and, naturally, he still shows up to watch PRCA events.
MTN Sports caught up with Mortensen at the Cody Stampede during the chaotic Cowboy Christmas run.
MTN Sports: Do you miss the richest, wildest stretch of rodeo’s regular season?
Dan Mortensen: “I enjoy this time of year now. It’s out of my system enough. I’m far enough removed. The first couple years was all about … I think the trauma, to some extent was still there, but I don’t have that anymore. I just enjoy life and remember and chuckle about the days that we were chasing a dream and living a nightmare, we called it, over the Fourth of July (laughing).”
MTN Sports: Any specific Fourth of July memories that stand out to you?
Mortensen: “I had some great Fourth of Julys. This rodeo (Cody Stampede), I got on Schizo here in 1994. I won the world my first time in ’93 and she was bucking horse of the year 1993, and we matched here in the next year. It was the first time this was a televised rodeo and they had a short round, so that was probably one of my biggest memories from this rodeo.”
MTN Sports: Cody means a lot to a lot of cowboys. I assume you’re one of them?
Mortensen: “I am. I started coming here in high school to that Nite Rodeo. It was just a great training grounds. You could come here, it was professionally run. They ran this rodeo 90 nights in a row starting in June. You could come down here and you learn kind of what what professionalism is in rodeo, that runs that smoothly. I was used to going to the youth rodeos that drag on all day long. You come down here and it was like, ‘Man, this seems professional.’ And at the time it was. You got great training, great experience and then turn pro. Actually, when I first turned pro it wasn’t that big of a rodeo. It was like $3,500 added (money) or something. And Cody made great strides, like, they went from $3,500 to $5,000 to like $20,000 added in just a few years, and became the largest one-head rodeo of the year for us. So it went from kind of a, ‘If you can fit it in’ kind of deal to, in just a few years, it became one of the main stops over the Fourth of July. I attribute it a lot to the committee down here. They strive for excellence, you know? They wanted the best stock, the best performance, the best cowboys, and they knew how to do it. They’ve done a great job.”
MTN Sports: Can you believe that it’s the 100th year of the Cody Stampede? They’re honoring legends, yourself, and some other Montana guys are here. Did you ever think this would be as big of a deal as it’s been in 100 years?
Mortensen: “I guess I never really thought about it, you know? It’s always been a part of my history and I don’t really think that Cody as Montana vs. Wyoming. I went to college and Powell, you know, it’s 22 miles away. This was our stomping grounds right here in Cody. And then I ended up coaching there for a year, too, after I got done rodeoing. And Cody has always seemed kind of like it was one of my hometown rodeos. Anytime you get within a two-hour radius of home, that’s home (laughing). I mean, anytime you’re within two hours you’re spending the night in your own bed. In a certain respect, I felt like it kind of was a hometown rodeo.”
MTN Sports: Your thoughts about the Stampede being inducted to the PRCA Hall of Fame?
Mortensen: “I was actually surprised that it hadn’t been in the past just given the great history of it and everything they’ve done. It’s rodeos like this that make the PRCA the ultimate association, in my opinion. It’s neat.”
MTN Sports: Do you still keep up on the PRCA, the world standings, NFR qualifiers and things like that?
Mortensen: “A little bit, not a whole lot. I actually go down there (to the NFR). I have been last two years, I go down for the first three performances and do some stuff. I kind of need to brush up on what’s going on. Now when I look at the standings, all my old travel partners, it’s their sons (and daughters) that are now going to the national finals. It’s neat and I keep an eye on them guys. I still have guys I root for. Rodeo has a bright future. There’s some great, great young talent coming up. It’s always been that way.”
MTN Sports: I see a couple young ones with you. Are we going to have to keep an eye on their names?
Mortensen: “I don’t know (laughing). I’m holding them out of the competition stuff. My oldest daughter is very competitive and the longer I can keep her having fun with everything, the better off she’s going to be in the long run. Fortunately, we have a couple horses they get to ride home. They love coming to rodeos. I come down and help coach the college team, they practice and Cody, and my oldest daughter comes down with me every time. I think we went to every practice this year and she’d come down every time. She loves rodeo, too, already.”
MTN Sports: It’s interesting you say you still come out and help the college kids. How rewarding has that been for you? That’s obviously something you just made a choice to be in on.
Mortensen: “It is. I owe a lot, personally, to the school, Northwest College in Powell. I pretty much learned how to ride broncs there. Ike Sankey was the coach at the time. He had the Cody Nite Rodeo all summer long. We had a practice pen of probably 100 head of horses and I got to get on a lot of them. That’s where I met Rod Hay, who ended up being the person I travel with most professionally. I met him going to college here, so I have a lot of fond memories and lot of ties back to this. So, it’s neat going to that college, because I get it. I still see the sport of rodeo has good people involved and good young individuals involved, and it does my heart good to see that. And that’s who you’re willing to go out and help and go the extra mile to help people with that quality.”
MTN Sports: You mentioned you’re here a couple nights, maybe Red Lodge tomorrow. Is there anyone here as most specifically excited to see?
Mortensen: “This is a good rodeo. Frontier Rodeo Company does a great job, they’ve got outstanding stock. I’m excited to see the competition. I’m also friends with Brookman Rodeo Company, they put on Red Lodge, so I’m going to get one performance in here, be there, and be back here on (July 3) for the parade. Actually, it’s probably the busiest Fourth of July run I’ve had since 2006 (laughing).”