December 5-14, 2024


Live Like Cotton

Jun 30, 2022

Live Like Cotton

Cotton Rosser 1928-2022

When I heard of the passing of Cotton Rosser, my first thought was of the huge hole that is being felt by so many people. And as I delved into my own memories of him, I thought about what a better place the world would be if we all lived like Cotton. 

Cotton was born in Long Beach, California in 1928, and I’m sure his parents never dreamed what their baby boy would accomplish. Supplying him with books and magazines as a child led to a love of all things Western. He never wanted to be anything but a cowboy. 

Cotton got a job at a ranch on Catalina Island when cowboys were called away to fight in World War II. He was barely into double digits and showed the Wrigley family (of Wrigley chewing gum) just how hard he was willing to work and learn. He went to school half days, cleaned stalls, hauled manure, and got to ride a donkey named Jack. He rode that donkey to deliver newspapers.

He started riding bulls when he was 13. Three years later he was riding saddle bronc horses too and eventually competed in all of the rodeo events. After high school, he moved 200 miles north to San Luis Obispo to attend Cal Poly State University. 

The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) hosted their first National Finals in San Francisco at the Cow Palace Arena. Cotton was among the competitors at that event in 1949 where he placed in four events and was the reserve champion all-around cowboy. He competed at the event at the Cow Palace again in 1950. When dates were an issue the next year, the event moved to Fort Worth. In true “get it done” Cotton Rosser fashion, he used his pilot’s skills to fly the team to the rodeo.

Cotton Rosser – Saddle Bronc Riding Champion at the Cow Palace in 1951.

When Cal Poly hosted their first NIRA-sanctioned event, Cotton won the all-around championship. He was a Cal Poly Mustang for life, and saw his children and grandchildren get their educations at the storied institution. He served as team captain for the rodeo, got an animal science degree and started a winning tradition that includes 42 national championships. In April of this year, Cotton attended a ceremony where they named and dedicated their facilities to him. The sign that welcomes students and fans to the Cotton Rosser Rodeo Complex will be a wonderful reminder of his legacy there. 

Karin (Cotton’s wife), Cotton Rosser and their daughter Katherine Rosser in front of the Cotton Rosser Rodeo Complex sign at Cal Poly State University – San Luis Obispo.

The lists of awards and honors for Cotton is long, but his real reward was his family and friends and the life that he lived as a cowboy. He received an honorary doctorate degree from California State University and Cal Poly and was Alumnus of the Year in 2016. 

“I wore this white hat for 60 years after I graduated from Cal Poly,” he said at the time. “In my business you don’t get rich, but you live like you’re rich. Rich with memories. I’ve got the most best friends and memories in the world. It couldn’t get any better than that.” 

After college, Cotton continued to travel and compete, loving and living the life of a rodeo cowboy. He won the wild cow milking contest at Cheyenne Frontier Days. He earned the saddle bronc riding title at the Reno Rodeo. 

He had moved to Marysville and was building fence on his property when he got crosswise with a post hole digger. Two broken legs and a prognosis that didn’t include competing saw him take up the next chapter of his life. He bought the Flying U Rodeo company in 1956 and his focus changed to producing rodeos and entertainment. 

He was known as the P.T. Barnum of rodeo because of his love for entertaining the crowd. He was always seeking new acts to add to the rodeo and was an iconic figure horseback in the arena with that white hat that he was quick to tip to the fans.

I’m one of those fans and had the privilege of spending a couple days at the Flying U Ranch. I was working on a story about stock contractors preparing for rodeos. The whole crew was busy getting ready for the Reno Rodeo which Cotton had produced for more than 60 years.

A smile at the camera from Cotton Rosser.

I’d watched them shoe saddle horses, gather and sort bucking bulls and horses, pack a tack trailer and a variety of other things. Of course, there were everyday ranch chores to be done and here comes Cotton on a big tractor after picking up feed tubs. He sees me with my camera and promptly gives me a smile and a tip of his hat. That’s a picture that I will treasure forever. 

When I read that Cotton had tipped his hat one last time, it was a perfect tribute to a man who was known for that. He was one of the most patriotic individuals to ever grace a rodeo arena. He loved this country, he loved his family, he loved the animals and rodeo and he loved his friends. 

Cotton took in many young people through the years and gave them the opportunity to see what they were made of. One of those was Bob Tallman. 

“Cotton was instrumental in my career from the start,” Tallman said. “I’ve known him since I was 12. I went to Cal Poly because of him. My first white hat I ever bought was from Cotton’s Cowboy Corral at the Cow Palace. 

“He introduced me to more than 10,000 people. He reaffirmed the fact that I was doing the right thing just being me. I’ve done a lot of things because of Cotton Rosser, and I don’t have a single bad memory, no regrets with him, because of him or for him. He gave me the opportunity to fulfill every wish and dream I ever had, even those wishes and dreams that I didn’t know I had.” 

Bob has been the announcer at the Reno Rodeo for many of the years that Flying U has been producing it. In 1974, he got to make the announcement that Cotton’s third son had arrived who was aptly named Reno. Reno’s birthday now will forever be shared with his father’s passing on June 22nd.

When they got the news, they immediately planned a tribute. Reno lead Cotton’s horse around the arena. Boots were backwards in the stirrups, Cotton’s chaps and that famous white hat were placed over the saddle horn. They circled around the mares and colts that have become a fan-favorite. Cindy Rosser, Cotton’s oldest daughter, and the secretary at the Reno Rodeo, was horseback in the arena and held a place with the pickup men. It was just as Cotton would have wanted. He loved those mares and colts and showcasing a born to buck program to the fans. 

And the P.T. Barnum in him would have said “The show must go on,” and it did – in Cotton Rosser fashion.  He made an impact on every person that knew him and many that just benefitted from that tip of a hat, smile or kind word as he was riding one of their many Paint horses around the arena. 

Cotton at the Thomas & Mach during the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

“My dad was a task master,” Cindy Rosser said. “He kept us busy growing up and we all benefitted from having him as a father. The memories that people are sharing of him help ease the loss. It’s incredible how many lives he touched.” 

The Rosser family and friends will gather together on July 19th to celebrate Cotton’s life. The service will take place at the Hard Rock Live in Wheatland, California. Let’s all work to carry on Cotton’s legacy, to tip our hats, give a friendly smile, wave, share opportunities, be patriotic, love our lives, and Live Like Cotton