National Day of the Cowboy: Tuff Hedeman

This Saturday, July 23rd marks the National Day of the Cowboy, a full 24 hours devoted to celebrating the strong men and women of the West whose influence helped shape America’s culture and heritage. Beyond Lucchese’s ongoing dedication to authentic, handmade Western boots, we chose to honor this day with a profile showcasing legendary cowboy, Tuff Hedeman.

Tuff is an exemplary cowboy not only because he’s a tenacious, four-time World Champion Bull Rider and Rodeo Hall of Famer, but also because he personifies the cowboy code with his authenticity, humility and kindness. Through his dedicated involvement over the years in both the Professional Bull Riders organization and the Championship Bull Riding, Tuff offers his experience in multiple ways including mentoring young athletes as they prepare for the rodeo road ahead.

Tuff talks to fans at the Tuff Hedeman Championship Challenge in Fort Worth.

Despite his protests to the contrary, Tuff truly embodies the cowboy spirit in all aspects of his life. In fact, his name alone tells you what kind of person he is. Young Richard Hedeman earned the nickname “Tough Nut” after a car door slammed on his hand and he didn’t cry or complain. That bravery and can-do attitude propelled Tuff to start riding at age four and eventually led to a heavily decorated, professional bull-riding career spanning 15 years. He's renowned for many unbridled talents including surviving one of the most famous rodeo accidents while riding Bodacious, "The World's Most Dangerous Bull."  

Tuff later took his skills outside the ring and co-founded the Professional Bull Riders organization (PBR) and eventually his namesake event, the annual Tuff Hedeman Championship Challenge Bull Riding event in Fort Worth where it’s been entertaining fans for 23 years.

Recently we sat down with Tuff, a longtime Lucchese ambassador, to talk boots, bulls and brawn. 

How do you feel about your name and what it signifies about your personality and career choice?

That’s all anybody ever called me growing up. I despised it. Having the name “Tuff” is like being a boy named Sue [referencing the classic Johnny Cash tune]. ‘You don’t look tough’ or ‘I’ll show you what tough is.’ I’ve heard it all. I tried to go by my middle name, but it never stuck. In college, I finally realized I wouldn’t be called anything but Tuff. To me it’s just a name. That’s just how I was raised. If you got hurt or broke something, you dealt with it and moved on. I'm lucky I got that from my parents—they’re the toughest people I’ve ever known.

Did you always want to be a cowboy?

Yeah. I started when I was four and actually stayed on the first calf I ever rode. But I didn’t stay on another for about 10 years. It’s all I wanted to do and I competed, but I was terrible. When I got to high school things changed because I refused to quit. I didn’t want to do anything else so I just kept pushing until I started winning, consistently. And that led to my rodeo scholarship to Sul Ross University before I turned pro.

Tuff as a young buck.

What does riding a bull feel like?

It’s something you can’t explain. It’s the same feeling I had when I rode my first calf as a kid and again when I rode my last bull in '98. It’s chaotic, violent, fast. Kind of like flying an F-16. Once you’ve ridden enough bulls, you figure out how to slow it down and process as it happens. Riding is actually a reactionyou react to what the bull does; they move one way and you counter move. It’s only 8-seconds, but it’s a long rush of adrenaline.

Tuff makes bull riding look easy. 

You’re one of only seven riders who rode Bodacious and the only one to achieve a winning 95-point ride in 1993. Then you rode him again two years later. Tell us about that life-changing moment.

Our heads crashed together. After the hit, I could taste blood. But I didn’t think it was too bad—just thought I broke my jaw. I got up, walked out and everyone stared. When I got in the ambulance it started to hit. Turns out I broke every bone in my face. I had 13 hours of surgery. I still don’t consider it serious, but I looked bad. Really bad. My head swelled up like a pumpkin. My son Lane, who was very young at the time, didn’t recognize me. It took time to convince him. Later he made me promise I’d never ride Bodacious again. That’s why I turned him out during the NFR finals and chose to forfeit the title. But I also knew I’d never ride him again because there’s nothing I could do different to make it a successful ride. If I made a mistake, fine, I’d correct it. But fundamentally I did what I was supposed to do; he was just a freak in the way he bucked, hurting every rider who tried. So they retired him. The bottom line is that if you ride bulls for a living, you’re going to break some bones. It just goes with the territory.

Face Off: Bodacious and Tuff during the final round of the 1995 PBR World Finals.

Bodacious, "The World's Most Dangerous Bull," retired in 1996 and was later inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.

Your love for the rodeo obviously overrode any concern of risk.

Absolutely. I’m sure people look at rodeo cowboys and wonder why we’d subject our bodies to that. But if that’s what you do and that’s your passion, you do it because it’s what you live for. I started when I didn’t know any better, but I never outgrew the passion. You have to lie to yourself a little bit though. You tell yourself what you’re doing is not a big deal. But it is a big deal because every time you do it, you risk changing your life forever or losing it entirely. But you also think it’s the coolest thing in the world so you keep going.

What about fear?

Yeah, I feared looking like an idiot. Or that I would suck. Failure was always my biggest fear. But I never feared getting hurt, that’s just part of it.

Did you miss it after you retired?

No. I did it as long as I could, as well as I could. I couldn’t have done any better because that’s all I had. No regrets. I’m a realist. Could it have been better? Sure. But it could’ve been a hell lot worse.

Tuff hits the dirt between events at his namesake event in Fort Worth. 

What has being a cowboy taught you?

More than anything, you have to give it your all every day. Having that drive is important no matter what you want to do, cowboy or not. My career far exceeded what I thought I was capable of. I just did it. I’d rather see someone’s greatness than hear him talk about it. Also, never sell yourself short. Never be afraid to go after what you really want because you just never know. I tell my sons if you want to be a cowboy, you can be a cowboy. We already know how to be cowboys. So find something you love, something you’re passionate about and figure out how to get paid for it. I'm still the luckiest guy in the world in my opinion. I got to live my dream and that was a thrill.

What gives you thrills these days?

My three sons. They’re what’s most important. Yeah, I’ve had a great life and a great career. But what I enjoy now more than anything is watching them grow up and be good guys.

Why do you wear Lucchese?

Because they’re the best. That’s it. Even the basic Lucchese’s are top shelf. People see mine and ask, “How long does it take to break them in?” If you buy Lucchese, there’s no such thing as breaking them in. You put them on and they fit. I think back to when I was a kid—I dreamed of growing up so I could buy a pair. That’s how you know your life is complete: Lucchese boots and a Cadillac.

Do you have a favorite pair?

Yes. My favorite pair of Lucchese’s is always my newest pair. And they’re made in El Paso where I was born and raised, so we’re a perfect fit.

Looking for the perfect cowboy fit? Shop boots now. Want to get involved with National Day of the Cowboy? Read more here.