Cotton Rosser was presented the 2019 Legends of ProRodeo Award. – Photo by Vanessa Holder
By Kendra Santos
Cotton Rosser wore a lot of cowboy hats in his legendary life. The proud Rosser family patriarch made a mighty splash in the cowboy sport as a contestant, Cal Poly Rodeo standout, pioneer cowboy pilot, rancher, stock contractor and rodeo producer extraordinaire. Consummate showman Cotton earned his billing as the King of the Cowboys and The PT Barnum of Professional Rodeo for his signature fast-paced performances, and never stopped taking rodeo production to the next level by figuring out yet another way to wow the crowd and put a smile on every single spectator’s face. Cotton Rosser was a rodeo man like none other.
Horton Alexander “Cotton” Rosser was born to Canadian immigrants Levi David (LD) and Seneth Rosser on August 5, 1928 in Long Beach, California. He headed to Cowboy Heaven on June 22, 2022, but not before packing a whole lot of living into his nearly 94 years here. And oh, what a ride it was.
Cotton came from humble beginnings, and never lost the humility that fueled his unwavering work ethic or forgot where he came from. He was proud to grow up delivering newspapers in Long Beach from the back of a donkey named Jack, and that he cleaned stalls at local stables and worked cattle on Catalina Island during the week to make the money to rodeo on weekends.
Cotton started riding Hereford bulls at 13, and saddle broncs at 16. He worked every event as a young man, but always said, “My big three were steer wrestling, calf roping and bronc riding.”
Cotton was a multi-event superstar who helped put the storied Cal Poly Rodeo tradition on the map. He was the first of three generations of Rosser family Mustangs, and bled green and gold all his life. It was fitting that Cotton—who was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from his beloved alma mater—lived to see this spring’s dedication of the Cotton Rosser Rodeo Complex at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
“I owe everything to Cal Poly, and have used the Mustangs motto of ‘Learn by Doing’ all my life,” Cotton always said. “When I got hurt and couldn’t compete anymore, I learned by doing when it came to the rodeo production business.”
While attending college on California’s Central Coast in the late 1940s and early ’50s, Cotton took to the professional rodeo trail. One of his favorite traveling partners was area rancher and ProRodeo Hall of Fame all-around cowboy Gene Rambo, who sometimes entered Cotton for half when he was making due on a college-cowboy budget.
“Rambo wanted to take a hacksaw to a buckle one time when I won a rodeo,” Cotton loved to tell. “He said 50/50 is 50/50!”
One of Cotton’s proudest cowboy accomplishments was when he won the all-around championship for Cal Poly at the 1951 College National Finals Rodeo at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, where he went on to host crowds comprised largely of city folks for over 60 years at the Grand National Livestock Exposition, Horse Show & Rodeo.
Cotton’s competitive days were cut short in 1955, when at 27 he suffered a catastrophic, career-ending injury from a run-in with a post-hole auger while building an arena on the home ranch in Marysville. He suffered compound fractures to both legs. Both of Cotton’s ankles were crushed, along with his competitive dreams. But Cotton being Cotton, he found a way to turn tragedy into triumph. In 1956, he and a partner bought the Flying U Rodeo Company.
“That accident was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Cotton said of the silver lining. “My competitive cowboy days were over, but not my love of rodeo. I looked at it as a blessing. I would have went on and rodeoed. Instead, I got into management and putting on the shows.”
Cowboy camaraderie kicked in on the heels of his horrific accident, and the man of a million friends found out who a few of them were early on.
“I had no insurance, and I couldn’t pay my hospital bill,” Cotton said. “Ben Johnson and Dean Oliver had a match roping in Yuba City, and Casey Tibbs and Billy Ward had a match bronc riding. They raised about $8,000 to get me out of the hospital, and I used the rest of it to buy Cotton’s Cowboy Corral. That’s cowboys for you.”
He spent the rest of his days paying rodeo back for all it did for him. And 67 years later, Cotton’s Cowboy Corral continues to be a mainstay in downtown Marysville.
Cotton Rosser rodeo productions were world renowned, and landed him and his family the job of producing the openings at the first 10 National Finals Rodeos held in Las Vegas, starting in 1985. Whether it was Old Glory rising up out of a super-sized boot, or dropping her down into the arena by parachute from a plane high in the sky, Cotton’s creative flair was one of a kind.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘If you’ve seen one rodeo, you’ve seen ’em all,’” Cotton said. “I don’t believe that’s true. Coming from California, the entertainment state of the world, I like to have big opening ceremonies with the American flag. I like to make a show of it. Rodeo is entertainment. And the entertainment value of rodeo is real. You have to run the show, you can’t let the show run you. If you don’t keep the audience entertained, they will go somewhere else.”
Over the course of his life and career, Cotton felt rodeo’s importance to this great country only grew.
“Kids today think milk comes from 7-Eleven, not a cow,” he said. “The rodeo business can teach them a lot about the real world and life.”
Cotton made a mission of sharing his passion for rodeo with people—all people from all walks of life, young and old. He took the time to talk to them at restaurants, gas stations and hotels in rodeo towns. He took them backstage, and shared his pride and passion for the sport. He looked them in the eye and shook their hands at the end of every performance to the playing of Cotton’s signature “thank-you-very-much song,” because he always wanted everyone to leave the show happy.
Cotton’s love for the animals he raised at the Flying U was real, and his introduction of the mamas and their baby buckers always brought the house down. He didn’t tell people about how his horses were fat, slick, happy and healthy. He showed them.
“To have a champion bucking horse is really something for us,” Cotton said. “It’s like having a Kentucky Derby winner. We really think a lot of the animals, and the cowboys appreciate them, too. A lot of cowboys will tip their hats to the horses and say ‘good job’ when they’ve been bucked off.”
Cotton Rosser was the King of the Cowboys, and the countless awards and accolades for his lifelong commitment to the cowboy sport prove it. Cotton was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs in 1995, and became the first-ever Triple Crown winner at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 2006, he won the coveted Ben Johnson Award. In 2009, he was inducted into the hallowed Cowboy Hall. The sweep became complete when in 2015 Cotton was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners for his lifetime of exceptional contributions and promotion of Western heritage and traditions.
“That’s like winning the all-around for me, and I couldn’t have won it if I’d been a rodeo hand,” Cotton said at the time. “I might have had a gold buckle, but I wouldn’t have lived the life I have and met the people I’ve met. When I look at the men who’ve been honored before me—Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower—it’s the greatest thing. This is tall cotton for me. What a great honor.”
Cotton Rosser was the 1971 Rodeo Man of the Year; the 1985 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Stock Contractor of the Year; a 2004 California Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee; the first-ever California Bountiful Foundation Public Outreach Award winner in 2014; and a 2014 Western Fairs Association Hall of Fame Inductee. Cotton also served as an industry leader on the PRCA Board of Directors for many years. In 2015, Cotton was named the PRCA Donita Barnes Contract Personnel Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
In 2019, Cotton was recognized as the Legend of ProRodeo at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame Gala in Las Vegas. Another jewel for the Cowboy King. And yet in Cotton’s heart, it was the people—his family and countless friends and fellow rodeo fans—who mattered most.
It surprised no one that consummate showman Cotton made the perfect exit from this life. He packed in a full and extraordinary run as the Rosser family patriarch, then waited for word from his right-hand man and son Reno that his legendary rodeo legacy was in good hands and the show would go on.
“I told him the perf went great last night, and that everything was handled here,” Reno said the day he lost his dear dad. “He nodded, and he left.”
There it was. A perfect circle of rodeo life. The Flying U would be fine, and Cotton’s watch was over. It was time to go on to the great rodeo roundup in the sky, and on the very day we celebrated Reno’s 48th birthday right there at the Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West, no less. Reno led Cotton’s colorful paint horse Rodney into that sold-out arena, and with Reno Rodeo Secretary Cindy Rosser also horseback, Cotton brought the packed Reno Rodeo house down yet again.
We all cried the day Cotton Rosser died. But these were the sweetest of tears, and they streaked our cheeks with the smiles he put on all our faces. Cotton left us with a million unforgettable memories, and the priceless life lessons he taught us by example. We had all somehow hoped that Cotton’s ride here with us would never end. But what a memorable mark he made.
Cotton’s kingdom will continue. The foundation he built is too sturdy to crack. We all owe Cotton’s family a great debt of gratitude for sharing this national cowboy treasure with the rest of us. Those who will miss him most include Cotton’s wife of 44 years, Karin Allred Rosser, and their daughter, Katharine, who kept Cotton young.
Cotton and his first wife, Linda, blessed us with Lee, Cindy and Brian. Lee and Bonnie’s children, Levi (Katie) Rosser, and Linsay (Wade) Sumpter added great grandkids Trey, Cy and Gavin Rosser, and Weston and Lindon Sumpter to Cotton’s crew. Brian and Michelle are also raising McKenzie, Hunter and Hayden with the same zest for life Grandpa Cotton was so famous for—because they’re Rossers.
We all just know that Cindy’s angel in Heaven, Mikel Moreno, was there to greet his grandpa, and that they’re both giddy about Cindy’s induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame this month. Cotton was an old-school gentleman who was a longstanding supporter of smart, capable women in the rodeo business, and always treated them with the respect he felt they earned and deserved.
Cotton and his second wife, JoAnn, had Reno during the Reno Rodeo 48 years ago, and Cotton’s youngest son learned everything he knows about running the Flying U from his dad. Reno and Nicole have Quincy Cotton and Nellie Rose, and it no doubt warmed Cotton’s sweet old heart to see Quincy tip his hat to the Reno Rodeo crowd horseback this year in one of the arenas that served Cotton as a second home. Meanwhile, back in Marysville, Cotton was surrounded by loved ones at his earthly life’s end.
In the words of Roy Rogers and the song that sent so many happy rodeo-goers home from Rosser rodeos all these years, “Happy Trails to You, Cotton, Until We Meet Again.”
And as the Cowboy King deserves the last word…
“I’ve had a great life,” Cotton said. “I’ve loved every minute of it, and my whole family has loved this life. Rodeo’s the best thing in the world to me. I never got rich, but I’ve lived like I’m rich. All the great friends I’ve met along the way made me rich. All I ever dreamed about was being a cowboy.”
Alumni Cotton Rosser was instrumental in the development of the Cal Poly Rodeo Program. – Photo courtesy of Flying U Rodeo/Rosser Family