In the rodeo world, he’s larger than life – considered by his peers to be simply the best. But in Red Bluff, “I’m just the John Growney who was born and raised here,” he said. “I’m just me.”
That’s one of the many things that keeps the legendary stock contractor hanging his hat in the town where his family has lived for five generations. “Red Bluff was made great long before me, and long before my dad,” Growney said. “It’s one of the biggest ranching communities around. Everybody can be a cow man here, whether you run 10 cows or 10,000 cows.”
The son of a car salesman, Growney began riding bulls in high school. By his late 20s, he had enough bulls and horses to start a stock contracting business. Soon he’d gathered enough animals to put on amateur rodeos, and it wasn’t long before the owners of a pro rodeo company asked Growney to buy them out. Today, Growney Brothers Rodeo Co. is one of the primary providers of bulls and bucking horses for rodeos on the West Coast.
Growney gained national notoriety in the late 1980s when he bought the legendary Red Rock, who had never been ridden successfully in 309 attempts. In a best-of-seven showdown, the year’s top bull rider, Lane Frost, was able to ride Red Rock four times. The matchup pushed rodeo’s popularity through the roof and well outside of the rodeo world.
A year later, Frost was killed by a bull, and his career was the subject of the film “8 Seconds.” Growney – who made a cameo in the movie – decided not to let another bull rider ever sit on Red Rock’s back. Red Rock and Frost are both in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. The bull died in 1994 on Growney’s ranch, where he is buried under an oak tree.
It’s right on that ranch that he declares, “I’ve never had a real job. What I do has never been work. Everything I do is fun. I’m 63, but I feel like I’m 18.”
His career takes him all over the country (he participates in 24 rodeos per year), and Red Bluff’s rodeo activities are known virtually everywhere he goes. “When I go somewhere in New York, people know about the Red Bluff Round-Up and the Bull and Gelding Sale. They’re huge in the livestock rodeo world.”
That didn’t just happen overnight. “Somebody 80 years ago had the foresight to make Red Bluff important,” Growney said. “That was back when everybody would pull together. There was a volunteer base, with people wanting to make things better for our community.”
Today’s society isn’t as community-focused as it was back then, which is tragic, he said. “I want nothing but the best for my community. I do everything I can to push it forward. People don’t get involved anymore – they’re trying to survive, to raise their families – but the community is why we stay here and people need to be involved.”
His career is one of several that is featured in the documentary “Cowboy Up,” which provides a glimpse into rodeo life. He was named Man of the Year in 2012 by the Tehama County Cattlemen and Cattlewomen, and Growney Brothers Rodeo Company has been named the Stock Contractor of the Year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Being a rodeo man is about much more than bulls and broncs, Growney said. “Something that started as a hustle for me 30 years ago became true friendships and relationships,” he said. “I’ve seen generations die and generations be born. I’ve been to funerals, weddings and baptisms. Everywhere we go, we have family. They expect us to stay with them, to eat with them. Our lives are intertwined.”
And just like his father and grandfather before him, he’s not going anywhere. “I love Red Bluff. I adore Red Bluff. My nephew is seventh-generation, and I am fifth generation – I hold that very dear,” he said. “I know I’m loved in my community. Here, I know 10,000 people and I love that. I’m glad my great-great-grandfather chose to live in Red Bluff. This is my anchor.”