Loyalty often proves to be fleeting. However, in the case of rodeo champion Jim Shoulders, his loyalty to Wrangler jeans and Justin boots — and vice versa — lasted for 60 years and even extends beyond the grave.
Shoulders may have faded somewhat from the nation’s consciousness because his last professional ride happened more than 40 years ago. However, the Professional Bull Riders saw fit to produce this recent video tribute to him:
Shoulders died in 2007 at age 79. However, Sharon, his wife of 60 years, recently talked to us about her husband and his career.
When asked whether Jim would have competed in the PBR if he were around now, Sharon exclaimed: “Heavens, yes!”
“With the money out there, yes, he would have competed,” she said. “He was a big supporter of anything that would attract new rodeo fans.”
For those unfamiliar with him, Shoulders was described as the “Babe Ruth of Rodeo” due to his dominance of the sport during the late 1940s and virtually all of the ’50s. The Tulsa native held the record of 16 world championships — mostly in bareback riding and bull riding — until Trevor Brazile broke that in recent years.
Sharon attributed her husband’s success to “a lot of perseverance.”
“He came from a rather poor background, and when he found out he could make money riding bulls and horses, he saw it as a great challenge. He felt God gave people ability, and it was up to them to make the most of it.”
She said Jim also ignored pain from his injuries.
“He told people than when you had a wife, a home, and four children to feed, it would make you ride through that pain and try to win.”
Life magazine once called him “Mister Broken Bones.” She acknowledged she’d lost count of the number of injuries he’d suffered.
“And he would ride with those injuries,” she said. “If he broke the arm on his riding hand, he would just switch and ride with the other arm.”
After he retired from the ring, he raised bulls for the pro rodeo circuit at his Henryetta, Okla., ranch and instructed up-and-coming athletes. He also appeared in a series of popular TV commercials for Miller Lite beer. This spot from 1981 co-starred notorious New York Yankees manager Billy Martin:
“I think that was one of the most fun experiences of Jim’s life, to be connected with those ‘has-been’ sports guys,” Sharon said. “That’s what made those commercials so successful. They just did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it and pulled jokes on each other. And they all seemed to be in awe of each other.”
Sharon says her husband’s long association with Wrangler began shortly after she and Jim married in 1947, when he traveled to Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“At that time, the rodeo at Madison Square Garden was comparable to the National Finals Rodeo is today,” she said. “It was the largest rodeo that put up the most money, and that’s where all the cowboys wanted to go.”
That’s when Blue Bell, which later became Wrangler, showed up with a truckload of jackets and jeans. And luck was with Shoulders during that first trip to the Big Apple — he won two events, so the jeans-maker wanted him as an endorser.
For years, Sharon said her husband signed an annual contract on the back of a Wrangler marketing director’s business card that gave him all the jeans he wanted, plus $250.
“Jim thought that was great — to have free clothes and $250,” she said. “Of course, the contracts got better after that.”
Wrangler also asked rodeo cowboys — including Shoulders — to critique its jeans in writing on a small card. Those critiques led to the development of Wrangler’s Original Cowboy Cut jeans, also known as model 13MWZ. Those jeans still exist today.
“Jim was very conscientious about filling out the card and telling exactly what he thought of the jeans,” she said.
Due to the opinions of Shoulders and other cowboys, the 13MWZ features flat rivets that won’t scratch saddles, boot-cut leg openings, deep front pockets, high back pockets to keep a wearer from sitting on his wallet, a higher rise that kept the shirttails tucked in, and a zipper fly.
Even though Wrangler sent new varieties of jeans to Shoulders, he insisted on wearing the 13MWZ for decades. Sharon said he occasionally would swap new types of Wranglers for more Cowboy Cut jeans at Drysdales’ stores in Tulsa.
“That’s the one Jim continued to wear throughout the years. Wrangler kept coming up with different varieties from that original jean, but Jim continued to wear the 13MWZ through all the years, and was buried in them, I might add.”
As for Justin boots, Shoulders met the company’s eventual president, John Justin, in 1947 and developed a long friendship.
“He then started wearing Justins and nothing else,” Sharon said. “They started with us at the beginning of Jim’s career and have been with us ever since.
“Jim was offered a lot of money to go with another boot competitor. And he never did. He was very loyal.”
Shoulders’ involvement with Justin extended beyond his competitive career when he helped lead the creation of the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, a nonprofit designed to help professional rodeo athletes and their families after catastrophic injuries.
Shoulders’ toughness in the face of injury was unquestioned. But he saw the benefit of a crisis fund, and didn’t begrudge a cowboy for using it.
“Back when Jim was competing, if you got knocked out in the ring, they’d drag you behind the arena and throw some water on your face,” she said. “Nowadays, the doctors won’t let those cowboys ride with those injuries. That’s a good thing.”
As recently as last fall, Sharon Shoulders sent Justin a photo of Jim’s last boot being used as a garden decoration. “See, Justin Boots just keep on working,” she wrote.
Sharon Shoulders says she stays active by serving on a number of boards, plus she attends the National Finals Rodeo and regional events at the PBR — where an award to the women behind the PBR is named after her.
But when she travels, selecting her wardrobe isn’t difficult.
“I still wear Wranglers, and I still wear Justin boots,” she said. “They started with us, and have been with us ever since.”
(Many thanks to Wrangler Western and Justin for allowing the use of several photos from their archives.)