By: Kendra Santos
I don’t write many stories about cowboys who have a rough day at the rodeo. Those who win—or maybe get hurt real bad—are most likely to make headlines. But this was different. Blair Burk’s Hall of Fame dad, Barry, died yesterday morning. And on the saddest day of $2 million cowboy Blair’s life, he showed up—and roped—anyway. He borrowed a horse, broke out and missed. But that was hardly the point. Blair did Daddy Barry proud last night just by being there at the Cowtown Coliseum for the $360,000 Cowtown Christmas Championship Rodeo, with a rope can in one hand and the tiny hand of the next generation of Cowboy Burk in the other.
“Ol’ Barry wouldn’t want me to turn out, that’s for sure,” said heavy-hearted 14-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo roper Blair, right after walking out of the arena empty-handed, but admired by all who understood the significance of his being there. “He loved rodeo, and if we could get to one, we were going to it.
“My dad, my Uncle Roy (Burk) and Mike Wilson coached my Empire Bulldogs Football Team when I was a kid, and we had a slogan—Never, never, never give up. I came here tonight because I qualified to be here. I competed strong at the Indian (National) Finals (Rodeo), which I nominated to earn the points to be here (Blair is a proud member of the Choctaw Nation). I was talking to Roy Cooper today, and he reminded me that my dad wouldn’t want me to turn out. But I already knew that. It’s just who we are. Burks show up and rope.”
Just then, the 3-year-old cowboy—Blair and wife Chelsey’s little boy, Bryler Roy, who was sitting in his lap right after his run—puked a rainbow all over the Cowtown Coliseum concrete floor. Too many Skittles. Blair just smiled, took it in stride and gave him a hug. Saying goodbye to his dear dad a few hours earlier provided plenty of perspective, and a few paper towels would make his boots good as new again.
Barry Burk—who roped at 17 NFRs and won eight reserve world championships in his legendary cowboy career—was 79. He’d fought serious health issues in recent years, starting with spending two months in the hospital with COVID pneumonia in the fall of 2020.
“He was getting stronger, and set a goal of going to our junior roping—the Barry Burk Jr. Roping Roundup—in Ardmore (Oklahoma) over Memorial Day Weekend this year,” Blair said. “Dad’s put that roping on since 1986, and he made it there to watch the 12-and-under kids rope. Those little kids were his favorite to watch. A couple weeks later, he got pneumonia again, and we had to put him back in the hospital. This time, he was there about three months—basically all summer.”
But being Barry, he set another goal. He wanted to make it to November 28, to see Grandson Bryler turn 3. Barry hung tough, and he made it for that, too.
“He got a little better, but his lungs never really got back to normal,” Blair said. “When Dad had double hip-replacement surgery in the early 2000s, it permanently paralyzed his diaphragm. He dealt with that all these years, then in 2012 had quadruple bypass heart surgery. We’d recently moved him to a respiratory rehab facility. Dad was a fighter, but all those pre-existing conditions finally caught up with him. He started having kidney problems, so he was on dialysis. He was just too weak and too tired to go on.”
Barry Burk left this world an accomplished cowboy and one proud dad and granddad. One of the cornerstone lessons he taught his son was the significance of horsepower. Blair listened.
“I learned everything I know from my dad and all the great ropers I grew up around because of him,” Blair said. “One of the most important things is learning how to overcome obstacles and being prepared for anything that comes your way. I had—and lost—some great horses in my career. Ol’ Black, Sweetness, Grumpy—they were some of the best calf horses of all time, and I was blessed to be able to ride them. Like Dad always said, ‘Without a good horse, anybody’s beatable.’”
Blair rode Nebraska cowboy Cody Darnell’s palomino horse here last night, after recently selling the gray he called Platinum to Shad Mayfield. All World Champions Rodeo Alliance Leaderboard #1s are seeded into Saturday night’s Championship Round, including Shad.
Blair’s 48 now, and is following in Barry’s footsteps by giving young ropers lessons, and training and selling rope horses. He and Momma Cheryl plan to keep the Barry Burk Jr. Roping Roundup tradition alive in Barry’s honor from their home base in Durant, Oklahoma. How proud must Barry have been to see his son inducted into the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Rodeo Hall of Fame in their hometown last month before he left?
“The WCRA’s perfect for a guy like me, with a family and businesses at home,” Blair said. “I can nominate the few good events I go to and qualify for these big ones. I got to rope at the gold medal in Salt Lake City (at the Days of ’47 Cowboy Games & Rodeo) this summer, and here I am at Cowtown Christmas.
“No, it wasn’t a great night for me here at the rodeo. But if a professional baseball player is batting .400, he’s killing it. That’s 40 percent, and that means he’s losing 60 percent of the time. That’s why we have to learn to overcome the obstacles and keep a positive attitude, like my dad always said. I didn’t really feel like coming here tonight, but I’m a cowboy. And when there’s a good rodeo to come to, a cowboy shows up.”