Glen Keeley rides Clayton’s Pet in St. Louis, Mo. in the year 2000. Photo By Andy Watson/BullStockMedia.com
Story by Susan Himes
The amount of time it takes for a newborn child to become an adult. It can feel like it all happens in the blink of an eye or it can feel like it lasts decades longer than the truth told by chronological age.
The same is true with loss. Glen Keeley died 18 years ago, and the pain simultaneously feels fresh and raw; it also feels as if it’s a heartache that has lingered for decades.
Glen Keeley was born March 20, 1970. Eighteen years later, he won the Canadian bull riding championship. He was not only good enough to be the best bull rider in Canada, he was good enough to compete against the best cowboys in the world.
“I first knew Glen from our rodeo days in Canada and the U.S.,” Ty Murray said. “He was around throughout my career and he was always a little bit quiet and shy, but he was always smiling.
“What always stood out to me was how much he loved to ride; it was something he craved. He loved the challenge of riding a bull. I have such positive memories of Glen. Not many men can (ride bulls), and the number of men who can do it at the very top level is very small. Glen was a died-in-the-wool bull rider.”
At the time of his death in New Mexico, Keeley was ranked ninth in the PBR.
“In order to understand the impact Glen had on my life, it’s important to understand who he was to me growing up,” B.J. Kramps said. “Glen was very well-known and popular at the Canadian professional rodeos. At age 12 or 13, he was already known as a steer rider, and he had the title at age 14. At 18, he had the bull riding title. For me, he was the Michael Jordan of our sport.”
Keeley never acted like the star he was. He was never above offering a helping hand or advice to other rodeo athletes. That guidance extended to the younger Kramps.
“Glen took the time to help all of us steer riders – pulling our ropes, encouraging us, coaching us,” Kramps said. “I was younger and more inexperienced, but he treated me like I was his equal.
“As the years passed on and I got the opportunity to start competing against him and traveling with him, you can imagine what that meant to me. I was with my hero.”
Scott Schiffner was a decade younger than Keeley, but he knew him well growing up.
“He packed me around as a steer rider when I was a boy, and I got to go with him a little bit as a bull rider,” Schiffner said.
“I remember being at Rodeo Houston with him, following him around. He introduced me to every single person we came across – not just bull riders: committee members, fans, staff.”
When Schiffner inquired into how he knew so many people, Keeley rattled off when and where he’d met them before. It turned out that Keeley never forgot a face or a name.
“He had the greatest memory for people of anyone I’ve ever seen,” Schiffner said. “Four years later, he could see someone again – that he’d only met once – and he’d remember their name. That was part of the magic of Glen. That is what drew people to him. He made people feel special and good because he took the time to visit with them, and he never forgot anyone.”
One thing Schiffner won’t forget was how Keeley would spur a bull while riding it.
“After everyone who knew Glen is gone, generations from now, they’ll still talk in the bull riding world about his spurring,” he said. “That was his style; he went for it every time. You can bet if he made the whistle, he was spurring.”
Keeley also influenced many other bull riders, like Tanner Girletz.
“My grandpa and dad had bucking bulls, so I’d known Glen and his family since I was a little kid,” Girletz said.
When the young Girletz started on steers, Keeley was always the first one on the chute offering to lend a hand to the aspiring rider.
“He was always doing his best to help out the younger generation,” Girletz said. “He would go out of his way to help everyone.”
Girletz recalled being impressed by the way Keeley treated the younger cowboys as peers.
“He always had time to say, ‘Hi,’ and sit down and treat you like an old friend,” Girletz said. “He’d talk to you like you were another adult, and this was when I was 7 or 8 years old.”
He also remembered watching videos of Keeley.
“I said that when I grew up I wanted to spur bulls like Glen,” Girletz said. “That is one thing that will never be forgotten about Glen as an athlete: His style was so aggressive.”
Another thing that stood out to Girletz was how humble and honest Keeley was.
“He could have scored a 92 or 93 on a ride, but if you got a 91 and he thought your ride was better than his – he’d tell you that,” Girletz said.
He remembered being particularly impressed by a video of the cowboy on Clayton’s Pet, a ride that earned Keeley a 93.5 at the PBR’s Bud Light Cup event in St. Louis. Keeley was one of only two men to cover the bull that season. Five weeks after St. Louis, Keeley was gone.
Cody Custer traveled many miles with his friend, Keeley.
“PBR riders get to be a close family because of how much time you spend together,” Custer said. “I remember how funny he was. Like when we were in the car, he’d crack the windows instead of using the AC because he thought it was too hard on the car’s engine. He’d just make you laugh all the time with stuff like that.
“He was a genuine guy who cared about people. It’s good to remember he was an incredible rider, he could be a dragon-slayer type of guy, but you are missing out on what was most important if you forget the type of guy he was outside the arena. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could say anything bad about him.”
Coming from a close-knit family, Custer said, made a lasting influence on Keeley. Custer saw it when he met Keeley’s family.
“There was just something special about Glen,” Custer said. “It doesn’t seem real we’ll never see that big smile again. He was a good man and a caring man. Everyone was drawn to him. For whatever reason, those are the type we seem to lose – Lane, Brent, Glen.”
Royd Doyal who described his late friend as “A class act from top to bottom.”
He knew Keeley very well.
“We traveled to some rodeos and bull ridings together,” Doyal said. “He was a quiet guy but he wore his emotions on his sleeve when it came to bull riding. Glen gave 100 percent every time he got on a bull. He was also the type of rider that would build up those around him. He brought out the best in his traveling partners, too.
“He was such a nice and mild-mannered guy, but he was highly competitive. I remember once we were at a PRCA event in Bay City, Texas, and he’d gotten bucked off a bull he should have ridden. He went off behind the chutes and, out of frustration at himself, kicked a big plastic trash barrel. It turned out it was full of concrete at the bottom and he ended up with some broken toes. He was the nicest guy, but he was hard on himself when he knew he could do better.”
Keeley stayed with Doyal and his family shortly before the PBR’s Albuquerque event in 2000.
“He was the type of house guest that you wouldn’t even know was there,” Doyal said. “He was quiet and polite and made his bed every morning. Glen wouldn’t start eating until everyone was at the table. He was respectful; you knew he had been raised right.”
That’s when Doyal learned something new about his friend.
“This was a time before everyone had cell phones and was on their phones all the time,” he said. “Glen would go outside and doodle for hours – that’s when I learned he was an artist. We had a brindle muley bull and he sketched a picture of him on stationery that was as good as a photograph.
“He offered it to me, but it was so good that I felt bad keeping it so I told him to hang onto it. He was just a phenomenal artist. I sure wish I had that picture now.”
At the Ty Murray Invitational on March 24, 2000, Keeley drew PBR world champion bucking bull Promise Land. He had celebrated his 30th birthday just a few days earlier. It was the last ride of his life.
“Glen was tough,” Custer said. “He walked out of the arena after being stepped on. None of us had any idea how bad of a wreck it actually was. I was in the sports medicine room with him, and he was joking and cutting up before they took him away in the ambulance. I prayed with him and told him I’d see him tomorrow.”
In addition to broken bones, Keeley had sustained life-threatening injuries to his internal organs, something that wasn’t apparent until emergency room personnel started working on him. He died on the operating table.
“I think it seemed all the more surreal because Glen wasn’t the kind of guy who typically got in wrecks,” Custer said. “He wasn’t one to get hurt or hung up. He got off his bulls clean. This wasn’t the kind of thing that happened to him.”
Custer wasn’t the only one who saw it that way.
“I don’t look at it as a freak accident,” Murray said. “It is what can happen in this sport. I have lost a lot of friends through this sport. The severe danger is a part of this sport. “Lane, Brent, Glen – those guys are in the forefront of my mind. All three of those guys loved riding bulls. It’s not freak thing when you are doing something this inherently dangerous.”
The news of Keeley’s death spread quickly among the riders and those involved in the sport.
- “Guys were sick,” Murray said. “I mean some of the guys actually got physically sick throwing up when they found out Glen was gone. But bull riders march on because that is what we do. No one goes through this career with any disillusionment about the risk.”
- “I was at a college rodeo in Hobbs, N.M,” Schiffner said. “What I remember the most is that I was there with Ian MacKay, who was extremely close to Glen and his whole family. Ian hadn’t ridden yet, and I just was trying to keep him from hearing what had happened until after his ride, when I could get him alone and tell him the news. Glen really was a mentor to all of us, but he was a huge mentor for Ian.”
- “I wasn’t at the event, but when I got the call, it was like I’d been punched in the gut,” Doyal said. “I’d just been traveling with him. He’d just been at my house. I couldn’t believe he was gone.”
- “I was at a steer riding in Swan River,” Girletz said, “I was maybe 14 years old. My dad waited until after my event, and then sat me down to tell me.”
Those bull riders competing at the Bud Light Cup event knew that the show would go on that evening, but most were still shell shocked.
“I rode Jim Jam that night,” Custer said. “He was a bull that wasn’t ridden much, but I really didn’t feel anything about what I’d accomplished.”
Custer was 90 points on the legendary bull. Owen Washburn also covered his bull that night, Promise Land, to win the event. It was a bittersweet victory that Washburn dedicated to Keeley.
“Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of why anybody would (ride bulls),” Murray said. “I think it’s the feeling of athleticism and the challenge of a sport at the highest level. Guys like us feed on that, it makes you feel alive.
“The athleticism of our sport takes it to a different echelon. It’s one thing to make a basket with two seconds left on a clock; it’s a whole other level of pressure to make the whistle on a bucking bull.”
Keeley’s memory is very much alive today, although it can’t fill the void left by his passing 18 years ago.
After his death, the PBR started the Glen Keeley Award in his honor to recognize the top Canadian bull rider at the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas each year Past recipients include Schiffner and Kramps as well as Reuben Geleynse, Rob Bell, Matt Roy, Jesse Torkelson, Aaron Roy, Chad Besplug, Tanner Byrne and Dakota Buttar.
Kramps won the Glen Keeley Award the first two years, an honor he still holds in the highest regard.
“Glen impacted my career by making me a better bull rider, but he impacted my life by making me a better person,” Kramps.
The Glen Keeley Award stands as one of Schiffner’s career highlights.
“Rob Bell and I and some of the older guys who’ve won the award knew Glen personally, so I think winning the award was extra special for us because of that personal connection,” he said. “It was more than just an award for being the best Canadian rider.”
Keeley left behind his name in the record books, but the real measure of his legacy is all of the family, friends and fellow athletes he influenced over his lifetime. Those are the people insuring Keeley’s spirit and memory will continue to inspire others. The Glen Keeley Memorial Bull Riding was started in 2004 to honor the late cowboy. His namesake event donates all proceeds to the Glen Keeley Benevolent & Scholarship Fund, which has awarded more than $250,000.
Glen Keeley was also inducted into the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2017.
“I won Glen’s event three times, and his parents John and Donna, would always be the first people to congratulate me,” Girletz said. “I remember Donna having a tear in her eye. Winning that event meant the world to me.”
Girletz qualified for the championship round at the event nearly a dozen times and won the Spur Award four times.
“I have all of those buckles hanging on my wall, they all mean so much to me,” Girletz said. “But I’m really proud of the Spur Award, for the best spurring ride of the event. That was what Glen was known for. I always wanted to spur like Glen, so even though I never was as good, those awards mean a lot to me.”
Much of Keeley’s legacy is in the man he was and how he treated others, Schiffner said.
“Glen loved what he did, and he was exceptionally great at it,” he said. “Glen came from an exceptional family who are still really actively involved in pro rodeo and bull riding. Even now after Glen’s parents have passed, his whole family still embraces the sport that Glen loved so much and works to improve it for future generations of riders.”
Those family roots run deep.
“The whole Keeley family are the same type of people as Glen,” Girletz said. “I remember when Jason (Keeley) was in a coma after a bull fell on him. They all came together. When we were kids those guys (the Keeleys) were always our go-to guys to look up to.”
“Glen had that big, crooked smile and that gap between his teeth,” Girletz said. “That’s the physical thing that stood out. But what stood out to me about him as a person was his attitude. Whether he got bucked off or got a 90, he always thought he could do better.”
On the Keeley place, he had an indoor arena that was braced by wooden chutes. It served as a practice pen for him and others.
“I don’t know how many times I’d been there over the years, but it wasn’t until after Glen passed that I noticed this sign,” Girletz said. “It was an old wooden sign he’d put up that said, ‘Quitters never win! Winners never quit! So be a winner!’ ”
Story by Susan Himes