Dan Mortensen is telling stories.
Sitting at the kitchen table of his Lockwood home, the stories tumble out, one after another.
There are stories of his start in rodeo, with the support of his parents, Don and Sheryl. He has three older sisters and is the uncle of 10 nieces and nephews.
That's followed by one of his being inspired by longtime friend Rod Hay to make riding bucking horses his chosen profession.
There is a story how Ty Murray hounded him into jumping into the all-around race in 1997 and when Dillon steer wrestler Bart Brower told a young Mortensen, "it's time."
There are tales of traveling … of cramming nine cowboys into a truck and driving from Texas to South Dakota and a near-death experience while a passenger in a spinning van.
There are happy stories about winning world championships and being immortalized by a 17-foot bronze sculpture that stands in front of Rimrock Auto Arena. "That still blows my mind," said the 1987 Billings Senior graduate.
He remembers the plane crash in November l998 that took the life of friend and pilot Johnny Morris. And while Mortensen wasn't on the plane, he had to ride that night after receiving the grim news.
He talks about giving it all to the sport he loved.
One of Montana's greatest rodeo cowboys has plenty of time to tell his stories.
He's done riding bucking horses.
The 39-year-old Mortensen made the decision this fall to retire from professional rodeo.
"I'm not pulling a Brett Favre; I'm done," said Mortensen with a good laugh. "I waited so long for this announcement because I wanted to make sure. I don't have a team or coach to report to like other athletes.
"I'm crippled up. And competing hurt takes the fun out of it. A guy knows what he can and cannot do. I could get healed up again and ride, but could I stay healthy? I feel great now, but I don't think I could make that commitment to go hard on the road again.
"That was always my plan: to go hard until I was done. I don't feel sad about it. The fact is, I've had a great career."
Great, indeed. The short list:
• One world all-around championship, 1997.
• Six world saddle bronc championships: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2003.
• Selected No. 2 among Sports Illustrated's 50 Montana greatest sports figures.
• First PRCA rough stock rider to earn more than $2 million dollars.
• Winner of every major rodeo, many more than once, with the exception of San Antonio, Texas.
• Ten circuit saddle bronc championships - seven in Montana, three for Columbia River.
• Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo all-around champion, 1992. DNCFR saddle bronc champion, 1994 and 1997.
• National collegiate saddle bronc champion for Montana State University, 1991. Inducted into the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame, 2004.
• PRCA Resistol saddle bronc rookie of the year, 1990.
• Northern Rodeo Association saddle bronc and bull riding champion, 1988.
• Four-time Montana high school bull riding champion.
"I think I did everything I could in the sport," said Mortensen who turns 40 on Dec. 16. Trim as the day he won his first world title, he is now walking around his house, surrounded by memories of his rodeo success.
Buckles from every rodeo level - youth, junior, high school, college and professional - are under glass in various hand-made end tables. Bronze sculptures sit atop fireplaces in both his living room and basement. There are also other prizes - rings, rifles, even an Olympic gold medal - showcased.
A row of championship saddles stand along a wall. One saddle lies separately from the others. It's the saddle he used for more than a decade. That saddle helped Mortensen win seven world titles.
"This saddle is the reason for all the others," he says, motioning to the others with a wave of his right arm.
Mortensen has been basically away from professional rodeo since the 2006 National Finals Rodeo.
Bothered by neck, shoulder, back and ankle problems, he decided to take 2007 to recover. Mortensen competed at the Calgary Stampede in Canada, where he remains a fan favorite, and some events in Australia.
He started the 2008 PRCA season at the 2007 NILE Rodeo in Billings. Mortensen also rode at Yakima, Wash., and two other rodeos in Texas that same fall. His final PRCA rides were in Denver and Rapid City, S.D. Mortensen made the final round at Rapid City, but was bucked off.
"I got beat up in January," he said. "I felt it. I could tell something was not right."
He waited for that competitive itch to return. Mortensen never had to scratch. He did ride again at Calgary, an invitation-only event.
"I felt good going into Calgary," Mortensen said. "My second horse threw my off. He planted me. It threw my back out of whack again. I pretty much reached my decision in Calgary."
Ironically, Mortensen began his rodeo career as a bull rider.
His father Don was a team roper and began hauling Dan and other young rodeo competitors to events around the state.
"I tried every other event. Saddle bronc was the last event I tried," Mortensen said. "Dad had bought an old saddle and it sat in a closet for a year."
A graduate of Billings Senior, he honed his riding skills by going to the late Dale Small's place to practice. Small was a local stock contractor. "We'd pay $15 to get on practice stock," Mortensen recalled.
It was at the NRA banquet, after Mortensen had won two year-end titles, that Brower laid a strong hand on Mortensen's shoulder and told the young cowboy, "It's time."
"I didn't think I was ready," said Mortensen.
The idea of turning pro didn't start to become reality until Mortensen attended Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. It was there he met Hay, a cocky cowboy from Canada, who knew where he was going, and Ike Sankey then the rodeo coach. Sankey, a four-time NFR qualifier and now legendary stock contractor, was a no-nonsense coach. When he spoke, the cowboys paid attention.
"We were coming back from a rodeo in Helena and I sat in the back of the van with Rod and Ike," Mortensen said. "Rod peppered Ike with questions. Rod knew he was going to be a pro.
"I just sat there and listened to the whole conversation. That was cool. That was the first time I thought about making it a career.
"A couple of years later, I was watching the NFR on television and thought, 'I could do that.' That was the first time I knew some day I was going to get to that level."
Mortensen qualified for his first NFR in 1990.
"I made the NFR my first year and thought, 'Hey, this is easy,' " Mortensen said. "I didn't make it in 1991 and I came back home with my tail between my legs."
He was still at a crossroads professionally, so he made education his priority. After NWC, Mortensen transferred to Montana State University in Bozeman.
"I decided I was going to get something out of school. To make sure I had something under my belt," said Mortensen, who earned a degree in business at MSU. "My plan was to go out for two years and make a go of it rodeoing. If it didn't happen, come home and get a job.
"Ty Murray always knew he was going to be a world champion. I didn't know if it would happen.
"My goal was to try my best and walk away."
Mortensen would qualify for the NFR 16 times and earn more than $100,000 a year for 14 consecutive seasons. Along with his six world titles, he was runner-up three times in the world standings (1996, 1999, 2002) along with placing third (2004), fourth (2006) and fifth (2001). Three times, he earned more than $200,000 in a single season.
In 1993, both he and bareback rider Deb Greenough of Red Lodge won world championships.
"Dan's just got an unbelievable ability to focus when it's time," said Greenough at the time.
Mortensen won the world all-around title in 1997. He rodeo seven bulls to qualify for the race.
"Ty kept calling me to go for it," Mortensen said with a smile. Prior to Mortensen, timed event cowboy Joe Beaver had won the previous two all-around championships and Murray wanted Mortensen to bring the title back to the rough stock end of the arena.
That same year, Mortensen was part of a 1-2-3 finish for Montana cowboys in the saddle bronc standings. He was followed by Ryan Mapston and Jess Martin.
Mortensen also won the NFR average title - rodeo's second-most coveted buckle - in 1994.
He was on pace to break Casey Tibbs' record for most world saddle bronc titles in 2004, but suffered a dislocated ankle at the Wrangler Tour Championships in Dallas, Texas, a few weeks before the NFR.
Despite not even being in Las Vegas, he led the world standings until the seventh round.
He remains tied with the legendary Tibbs.
"It just wasn't meant to be," Mortensen said of the record.
The ankle injury continued to bother him in his final two NFR appearances.
"My last year at the NFR, I was icing my ankle 23 hours a day," said Mortensen. "That was not fun.
"My thing was to continually improve my riding. To never go backward. My goal was to ride 100 percent every time out and I think I did that. It's just the way I was raised. You go out and try your best. I think I did that.
"My six gold saddle bronc buckles, that's probably my greatest achievement."
On the road
During his rodeo career, Mortensen criss-crossed the United States and Canada by airplane, car, van and pickup truck.
Most travels went smooth. Others were a bit more dicey.
"Dad had bought this van at a government auction for me one year," Mortensen said. "We pulled out the back seat to put in a mattress. We had a young guy from Canada driving and we were just outside of Three Forks.
"We must have hit a patch of ice and started spinning. I remember we were going right for a telephone pole and I thought, 'We're going to hit it.' But somehow, we missed. We went into the ditch and up the embankment.
"When we finally stopped, Rod said, 'You know that guy with the robe and stick? I think I saw him.' After that, every time it was my turn to drive, and the weather was a little bit bad, I went really slow."
Mortensen did own an airplane - a six-seat Cessna 210 - for 31/2 years.
On the way to a rodeo in San Francisco, with Morris at the controls, the plane ran out of fuel outside of Lodi, Calif., and crashed. Morris died from his injuries. The cowboys traveling - Marvin Garrett, Thad Bothwell, Scott Johnston and Mark Garrett - were also injured. Mark Garrett was able to pull his friends and brother from the wreckage.
Mortensen was already in San Francisco for the rodeo when it happened.
"They never showed and I knew something was wrong," said Mortensen, his voice going quiet. "Ken Lensegrav told me. He said the plane had burned and everybody was hurt.
"I just went back out to the arena kind of numb."
Mortensen climbed into the chute and prepared to ride his horse.
"I had Crash Landing of the Flying Five Rodeo Company," he said. "I froze. I had to get off for a moment."
Mortensen collected his thoughts, rode, and won the round. "It was a weird thing," he finished.
Mortensen isn't sure where the future will take him.
"You know, it would be hard at this age to have a boss," he said with another laugh. "Being on the road, going hard for 17 years, consumes you.
"I learned it's cold in the winter and hot in the summer here. Before, I was always away."
Always considered one of professional rodeo's smartest cowboys, Mortensen has some property in Bozeman and some other investments. "I've tried to handle my rodeo business and put stuff away," he said.
"I'll give myself a couple of years to do some things. I just can't go out and get a job. I've never worked for anybody else. We'll have to see what opportunities come along. I might do anything."
Travel is a priority.
"I might go and visit friends I've made around the country," Mortensen said. "Some day, I'm going to pack up and travel around and visit people. When you rodeo, you don't stay in one place that long.
"I might just go to the rodeo in Joseph, Oregon. It's just a neat place. I want to spend a weekend there, sit in the stands and enjoy the whole thing."
What he won't do is ride another bucking horse. And he's fine with that.
"I could still ride but not the level I want to," said Mortensen. "I'm not sad about it. It's time.
"I'm satisfied with what I've done with rodeo. I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished."