Sunni Deb Backstrom was standing behind her motorhome on crisp mountain morning in Yuma, Colorado.
Her work day, which started a couple of hours earlier, would continue in the afternoon and through evening. But now she had a few precious minutes to herself.
Backstrom was observing a pen of bucking horses which would be used later that same day.
“Oh, they’re beautiful. I’ve always loved bucking horses,” she marveled.
It’s been a life-long love affair for Backstrom, who has been around bucking horses almost every day of her life.
The family story goes that just a couple of days after Backstrom’s birth in Missoula, her father Marty loaded up his wife Ellen and only child into the family vehicle and drove to the famed Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City.
“They put me in a Hamm’s beer box,” said Backstrom, adding the best part of the tale.
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Rodeo has always been part of Backstrom. And she, has always been part of rodeo.
“I don’t ever remember not being at a rodeo,” she said.
It has been Backstrom’s devotion, her passion, her work in the sport she loves that earned her induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame for 2020.
Backstrom goes in the contract personnel category. She has been selected to work as the National Finals Rodeo secretary 17 times, including the last 14 years in a row. Backstrom has been selected the NFR Secretary of the Year 10 times, was the NFR office manager in 2005 and was chosen three times as a timer for the NFR (1975, 1980, 1984). She was just 19 years old the first time she was selected to be a timer, the youngest ever to be chosen at the time.
Backstrom received her Rodeo Cowboy Association card, through special approval, at the age of 14.
“I am very humbled by this,” said Backstrom. “When you stand back and see who’s in there … my rodeo life has been very blessed.”
She has worked every major rodeo in the United States and continues to this day. Part of her upcoming schedule includes Miles City and Kalispell.
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The Missoula native, who attended Sentinel High School, “Go Spartans,” she said, is joined by tie-down roper Cody Ohl, bull rider Butch Kirby, stock contractor Jim Sutton, Jr., barrel racer Martha Josey, Western Horseman editor Randy Witte, bareback horse Grated Coconut and the Ellensburg Rodeo.
Backstrom, who has lived in Congress, Arizona, since the 1970s, joins her mother Ellen in the Hall of Fame.
Ellen Backstrom, who died in 1988, was the first woman inducted in 1995. Ellen Backstrom was a four-time secretary for the NFR and was the first woman to serve on the PRCA board of directors, representing the contract personnel.
The Backstroms are the only mother-daughter pair to receive professional rodeo’s highest honor.
“One of the highlights of my life was giving the induction speech for my mother,” said the daughter whose family roots are in the small community of Ovando. “My dad would have been so excited (about her hall of fame induction). We would probably have to hospitalize him.”
The first time Backstrom was selected NFR secretary of the year, part of her group at the Champions banquet included her father. When she was called to the podium to receive her buckle, Backstrom heard familiar footsteps behind her.
“My dad followed me to the stage,” Backstrom said with a chuckle of the moment. “I had to tell him, ‘Dad, go sit down.’ He would probably have done the same thing during the induction ceremony.”
The ProRodeo Hall of Fame ceremony was scheduled for August 1 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Backstrom was also scheduled to work a PRCA rodeo in Sidney, Iowa that same weekend.
“It was hard. I was really, really sad,” she said of making a decision. “Sidney is my favorite rodeo. I’ve been working that for 40 years. I’ve worked it every year except 1995 when mom was inducted. I was so torn. I have to be at that induction.”
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Her feelings weren’t actually hurt when it was shelved. “When it was cancelled, I thought, ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be,’” Backstrom added.
And it solved another problem. There was discussion of limiting every inductee to five guests. Backstrom had 120 on her list.
“I wanted to be with family and friends,” she said. “I grew up in this business. I know everybody, from Casey Tibbs to Ty Murray. I know I will get an induction. And when it does, I will be very happy.”
And she still got her moment. Cervi Championship Rodeo, who she has been with for 40 years, and the Sidney rodeo committee put together a video tribute to Backstrom for the final performance.
“I’ve seen people stand for the cowboys and to see 12,000 in the stands cheering for me, I almost lost it,” said Backstrom.
She credits stock contractor Mike Cervi and former NFR general manager and three-time world champion Shawn Davis for her success. “They are my mentors. Those two men are responsible for who I am,” Backstrom said.
Backstrom not only grew up around rodeo, she is part of its fabric, always willing to help wherever needed.
Along with helping her mother handle entries, stock draw and payouts, “Mom said she could always count on me for making correct change,” Backstrom said. She also would pull gates, sort cattle and even work as a pick-up if needed. She also competed, roping with her father.
At 13, Backstrom was by herself in an Augusta bar on late Friday night, preparing the paperwork for that Sunday’s rodeo. Her mother was in Bozeman for the College National Finals Rodeo. Finishing around 1 a.m., Backstrom walked three-quarters of a mile to a friend’s house. Ellen Backstrom would re-team with her daughter Saturday night after the CNFR was over.
“Nobody worried,” she said.
Backstrom likens a rodeo secretary’s job to an office manager. Coordinating many tasks and requests from many people.
“When I put on a clinic, I tell them, ‘You are the hub of the rodeo. You deal with everybody except the spectators. You deal with contestants, judges, stock contractors … everything goes through that office,’” she said.
Backstrom travels around the country in her motorhome, towing a Jeep for shorter drives. And no matter where she parks, Montana is never far away.
“Montana will always be my home,” said Backstrom. “That’s my heart. I come from a big family and am related to somebody. And I have people who will be friends when I’m done rodeoing.
“When I retire I’ll probably move back to Montana. And when I die, I’ll be buried next to my parents and grandparents in Ovando.”
But Backstrom is not done yet. There are a lot more rodeos on her schedule.
“This life, it has been very good to me.”
Joe Kusek has been writing about rodeo since 1986 and is a two-time PRCA Writer of the Year.