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The Cowboy Crusaders take their message to TV via Jeff Foxworthy's game show

The American Bible Challenge

8 p.m. Thursday


Posted 10:59am on Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2013

It's almost impossible to rattle an old rodeo cowboy.

"I rode bucking bulls for a living," Kelly Clark says. "So not a whole lot intimidates me."

That includes the brand-new experience of appearing on a TV game show.

When Clark and his buddies Scott Mendes and Jeff Copenhaver, three North Texans, all former rodeo circuit pros, recently moseyed onto the set of Game Show Network's The American Bible Challenge, they didn't freeze under the lights or get tongue-tied in the least.

The way Clark sees it, once you've climbed on 1,700 pounds of angry bull for a bone-rattling eight-second ride, what's scary about host Jeff Foxworthy and one of his you-might-be-a-redneck jokes?

Mind you, these men had nothing to be nervous about. They couldn't be better suited for this show -- because if there's one thing they know as well as the cowboy/rodeo lifestyle, Mendes says, it's the Bible.

They've been reading the Bible pretty much every day of their adult lives, studying it, finding endless inspiration from it.

The Cowboy Crusaders, as they've dubbed themselves, compete on the show Thursday night.

They were one of 18 teams selected to appear this season on The American Bible Challenge.

It was Mendes' idea to try out. He's a world champion bull rider (1997) who runs Western Harvest Ministries, a rodeo-themed Christian youth outreach in Weatherford. He recruited Clark, a fellow bull rider who lives near Azle, and Copenhaver, a cattle roping world champ (1975) from Granbury.

They went to Dallas to audition and aced a written test about the Bible, finishing among the top 10 percent. Then a camera crew did interviews and filmed the guys working on a ranch.

After that, they were quickly informed that they were American Bible Challenge material.

"Jeff Foxworthy came to me when we were on the set, during one of the commercial breaks, and he was just really tickled," Clark recalls. "He said, 'This is so neat that the show has gotten so diversified. We've got bull riders over here, we've got hip-hop guys over there. So many different walks of life, so many people sharing their Christian testimony.'"

The American Bible Challenge differs from most TV game shows in only a few significant ways, most notably the fact that contestants don't pocket the prize money. The winnings go to a cause, a charity or a church.

The Crusaders were playing to raise money for Mendes' Western Harvest Ministries, which uses rodeo sports instruction to reach disadvantaged and at-risk youth.

"I had a dysfunctional childhood," says Mendes, who became a Christian in 1995 and started his ministry in 2003. "That's why I work with young people. Because I know what it's like to have big dreams and to want to do great things, but not really have any resources or mentoring."

Clark, whose friendship with Mendes goes back 20 years, has done many favors for his buddy -- from lending him a bucking machine to teaching kids to ride to officiating in Mendes' Christian bull riding league -- but he never dreamed it would include being on a game show.

"If it gets a little notoriety for Scott's ministry," says Clark, a Christian since age 9, "I'm all for it."

Copenhaver, founder of the first Cowboy Church, in the bull-riding arena at Billy Bob's in 1986, says he never dreamed that Bible trivia knowledge would get him on TV, either, especially given that it took him off the pro rodeo circuit.

"It's interesting," he says. "When I gave my life to the Lord in 1978, I had already qualified for the national finals that year, and I went ahead and rodeoed and competed in December of '78. But I quit the next three and a half years after that, because I was literally so excited to learn the Bible.

"I had little jobs in order to feed myself, but I didn't rodeo at all during what would have been the prime of my career, in my late 20s and early 30s, because I was more excited about learning the Bible. Opening the Bible was like opening this treasure chest of some kind."

And in a roundabout way, it has opened this new door for a different kind of outreach.

"What I like about the show," Copenhaver says, "is that it's centered around the word of God and they've made it fun. I think that's exciting."

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