Mission Mutton Bustin’: How one tiny contestant stole the hearts of thousands

January 15, 2020

Mission Mutton Bustin’: How one tiny contestant stole the hearts of thousands

By: Susan Emfinger Scott

Opening night of the Houston Livestock and Rodeo™ always draws much attention and the 2018 Rodeo was no exception. 

Garth Brooks belted out his famous anthems and ballads to a sold-out crowd from the new, state-of-the-art, star-shaped concert stage during RODEOHOUSTON. However, another performance that evening also left everyone talking. 

Mutton Bustin’ participant Marlie Ruth McDonald, 6, was already falling off the darting sheep as it shot out of the chute. Incredibly, she made a quick recovery and earned the highest score. Her 90 points surpassed the other contestants and won her a coveted gold belt buckle. 

“I did what my parents told me. I hold on really tight," Marlie told Patti Smith, RODEOHOUSTON color commentator in a post-event interview. 

Marlie also said she would like to be a spy when she grows up because she wants to “fight for the world and fight off the bad guys.” Little did the audience know, this future spy already had some battle experience — she is a cancer survivor.

During her mother Nathalie's 34th week of pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed Marlie had a golf ball-size mass in her brain. An MRI was performed in San Antonio and the results were sent to leading pediatric cancer hospitals. The next day, the family received a phone call from Texas Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Murali Chintagumpala informing them that their unborn baby girl could be helped.
With that amazing news, the family moved to Houston where Marlie, just 4 days old, underwent seven hours of surgery to resect a stage III glioneuronal brain tumor, a malignant and very aggressive form of cancer. 

She suffered a stroke immediately afterwards and underwent two years of chemotherapy. Since her diagnosis, Marlie has been monitored closely, and this year, she was moved to LongTerm Survivor Care. Remarkably, she has no significant side effects or developmental differences caused by her condition or treatment.

“Marlie was not only cute, but her story is an amazing one as a cancer survivor,” said Rainey Janke, Mutton Bustin’ Committee Chair. “It was great to have a winner like Marlie on the first night of the Rodeo.” 

Mutton Bustin’ first appeared at RODEOHOUSTON in 2008 and was overseen by the Calf Scramble Committee. The Rodeo quickly realized it needed a dedicated committee to run the event, so a task force was assembled in 2009. 

The Mutton Bustin’ Committee became official in 2010 and is currently 447 members strong. It has two teams running sheep, one inside NRG Stadium and one in The Junction, a kid-focused area on the NRG Park grounds with rides, games and fun exhibits. 

To compete, children must be between 5 and 6 years old and not weigh more than 55 pounds. 

While her Mutton Bustin' days are now behind her, Marlei is focusing her time on karate and gymnastics classes. She says both are essential for her future career. If the way Marlie championed her Mutton Bustin’ performance and dominated cancer are any indications of her skills as a future spy, there is no limit to how far she will go.