A sportswriter, a fiesty bull and one heck of a story (cont.)
Fear is a funny thing. It can keep you out of dangerous situations (been there), stop you in your tracks in the presence of an attractive woman (done that) and can generally be an overpowering presence in your life. Conquering fear, however, has its benefits. Last year I took on former super featherweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez in a three-round sparring session, and even though the slashing punches Marquez delivered to my body hurt, the pain was nothing compared to the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I felt when it was over. And it made for a heck of a story.
The prospect of bull riding evoked similar emotions. One of the fastest growing sports in America, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) attracted 1.5 million spectators to rodeos around the country last year. The appeal is simple, even primal: fans come to see the ultimate battle of man versus beast, where a rider attempts to control -- for eight seconds -- a raging bull that can weigh upwards of a ton.
The dangers of the sport are equally as obvious. While riders are required to wear padded vests and have the option of wearing caged, hockey-style helmets, neither provide much protection if something the size of a Volkswagen comes crashing down on you. Fatalities, unfortunately, are a part of the sport. (In fact, tragically, there was one while I was at riding school. More on that later.) While the PBR has had only one death in its 15-year existence, they are not the only game in town. In 1989, former world champion Lane Frost was killed when his bull gored him with his horns after tossing him (Frost's death led to all riders being required to wear the protective vests). Last November, two riders were killed at non-PBR events in Kansas and Arkansas.
"This is always going to be a dangerous sport," said seven-time All-Around World Champion Cowboy and PBR President Ty Murray. "It is the essence of the sport. I don't care what kind of precautions or equipment you have, this sport is still going to be plenty, plenty, plenty dangerous."
Which brings me back to fear. I had never been bull riding before. In fact, my only experience with livestock was the kind attached to carriages. But like so many others I was tantalized by the potential adrenaline rush that comes with riding a bull. And as a journalist with a bully pulpit to publicize the sport at my disposal, it came as no surprise that the PBR eagerly accepted my request to participate in a bull riding training program. They directed me to the Sankey Rodeo School, a well-respected bronco and bull riding school that was holding a three-day camp at the University of Tennessee-Martin.
I first realized I was out of my element when I arrived at the UT Martin Agriculture Pavilion. The PBR had graciously provided me with some cowboy apparel and I arrived at the rodeo nattily dressed in chaps, boots and Wrangler jeans. Still, I couldn't help but feel out of place when I noticed no one else in my class was sporting a DKNY belt and my Armani glasses were about as fashionable here as my chaps would be in Manhattan.
My fellow classmates weren't quite what I expected either. On the Sankey Web site, the school is billed as a "Vision Quest Bull Riding or Bull Fighting Adventure Experience." Those words would suggest there would be many would-be bull riders like myself looking to try their hand at bull riding before walking away and never doing it again. Not so. Of the 32 students at the camp, only five of them were the for the same reason as me. The rest were there with the intent on training (or at least thinking about training) to be professionals.
On the first morning we received a crash course in the sport. I'll say this: getting dressed may not be half the battle, but it's a significant part. Just learning to put your spurs on properly is a 30-minute process. The rest of the morning was devoted to making sure each student had the proper equipment, a laundry list of gear that includes cowbells, riding gloves and rosin bags.
At the end of the morning, we were put on saddle horse, where we were taught proper riding technique. Just getting on the saddle horse is difficult enough. Balance is the key: while gripping the bull rope with one hand, riders are expected to maintain their balance by keeping their other hand in the air in a perpendicular motion.
After the morning session it was time to ride. Riders milled around the chute area waiting for a bull to be assigned to them. My first bull was a seemingly docile brown and white monster. Positioning myself on it was easy enough and even though the bull threw me tossed me quickly, I counted myself lucky to escape with just a bruised ego.
On the second day, I wasn't so lucky.