A sportswriter, a fiesty bull and one heck of a story (cont.)
I didn't want to nod my head. I wanted it to be over. But in order for it to be over, I had to nod my head. A classic conundrum. So after two more deep breaths, I nodded my head furiously.
Now, I don't like to use the word "exploded" in stories because I think it tends to be overused and misused. Not in this case. My bull, perhaps feeling the frustration of being pent up in the chute for so long, exploded out of the gate. As it bucked wildly I felt my body shift from side to side. When I attempted to pull myself toward the bull's shoulders, a hard kick sent me catapulting over its head and into the dirt. The force of the impact, and the angle in which I landed, fractured my collarbone. Disoriented from the fall, I stumbled to my feet and raced toward the gate.
"Dude, you looked like a missile," remarked Ryan Allen, a fellow novice who had made a 13 1/2-hour drive from Arlington, Va. to participate in the school.
"That's it," I said as I ripped off my helmet. "I'm done."
Later, in the video room where riders gather to watch their previous rides, I studied my performance. Better, I thought to myself. My legs gripped the bull's sides, my form (though far from perfect) was superior to my first ride. Not bad. I would have patted myself on the back if I hadn't broken my clavicle.
Looking around the room I realized I wasn't the only rider banged up. On the first day the video room was filled with eager, fresh-faced riders. By the second afternoon the room resembled an infirmary. Ice bags covered broken arms and sprained ankles. The riders were bruised all over. The giddiness of getting on a bull had been replaced by looks of defeat.
Still, no one was willing to quit. When the afternoon session started, the ice was tossed to the side and riders again began to suit up. Then, it happened.
I didn't have a chance to get to know Tim Chambers. Tim was one of a handful of riders I had spoken to about the bull riding experience. An Army veteran from East Market, Tenn., Tim had come to Martin with some of the same goals I had: to ride a bull and bring home a heck of a story. Unfortunately, Tim became the story.
A few hours after my ride, at about 2 p.m. on Saturday, I was back in the arena, an ice bag taped to my shoulder. Tim was climbing onto another bull. Everything began well enough: Tim got into position, secured his rope around its midsection and gripped the gate. When he nodded his head (he wasn't wearing a helmet), the gate swung open and the bull began to buck. It didn't take more than two kicks for Tim to lose his grip. But instead of flying away from the bull, the way most people do, Tim slid under the bull, which continued to buck wildly. Both of its back legs landed on Tim's body, one grazing his face and one striking his chest.
It didn't last more than a few seconds. The bullfighters in the arena calmly lured the bull away from Tim, who stumbled to his feet. The UT-Martin athletic training staff got to him quickly, and within minutes the ambulance that had been parked outside the arena swung into action. But Tim stopped breathing en route to the hospital and that evening died of massive internal injuries.
The class continued. According to school founder Lyle Sankey, it was just the second fatality in the 33-year history of the school, and he sounded somber when he talked about it. "It's horrible when something like this happens," he said. "But bull riding is a violent sport. We do everything possible to make sure everyone is safe, but there is only so much you can do when something that big hits you like that."
At a local bar that night, Allen, the Virginia cop, and I pondered the question of why we had come to Tennessee. "Maybe it was for the adrenaline rush, the sweet bar story or to get chicks," he said. "It sure as hell wasn't to die."
As I flew back to New York the next day, I couldn't help but feel I had taken an unnecessary risk. Leave bull riding to the professionals, I thought to myself, or at least to those who aspire to be professionals. We are a nation of thrill seekers, which is why it's easy to understand people seeking out the best available high. But sometimes the risk is not worth the reward. I think the family of Tim Chambers would agree with that.