Late on a summer Saturday night, professional cowboy Byron Koonsman arrived at the Resistol Arena in Mesquite, Texas, a subrurb of Dallas, hoping to take home $10,000. To earn that bounty, all Koonsman had to do was ride a bull for eight seconds, less time than it takes Maurice Greene to run the 100. Ordinarily that bull would have been Durango Skoal, a one-ton animal mat has gone 93-0 in the last three years as the star attraction at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, which is held every weekend from April to October and draws an average crowd of 3,700. Durango Skoal, however, was not the featured bull this evening, so Koonsman should have had a better shot at winning the 10 grand, right?
Koonsman knew better. The featured bull was Spectacular, a less experienced but equally frightening critter. "That's him over there," said Koonsman, pointing toward a mottled black-and-white bull. "Kinda pretty, as in pretty ornery. He'll try to bash me to pieces before we even get out of the chute."
Koonsman, a 32-year-old dues-paying member ($300 per year) of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and occasional patron of some of the finest emergency rooms in the Southwest, ignored the fact that the odds of his being disabled or killed were significanly greater than his chances of collecting the loot. To boot, he'd paid a $45 entry fee for the privilege of boarding Spectacular, which was akin to a condemned man tipping the executioner.
The high-risk, man-versus-animal thrill ride is perfect for the attention span of the modern American sports fan. This fall rodeo will graduate from ESPN2 to NBC, which will telecast the Bud Light World Challenge (an event on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, distinct from the PRCA) from Austin on Nov. 25. Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Stars, bought the Mesquite rodeo, the only one in the nation that is held every week for six months, in 1999 in anticipation of the sport's expansion into network TV.
Don't expect Koonsman to become a celebrated athlete even if rodeo becomes more mainstream. Because he's six feet tall, his high center of gravity makes it unlikely that he'll ever be a champion bull rider. "I made up my mind at age 12 that this was what I was going to do with my life," says Koonsman, a native of Stephenville, Texas, who took courses in blacksmithing at Sul Ross State in Alpine, Texas, and makes his living as a painter and handyman.
Bucking-stock breeder Jim Gay, a son of cowboy legend Neal Gay, who cofounded the Mesquite rodeo in 1958, is sympathetic to the workplace hardships of cowboys. "With scientific breeding, the talent gap between the bull and the cowboy is beginning to widen," Gay says. "The bulls today are stronger, some are more ill-tempered, and they're getting so big that we'll have trouble squeezing them into the chute before long. You could compare having cowboys trying to ride the bounty bulls at Mesquite to a kid from the Florida State League trying to bat against Randy Johnson." (Only one cowboy, Scott Frazier, has won the bounty in the 36 times the ride has been attempted since May.)
Ten minutes before his showdown with Koonsman, Spectacular entered chute 4. "About now is when the adrenaline takes over," said Koonsman. When Koonsman slid aboard, Spectacular made a hissing noise and appeared to expand. His eyes, cold and expressionless, rolled back into his head. The chute swung open, and the bull lunged forward, all four hooves off the ground, and then executed a violent, spinning left turn.
Koonsman anticipated that move, but Spectacular reacted with a zigzag twist. Koonsman overcorrected, and after 3.5 seconds he was on the ground. "He threw his head back, trying to bust my face in, and in trying to avoid that I lost my balance," Koonsman said five minutes later. "I just about had him rode. Next time I will."
Koonsman went home with the standard-issue bull rider's reward: not even a nickel. On Sunday morning, in a one-paragraph account of his work, The Dallas Morning News misspelled his name.