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E.M. Swift
September 06, 1982
Bull riding is the roughest, toughest rodeo event. Ask Don Gay, who's going for a record eighth title
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September 06, 1982

No Guts, No Glory

Bull riding is the roughest, toughest rodeo event. Ask Don Gay, who's going for a record eighth title

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The second rider is bucked onto his back and lies in the center of the arena with the wind knocked out of him. "Get up!" Gay shouts. "Get the hell out of there!" The young man is on his feet in an instant and sprinting, which merely fuels Gay's rage. "If you lie there going, 'Oh, oh, that hurt,' the bull's going to turn around and tap-dance on your chest, 1,500 pounds of him, and that might hurt a little bit more! I don't care if you don't have one ounce of air in you, you get up and hit the nearest gate. I don't want any theatrics out there. Of course, if you really want to get hurt, that's fine. It'll be a good lesson to the rest of these fellas what not to do."

A third cowboy, the jowly one, gets on his first bull. He isn't thinking about "squeeze and pull." Most likely he's wondering what he'll do with his life now that he's decided not to become a bull rider. Two jumps into his ride he half leaps, half falls from his bull and sprawls in the dirt, then scrambles on all fours out of the arena, nearly diving over the fence. "You oughta try hurryin'," Gay calls after him with a smile. "I got you spotted, buddy. There's a fine line between being in trouble and chickenin' out, pardner."

The next cowboy up is the freckled one, all the way down in chute No. 6. He's on a big red bull that has an unreassuring five inches of dried blood on its right horn. As the 17-year-old takes his wrap, the bull humps up in the chute, trying to clamber over the iron pipes. Ricky Bolin, another professional bull rider, who's helping Gay with the school, has hold of the freckled cowboy's arm as the bull thrashes from side to side. The boy looks up to Bolin for a sign to evacuate.

"Cowboy up," Bolin tells him, the rodeo version of "hunker down." The bull stands still for an instant, and the freckled cowboy moves up over his bull rope, tucks his chin in, and nods, his eyes full of fear. The chute opens and the bull turns out, exploding four, five feet high, twisting toward the fence. The young man has a chance to bail out there, but he stays with the bull as it turns back, until Gay yells for him to jump off. He falls as he hits the ground, and the bull turns and charges. The boy gets to his feet and makes it to the fence a stride ahead of the bull. He tries to vault the fence, but the bull's head butts his foot on the way up. It's the same leg he'd broken last summer bull riding, but this time he's only bruised. He limps back to the chutes.

"That kid's got a little pride," Bolin says to no one in particular. It's as great a compliment as any of these students can hope for.

By the morning of Day Two, six of the 20 students have gone home. The rest are stiff and sore. Nearly everyone's limping. Asked why they chose bull riding, nearly all of them say because of the thrill, the element of danger, but some say, naively, it's because of the money. With only a high school education, where else can you earn as much as $1,700 for eight seconds of work? One says it's because horses scare him. Gay will tell you that most of them start bull riding because they figure it's a good way to pick up girls. "And they're right," he adds. But there are no girls or prize money waiting for them at Mesquite, and on the second day enthusiasm for bull riding has noticeably ebbed. This is practice like no other in sport because of one thing: the bull. He isn't practicing. The only way to learn to ride bulls is to get on as many as you can, and each time, it hurts.

Gay has told the students that they can ride as many bulls as they want today. "I can load them a lot longer than you'll want to keep riding them," he promises. The first two riders bail out early, and Don's father, Neal Gay, figures that he's seen enough. A former steer wrestler and saddle-bronc rider, Neal rides in front of the chutes and calls for everyone's attention. He owns the stock they're riding, and is the producer of 26 weekly two-day Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo Fairgrounds, where the school is being held. He doesn't feel his bulls need the exercise. "About 50 percent of bull riding is try," Neal tells the students gruffly. "And I'm not seeing much try out here today. Either get your motor running before you get on one of them things, or you don't get on. This here's an ee-vent."

By early afternoon, only four or five students still have their motors running. The most bulls any of them has been on is five, and by three o'clock the last bull is turned out, unclaimed. School's over.

"When I was 14 I rode 36 bulls for my dad in 2½ hours," Gay says. "I rode them all but one, and he was Bull of the Year in 1968. A shipment of stock would come in, and my brother and I would get on them so Dad could find out if they were any good before putting them into his rodeos. That's how you learn to ride. Out of the 20 students here, maybe one, two will break into the professional ranks in the next five years. But a lot of them find out here what they don't want to do, and that's good, too."

The oldest of the students, 25-year-old Danny Young, comes into the office to thank Gay and say goodby. Gay gives him an autographed poster and wishes him luck. Young will drive all night with a friend, back to Nashville, where they are entered in the bull riding the next day. Young seldom makes expenses, but he talks about one day being the All-Around Cowboy Champion. "It's the thrill of it, I guess," he says. "I've been hurt and knocked around, had a collapsed lung, but it only makes me want to do it that much more."

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