That was the night that bull rider Charlie Sampson was knocked unconscious and took half a dozen stitches in the chin. Watching this, Dan Etbauer said with admiration, "Charlie broke every bone in his face in front of the president [ Ronald Reagan] a few years back. Then he got his ear clean whacked off. They had to rebuild it. That's a fake ear."
Ronny Sparks of Texarkana, Texas, who won his second straight bullfighting title, is another fella whose body has been through the mill. Bullfighting, for the uninitiated, is a relatively new event in which a bunch of clowns take turns pulling a Pamplona in front of extremely agitated bulls with large horns. The crazier the chances the clowns take, the higher they're marked. Sparks won after twice getting butted in the rump by a bull named Ice Tea, whose horns were about 12 feet long, and then slapping the beast upside its drooling face while leaning over the side of a clown barrel. What made this derring-do particularly impressive was that during a rodeo on Oct. 20, Sparks's right ankle was broken when a bull stepped on it. The ankle was in a cast for three weeks, and Sparks hadn't tried to run on it until the NFR. "Your adrenaline's pumping so hard I never even thought about it," said the 29-year-old rodeo clown who over the years has had his back broken twice, his tailbone broken twice and his fibula snapped when he was impaled by a bull's horn. "They weren't worried about the broken bone," Sparks recalls. "They were worried about that hole. No tellin' where that bull's horn had been. Some nasty places, for sure."
"In every sport some guys have disregard for pain," says Dr. Evans, who was once the team physician for the Dallas Cowboys and the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. "But we see more of this type of guy in rodeo than in any other sport. Part of it is because they can't win any money by sitting out."
But it's not just money that gets these guys back in the arena when they're hurt. It's the rodeo culture. Bareback rider Deb Greenough of Red Lodge, Mont., who won his first world championship last week, can still remember when he rode his first calf. He was four years old, and it was during the annual spring branding on his father's ranch. Rodeo runs deep in the Greenough blood. Deb's grandfather Bill, his great-uncle Turk and his great-aunts Marge and Alice all rodeoed. Turk and Alice were world champions in the '30s, and Alice, who rode saddle broncs, once performed for the queen of England.
So when four-year-old Deb wanted to ride that calf, no Greenough was shocked. "I can still remember that little——bucking," Deb says. "After a little ways I fell off, burst into tears and expected some sympathy. Didn't get any. My dad said, ' Cowboys don't cry.' After a little bit I felt better and wanted to ride another one. He wouldn't let me. Said, 'Nah, you'll just cry.' " Deb swore up and down that he wouldn't cry. Scout's honor. Dad finally relented. "I don't remember how long I stayed on that calf," Deb says, "but I know that when I got bucked off, I sure didn't cry about it."
That's the culture. That's what infects the cowboys' thinking. That's why Greenough now suffers from something referred to as tennis-ball arm. His Popeye-sized left biceps is down around his elbow, and there's a hole where the muscle used to be. A doctor might say that the long head of Greenough's biceps was torn clean off his shoulder. It happened at a Canadian rodeo in Cloverdale, B.C., last year when Greenough's horse hit the fence, and Greenough got hung up between the fence post and his rigging. Something gave in his arm, he wasn't sure what. So, naturally, Greenough went on to the next rodeo, felt something give again on his mount's first jump but ignored it. He rode the horse to the whistle. When he reached down to feel his arm, his biceps wasn't there. He could have had surgery to reattach the muscle to the shoulder, but that would have delayed his return. Left to its own devices, the biceps would reattach itself, he thought, wherever it could catch hold. Two months later, he was back rodeoing.
"I thought my rodeoing days were over," Greenough says now. "I came back with a whole different attitude. I came here with my mind set to win."
In third place entering the ninth round, Greenough knew he had to make something happen Saturday night. Bruised and sore all over, he sucked it up and put the spurs to a big brawny bucking horse named Laplander. He won the round and $12,002. That vaulted Deb into the bareback lead, which he maintained on Sunday to win the first world championship in bareback for one of the "riding Greenoughs" in some 60 years. "I cussed myself every jump, saying, 'Get up there, you wimp, and don't weaken!' " an exuberant Greenough said later. "You've got to keep chewing on yourself." Of course you do. Pain is mother's milk to a cowboy.