Kid Cowboy

When youngsters grab on to 1500-pound bulls, injury is just a buck away

A cool wind has kicked up, shaking the limbs of this November night with anticipation. But in the chutes, where 33 bull riders are gathered for the Crown Royal 61st Annual Sunshine State Championship Bull Riding competition, it's hot as the devil's barnyard. Five Star Rodeo has trucked in 40 bulls for the event, which is being held at the Town of Davie's Bergerongrounds. When the trailer door is flung open, roughly 60,000 pounds of snorting muscle, brawny beef, snot, and dung clatters down a metal ramp and into a fenced pen. As the bulls stomp around the holding area, a smelly stew of dirt and manure splatters shirts, hats, boots, and cowboys standing on a wooden platform above the narrow cells where the animals will be hustled when it is time for their rides.

Along a fence that separates the bullpen from the platform, several guys do a cowboy version of a ballet barre: extending one leg onto the rail and bending the other. That muscle will do overtime tonight. Billy Velix, a bull rider and landscaper from West Palm Beach, places his cowboy hat over his heart, falls to one knee in the corner beside the pen, and says a prayer. When finished, he replaces the hat, grabs his bull rope, and heads to rig up Lone Wolf Skoal. Two brass cowbells, attached to the rope to weigh it down, clang as Velix walks. "I just ask God for the hand of protection," he says. There's a lot of praying in bull riding.

"Go on! Go on," a crew hand shouts, slapping a bull named Speckled Bird on the rump to move him into the chutes. Twelve-year-old Dylan Werner and eleven-year-old Roy Stewart stand on the platform with the riders. When the bull moves into place, Dylan slams the gate, securing the animal in an area about four feet wide by six feet long. After another is hustled in behind Speckled Bird, Roy slams a second gate.

Melmo Quintero, a bull rider from Moore Haven, eases onto Speckled Bird and slides into position. "Ride up," Dylan says as Quintero gives the nod for the gate to open. Speckled Bird rockets out of the chute with the five-foot, two-inch Quintero sitting solidly on his back. Quintero rides expertly, staying centered while the bull spins to the right, and shoots his hind legs high into the air. The cowboy makes it to the eight-second whistle. He earns 81 points, enough to take him to the second round in second place. Only a handful of the 33 bull riders who compete tonight makes it to the eight-second bell.

Sportscasters and practitioners boast that bull riding is the most dangerous eight seconds in professional sports -- like trying to ride a hurricane with only a hank of rope to hang on to. An iron will, strong inner thigh muscles, spurs, and a gift for balance help, but cowboys say it's heart and cojones that keep you on. Most times, a ride ends with a bone-crunching thud, a face full of dirt, and the bull, horns down, looking to spear anything that moves. It can be dance or disaster. Lane Frost, winner of the 1987 World Championship in Bullriding, lost his life in 1989 when a bull speared his ribs and severed an artery. Anybody who's been around it for a while has compiled a medical chart. "Broke leg, collarbone, arm, tailbone, broke ribs 12 times... stopped counting after 12," says retired Davie bull rider Darrell Coe. Pain, he says, is part of the price of admission: "If you want to be a bull rider, you are going to get a lot of hurts."

Today, professional bull riding has newfound cache, thanks to the marketing finesse of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), an organization that split from the Professional Cowboy Rodeo Association in 1992 and launched a separate circuit for the sport. The PBR has brought bull riding to a national audience through weekly broadcasts on TNN; NBC Sports aired the finals competition for the first time this year. The PBR has attracted big sponsors, like Bud Lite, and bigger payoffs. The top bull rider in 2001, Adriano Moraes,earned $458,798.63. That's a big jump from the day when Davie's Coe made $363 for winning the Canadian finals in the sport in 1964. There's even a soundtrack now -- the PBR's "Dancin' with Thunder." And Florida alone has 72 rodeos.

Celebrity connections add to the macho allure. Singer Jewel is dating champ Ty Murray. You think it's just coincidence that trendmeister Madonna donned a cowboy hat for her 2000 release, Music?

It's no surprise, then, that youngsters like Dylan and Roy are caught up in the hype, starting in the junior rodeos, graduating from sheep to steers to bulls. By riding bulls in these events, the boys have joined an exclusive fraternity. They mount smaller and less ornery animals than the professionals, but they know the same fear that haunts the men, they know the protocol of chute procedure, and they know the rush of the ride. Here in the chutes, next to cowboys twice their age, they are growing up cowboy. The older guys notice the pair, seeing in Dylan and Roy the promise of youthful talent that has yet to find its limit. Velix points them out. "Those kids are good," he says. "When he grows up," he nods in Dylan's direction, "he's going to show us all up."

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