Invitation to a Stomping

On the low-end neck-breaking circuit, only God and America are bigger than bull riding. Just barely.

At the beginning of the program's second half, a cowboy named Brandon Hendrix hops on a bull that bursts from the gates and thrashes its way toward the scorers' table. Hendrix lasts about four seconds before he is sloughed off and then set upon by the rampaging animal. It hooks and tosses him. The spectators' cheers turn to gasps. This is when the bullfighters rush to aid. During a ride, they try to goad the bulls into spinning, which may help the rider's score, as the bull's performance is half the rider's final tally. When the rider dismounts, either by force or by choice, the bullfighters then distract the bull long enough for the competitor to make a gamely run for the fence. On this rescue mission came 26-year-old Sheldon Price, who rode the first bull of the night before assuming bullfighter duty. Price slaps the animal, freeing Hendrix to scramble up the fence — but prompting the bull to chase Price to the center of the ring. It overtakes him, pushing him bellyfirst into the sand and stomping on his back.

As the other bullfighters and a cowboy on horseback corral the animal, Price hustle-staggers to the gate and finds a corner in which to catch his breath. A couple of cowboys attend to him — "You want some water?" "You want a chair?" — as the blood seems to drain from Price's face.

"How's your head?" someone asks. "Because he stepped on the back of your head."

Buckshot Morrison showed why he's on the verge of breaking into the televised PBR tour at just 18 years old.
Buckshot Morrison showed why he's on the verge of breaking into the televised PBR tour at just 18 years old.
Riders such as his friend Dylan Werner just tried to hang on for eight straight seconds.
Riders such as his friend Dylan Werner just tried to hang on for eight straight seconds.

Price is more concerned about his right arm, which is growing a healthy raspberry near the elbow. The announcer summons paramedics to the corner.

Price takes off his red-and-black striped shirt and torn denim overall shorts and says little. His fiancée, a calm blond named Jessica Brou, accompanies him into a hallway with the paramedics. Price peels off the remainder of his armor. He has a cut under his left biceps, a nasty cut on his right arm, and a sick pink hoof print over his right shoulder blade.

The paramedics give him a quick sling for the arm and put a cold pack over the shoulder blade. It's not broken, Price says, but he can tell the muscles have shifted.

"Are you sure you don't want an x-ray?" Brou asks.

"If anything, I would want them to x-ray my ribs," Price says. He smiles, but only for a second. He declines an offer for a stretcher. He declines a trip to the hospital. He declines a chair. Then he asks for the cold press and sling to be removed. The paramedics oblige, telling him that they'll be happy to take him later, if he wants. They take his blood pressure (it's 120 over 80, and "you can't get much better than that," Brou pronounces). They have him sign a form.

A late-coming paramedic watches with astonishment as the bull rider climbs back into his plastic armor and heads back to the ring to keep bulls away from tossed riders.

"Don't you want to take a five-minute break, a soda break or something?" the paramedic asks.

"I just did," Price says.

By the second day of the championships, a smell has claimed the arena: bull pucky, pungent and earthy, cascading from living round steak, plopping to the sand, spattering on the rails of the pen, painting the sides of the chute from which the beasts burst with riders astride. In color, it mimics the tobacco juice the bull riders, stock breeders, and other hangers-on expel. In consistency, it is far heartier. It strikes the nostrils in a burst, then subsides to the background, ever present, never pleasant. The net effect is that this hall, scheduled soon to host Kid Rock and Dennis Miller and Regis Philbin, is starting to feel more like the battlefield it has become.

"Seventy-eight points yesterday," says B.J. Carter, a slim, hatchet-nosed cowboy, his index finger, the nail impacted with corral turf, dragging along a page. The previous night's points standings, posted outside the restrooms, have become a requisite stop on the way to the staging area. Carter finished with 78 points, two points out of the top-six money. Buckshot Morrison won with 86 points, worth a cool $1,643.33, while Sam Allen and hoof-printed rider/fighter Sheldon Price tied for fifth, good for $396.66 apiece. On each of the three days, the top six riders will take home cash, and the eight highest average three-day scores will each get a cash reward. Plus, for each daily winner, and this is critical: a nice belt buckle, a pretty gold number with that world-famous Hard Rock logo inlaid.

"Eight points I gotta make up today," Carter says, turning to a nearby rider. "That means a hundred-and-eight today, right?"

Resigned to pursuing the mathematically impossible (the maximum score per ride is 100), Carter walks out the double doors and into the hive of cowboy rituals in the sand around the bullpens. Men wrap their thighs with Ace bandages for support (an athletic cup would carve into the skin) and don chaps. They wrap their bull ropes on the bars of the pen, then dip into plastic bottles of resin, grinding the gritty material into the ropes to make them tacky. When a rider straddles and ties himself to his bull, wrapping the rope around and through his leather-clad left fist, he needs every available advantage. Finally, the riders nestle into flak jackets that look no more protective than a thin life vest, with a little layer of Kevlar to keep horns out of the rib cage. Any horns heading below the waist — well, you better wrap it up tight and say a little prayer, son.

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