Invitation to a Stomping

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

The country music thunders out of the loudspeakers overhead, limiting conversations to close quarters. In the din, any man can find solitude. Ryan Rippo, clad all in black, stands with his heels together and sways. He leans forward, letting his fingers dangle to the toes of his boots, and rolls back upright, whereupon he clasps his hands above his head, rolls his shoulders and proceeds to pat down his hair. McIntyre saunters over with a walk that suggests his body is made out of brand-new mattress springs. The two exchange notes briefly. As McIntyre takes his leave, he turns and shouts, with a smile, "If you can do it, I can do it, motherfucker!"

Riders all compare their assigned bulls, trying to figure whether this bull or that is mean or just crazy, but rider Jason Wade, who by day works as an EMT, summarizes it best when he stands near the front of the pen watching several of the animals shoulder one another into the pen walls. "Boy," he mutters, "they're fightin' today."

Beside him, the black suitcase of Stephen Keighley sits piled with sand kicked up by the bulls. Keighley opens the lid to toss in his worn paperback copy of The Bible for Teen Guys. At 16, he's old enough to grow a faint blond moustache and to take seriously the role of de facto spiritual leader among the riders. He wasn't close to God until he began riding two years ago, when he met riders who showed him religion. He since has felt a calling to spread the word of the divine among his peers.

Before the event, the bulls are the subject of discussion among the riders. At one point, the debate centered on whether one bull was "mean or just crazy."
Before the event, the bulls are the subject of discussion among the riders. At one point, the debate centered on whether one bull was "mean or just crazy."

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Carter stands atop a fence rail and calls back: "Boys, you need to line up." Before the introductions, Keighley crouches at his bull rope. He closes his eyes and begins praying quietly, bouncing, face turning red, appearing ready to cry. He stands and pumps his fist and points to the heavens, body bouncing, chaps bobbing. One of the bull farmers, called a stock contractor, witnesses this from a few feet away and theorizes that "he's got some Indian in him."

The video that failed to boot up on the first day? It turns out to be a four-and-a-half-minute tribute to the armed forces, rapid-fire agitprop at its best, with more than 200 edits of helicopters flying, missiles launching, tanks treading, and paratroopers paratrooping, all set to "Bring Me to Life" by the rock band Evanescence. When it ends, the crowd stirs from what feels like hypnosis and claps as loudly as it will all day, one collective fuck, yeah. It's bull ridin' time.

The guys here are doing this for money, to be sure, but the glory cannot be discounted, because the money isn't good enough to quit the day job, whether that be dairy farming or shoeing horses or attending high school. The entry fee is $200, for starters, and to enter you must have paid annual dues of $100. Then there's gas money from Pike Road, Alabama, or Cut Off, Louisiana, or Lucedale, Mississippi, plus hotel, plus food, plus any money you turn around and hand to the casino. No wonder that you can wander around the staging area and hear tales of guys playing Monopoly in their rooms the night before.

"Rodeo is a big-dog-eats-little-dog thing," says Werner, who has lived in Bushnell, Florida, since moving from Davie a few years ago. "The top dogs live off the guys who are on the bottom paying their fees. That's how we make our money." A great weekend for the teenager might be $3,000 from three rodeos, but he's more likely to make no more than a grand. He is by any reasonable measure a Big Dog.

At these events, he and the other top riders will see each other week after week, as the strong travel great distances to earn their bread from the hubris of the weak. Last year, Werner took only two weekends off; the occasion was surgery, to treat varicose veins in his testicles, a result, he suspects, of too many rackings. He also has a titanium plate in his face, courtesy of a bull who at Werner's first high school rodeo tried to hook him and instead kicked him in the head and stomped on his chest. To him, riding is all about countermoves, following intuition. "If I start thinking about it too much," he says of a ride, "it gets in my head."

On this day, his mind is clear and his ride is true. His best friend, Morrison, holds his bull's horn while Werner's in the chute. Werner gives the signal, and the gate is thrown open. With his head down and right arm flailing, he maintains his grip until the buzzer sounds, then races for a fence to climb. Judges score 50 possible points for the rider, for staying upright and keeping the nonriding hand outstretched, and 50 for the bull, for violent leaps and sharp turns. Werner's 81 points keep him in contention.

Less deft is the ride of 23-year-old Drew Walters. He manages to remain atop the bull for what looks like a scoring ride until he's jostled sideways. He slides off the bull's right side; his left hand, so tightly tied to the top of the bull, stays behind. He's hung up. As the bull thrashes, its hooves churning, the bullfighters trying to allay the animal, the crowd screaming, everything happening too fast, Walters' face turns to pure fear. He is an animal with a leg in a trap, a factory worker with a sleeve hung in a gear. After an instant of eternity, he wrenches himself free and, to a relieved ovation, makes a dramatic flourish of picking up his hat from the sand.

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