Invitation to a Stomping

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

"You lost a spur," Morrison calls to him from the rail above the chute.

"I was having fun out there," Walters says as he strides off. On the way, Keighley stops him, puts a hand on his shoulder, and bows his head for a second. Walters gets all the way back to his gear before he notices a foot-long rip in his jeans, from mid-zipper down his right thigh. He looks up from the tear and, with brown eyes bulging, smiles and says, "Looks like it got hairy out there." The only other physical evidence of his hang-up is a bloody scuff on his upper right thigh, just below his belt.

Later, Walters says he was just trying to keep his feet under him while the bullfighters did their thing. "I've seen guys just lay down out there, you know, and just get stomped all to hell," he says. This is the second time he's been hung up, actually, so he knows the drill. The first was also the first time his now-wife saw him ride. He explained to her afterward that will retire by 30. He has about a year left at the University of West Alabama, studying history, before he gets his teaching certificate. He figures that, after seven years of riding, seven more will be plenty. He doesn't want to wind up one of those ghosts who hang around until they need a crutch.

Stephen Keighley assumes the role of minister among the riders, who pray through injuries and the inevitable disappointments.
Stephen Keighley assumes the role of minister among the riders, who pray through injuries and the inevitable disappointments.

"There's some really good guys in bull riding, and there's some really smart guys. Most of the guys here have been to college," he says later as he makes his way out of the arena into a fine February drizzle. "But the only downside to bull riders: They don't never think past what they're doing now. You can't do this forever. All these guys think they're made of steel. They ain't.

"You look for some kind of faith there. It's not strength or balance — I'm a goofy son of a bitch; I can't walk a straight line. What it is, is mental. If you think you can't ride a bull, you can't ride it. But when you think you've got somebody like God helping you, that gives you that little extra edge. It makes you think somebody's there for you."

And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that the bull riders began to move with a difficulty reserved for those who have been bounced on the backs of a beast's spine and horns with only denim and paisley boxer shorts to protect them. With the adrenaline worn off, Walters is walking like a man three times his age. McIntyre approaches Hendrix to bum some Ace tape to secure a middle fingernail that looks ready to flake away. Of the 40 riders, only a dozen remained on their bulls long enough on Friday to score, and only 14 on Saturday. Only four riders — Morrison, Carter, Werner, and Mosley — have achieved the feat both days. Only Carter finished in the money on Saturday, though, leaving the competition, as they say, wide open.

A few minutes before the riding begins, Christian Werner, Dylan's father, gathers the riders to a semi-secluded strip of hall near the men's room. Two dozen cowboys kneel, sit, and squat between the dressing rooms and the stage entrance.

"We're going to do a quick devotion here," Christian says. "It won' t take long." He proceeds to read a portion of Psalms 28 that begins: "The Lord is my strength, and my impenetrable shield..." Dylan stands behind his dad, leaning against a wall. Morrison sits holding a bottle of water. Mosley crouches near the water fountains, fiddling with the tape around his right wrist and fingers. All look to the floor.

"The Lord is the fortress of salvation," Christian concludes. Then he turns to Walters, across the hallway. "Last night, you got hung up. And you walked away. How many angels' hands slipped in between you and those horns?"

Walters and the other cowboys nod.

"I didn't see it, but I felt like I heard about it forever, just everybody yelling, 'You've got to get to him,'" Keighley says. "That was a blessing. That was straight from Christ... That was Christ, guys. That's all him."

"Hands on him the whole time," Christian Werner says, and noises of assent echo in the confines of the hallway.

Keighley asks whether anyone has any prayer requests, and a call comes: "Safe ride home." The kneeling Keighley casts ahead to thank the Lord so much for sending his son and asking him to keep them all safe. The growing group of cowboys sends up a chorus of "amens" before turning and bursting through the double doors back to the penned bulls and the tobacco-stained sand and the blaring country music and the struggle of man against beast, a spectacle as old as history.

"All right, guys," Christian Werner says as the young men exit. "You help each other out, now."

For the first half of the competition, it's all anyone can do to help himself. As the session's midpoint approaches, no rider has clung to his animal long enough to score. Not only that, three days of bumps and dings were starting to turn the cast into the walking wounded. Paul Hayzlett misses what could have been a decapitation when his animal's hooves swing over his head; with the bull corralled, he staggers off holding his right groin muscles, a cross dangling from his neck as he doubles over. He limps to the paramedics for a cold pack, then to his suitcase, where he slides his jeans down, wraps the pack under his sport-bandaged thigh, and lies in the sand. As he does this, Ryan Rippo is thrown from his bull, landing for a tense second underneath its pitching belly before managing to scramble to safety.

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