Invitation to a Stomping

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

Only three riders of 20 score in the first half, leaving Dylan Werner within one solid ride of the finals money. As he settles onto his bull after the intermission, he ties down his left hand, punches it, and steadies himself on Morrison's outstretched arm. He purses his lips and nods fast. The chute bursts open. The bull comes out rocking hard, turning slightly — and then kneeling, as the beast's front right leg seems to buckle, pitching the boy too far forward and into the sand almost as soon as he had begun.

Werner picks himself up, gathers his bull rope, and stalks to the gate. Behind him, his dad nearly jogs to catch up. Then the father, appearing to realize himself, slows. He straightens his cowboy hat, looks to the ground, and remains a respectful distance behind his son. As Dylan hangs his rope on the fence near his stuff, the father waits a beat and scratches his nose. The son turns his back to the fence to remove his gloves, his face toward the sand. The father steps forward, says something brief, claps his boy on the shoulder twice, and departs. "The bull stumbled," the father says a second later. "Made him drop." And leaves it at that.

Otherwise, the second half of the afternoon is packed with contenders determined to take home a check. Wade stays vertical atop a bull that practically breakdances, giving him a score of 86 points. McIntyre scores 84 points by staying upright on a bull named Roto-Rooter, bouncing on the beast's spine. As he comes off, he's asked how his finger is doing. "It's all right," comes the reply. "Juicing a little bit."

Before and after every competition, riders gather to pray.
Before and after every competition, riders gather to pray.
Buckshot Morrison's win came with a confetti shower.
Buckshot Morrison's win came with a confetti shower.

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As the favorite, Morrison says of the sport: "It's not a matter of if you're going to get hurt. It's when. If you're just going to quit as soon as you get hurt, you might as well not even start." But the worst ding Morrison has taken was a broken elbow he sustained coming off a bull onto too-hard clay. It was his right arm, his riding arm, still grotesquely swollen years later, perhaps because after it happened, he just wrapped it for three months and continued riding.

On this day, as with the others, to watch him is to witness an impossible task solved. In the chute, the teenager ties himself down, purses his lips, nods like a jackhammer, and then — ka-boom — the world beneath him spins. As his bull careens out of the chute and rocks, Morrison flexes at turns but remains upright. The first couple of seconds of a ride, he says, are a blur and difficult to remember — but depending upon the intensity of the bull's fight, he may remember anywhere from a few seconds to the full eight. He rides on the subconscious side of his mind, he says, managing not to think about those precious 24 seconds out of three days of competition. As the buzzer sounds, signaling a full ride, he spins off the beast and picks himself up from the sand. The judges score him at 82 points on his final, brilliant ride, plenty to put him in first place for the three-day championship. No one can touch him. After the final three riders complete the roster, a couple of guys with confetti cannons blast colorful paper curlicues all over the arena floor. Morrison saunters onto the sand and smiles, looking for the remaining spectators like a boy hero in a ticker-tape parade.

Once again, the men surround Keighley. They drop a knee into the sand beside the pens. And Keighley sends up praise, thanking the divine for seeing everyone to safety and asking him to bring people closer to God. Near the conclusion, he beseeches: "We pray we get that same feeling we get from riding a bull when we wake up every morning."

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