First thing to go wrong was the patriotic opening. The flag-waving DVD wouldn't fire up on the projection screen above the arena; then the Hollywood Police Department's Honor Guard came in too soon, plodding in through the wrong gate. Of course, it wasn't like anyone would notice among the folks gathered in the Seminole Hard Rock Live arena on a Friday night earlier this month to see some bull riding. But you had to love public-address announcer Mike Barkley going into flag-saluting, hoo-ah, damage-control mode, setting a tone for the entire weekend.
"Folks, we apologize," Barkley intoned to the scattered spectators. "Our program has been real messed-up here tonight. We're going to roll right on through it. You know why we're going to roll right on through it? Because we're Americans. We can screw up. We can admit it. We're not going to stop. I'll tell you what we're going to do. We're going to think about all our friends and family over there fighting in dark foxholes of war; we're going to think about all of the veterans. Do we have any veterans in the house tonight? Let me hear you come on." People cheered. "All I've got to say, for all you Saddam Husseins, for all you Bin Ladens out there don't mess with the U.S.A.!" Then Barkley publicly prayed to the Lord to protect the livestock, the bull riders, the spectators, and American troops overseas and to compel world leaders to make wise decisions. He added that Army recruiters were ready and waiting in the concourse, should any young onlookers be hit especially hard by the martial spirit.
In short, the kickoff was just about everything you could have hoped for, because this is bull riding, a sport impervious to hyperbole. The bigger-than-life aura goes for the initial conceit too: Young men climb aboard animals a dozen times their size and try to hang on for eight seconds while other young men cajole the bull to buck, pitch, and spin. Somehow, it's not as dangerous as it sounds, because people routinely survive this process, and about a dozen riders can expect to earn six figures a year. The sport's televised pro league, Professional Bull Riders, last year handed out about $11 million in prizes in 31 events, up from a mere quarter-mil when it began 12 years earlier. Since 2003, its annual winner has received a $1 million bonus.
The PBR tour consists of only 45 riders, who earn a spot in that rotation by earning money in four lower leagues of the PBR. One of the last riders not to make the most recent cut was a skinny, modest 18-year-old from Vero Beach named Buckshot Morrison, who is ranked 48th in the world and is the favorite at this event, and who says of bull riding's potential: "There's no stop to it. I see it getting bigger than football."
Clearly, that era remains a ways off, though the swelling PBR is trying to market bull riding in the United States and overseas to duplicate NASCAR's explosion from a regional curio to the second-largest televised sport in the land. Just as racers used to develop at anonymous dirt tracks in front of crowds giddy for loud noises and a good crackup, bull riders today come up through weekend events at rural rodeos anywhere within a day's drive, well outside the purview of the PBR. In these lower crannies of the sport, the riders denim-and-Western-shirt-clad young men, generally wiry in build and likely to say "sir" with total earnestness still risk their health for a check, a belt buckle, and a shot at riding the bulls. The quadruped participants in this arrangement are snorting, slobbering masses of mad muscle with bludgeons affixed to the ends of their legs and to either side of their skulls.
The three-day event here at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino culminates a year's worth of events on a smaller, non-PBR circuit called the Southeastern Bull Riding Association, which organizes events throughout Dixie during the year. Its championship is in Hollywood for the first time because, as the crowd is often reminded, the Seminole Tribe of Florida digs bull riding, a fact evident to anyone who has attended any of the smaller events held in Davie. Even though it is a championship in an indoor concert venue capable of seating about 5,000 spectators, it is still decidedly a small-time tilt. Friday draws a crowd of only a few hundred at $20 a head. (An organizer rued the fact that Dolphins Stadium was hosting a Monster Truck Jam the same night.) They were treated to, in the words of the announcers, "America's most extreme sport." Then again, those same emcees also referred to the "great state of Alabama," suggesting a not altogether clear-eyed perspective.
But it is something to behold when a tough, jangly SOB like Clay McIntyre, out of Central Florida, clambers aboard a beast that has the dusky color and mountainous shoulders of a bison. When the door to the chute opens, the bull flails about until McIntyre flies off and slobber strings sling from the bull's maw. Then there's Dylan Werner, one of the best in the state, hanging on for the full eight seconds only to dismount straight onto his face. Another bull, free of its rider, chases an official over a fence, then sets about demolishing a sign hanging on the gate where the cowboys exit, sending them and stock breeders scurrying.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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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."
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."