A cool wind has kicked up, shaking the limbs of this November night with anticipation. But in the chutes, where 33 bull riders are gathered for the Crown Royal 61st Annual Sunshine State Championship Bull Riding competition, it's hot as the devil's barnyard. Five Star Rodeo has trucked in 40 bulls for the event, which is being held at the Town of Davie's Bergeron grounds. When the trailer door is flung open, roughly 60,000 pounds of snorting muscle, brawny beef, snot, and dung clatters down a metal ramp and into a fenced pen. As the bulls stomp around the holding area, a smelly stew of dirt and manure splatters shirts, hats, boots, and cowboys standing on a wooden platform above the narrow cells where the animals will be hustled when it is time for their rides.
Along a fence that separates the bullpen from the platform, several guys do a cowboy version of a ballet barre: extending one leg onto the rail and bending the other. That muscle will do overtime tonight. Billy Velix, a bull rider and landscaper from West Palm Beach, places his cowboy hat over his heart, falls to one knee in the corner beside the pen, and says a prayer. When finished, he replaces the hat, grabs his bull rope, and heads to rig up Lone Wolf Skoal. Two brass cowbells, attached to the rope to weigh it down, clang as Velix walks. "I just ask God for the hand of protection," he says. There's a lot of praying in bull riding.
"Go on! Go on," a crew hand shouts, slapping a bull named Speckled Bird on the rump to move him into the chutes. Twelve-year-old Dylan Werner and eleven-year-old Roy Stewart stand on the platform with the riders. When the bull moves into place, Dylan slams the gate, securing the animal in an area about four feet wide by six feet long. After another is hustled in behind Speckled Bird, Roy slams a second gate.
Melmo Quintero, a bull rider from Moore Haven, eases onto Speckled Bird and slides into position. "Ride up," Dylan says as Quintero gives the nod for the gate to open. Speckled Bird rockets out of the chute with the five-foot, two-inch Quintero sitting solidly on his back. Quintero rides expertly, staying centered while the bull spins to the right, and shoots his hind legs high into the air. The cowboy makes it to the eight-second whistle. He earns 81 points, enough to take him to the second round in second place. Only a handful of the 33 bull riders who compete tonight makes it to the eight-second bell.
Sportscasters and practitioners boast that bull riding is the most dangerous eight seconds in professional sports -- like trying to ride a hurricane with only a hank of rope to hang on to. An iron will, strong inner thigh muscles, spurs, and a gift for balance help, but cowboys say it's heart and cojones that keep you on. Most times, a ride ends with a bone-crunching thud, a face full of dirt, and the bull, horns down, looking to spear anything that moves. It can be dance or disaster. Lane Frost, winner of the 1987 World Championship in Bullriding, lost his life in 1989 when a bull speared his ribs and severed an artery. Anybody who's been around it for a while has compiled a medical chart. "Broke leg, collarbone, arm, tailbone, broke ribs 12 times... stopped counting after 12," says retired Davie bull rider Darrell Coe. Pain, he says, is part of the price of admission: "If you want to be a bull rider, you are going to get a lot of hurts."
Today, professional bull riding has newfound cache, thanks to the marketing finesse of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), an organization that split from the Professional Cowboy Rodeo Association in 1992 and launched a separate circuit for the sport. The PBR has brought bull riding to a national audience through weekly broadcasts on TNN; NBC Sports aired the finals competition for the first time this year. The PBR has attracted big sponsors, like Bud Lite, and bigger payoffs. The top bull rider in 2001, Adriano Moraes, earned $458,798.63. That's a big jump from the day when Davie's Coe made $363 for winning the Canadian finals in the sport in 1964. There's even a soundtrack now -- the PBR's "Dancin' with Thunder." And Florida alone has 72 rodeos.
Celebrity connections add to the macho allure. Singer Jewel is dating champ Ty Murray. You think it's just coincidence that trendmeister Madonna donned a cowboy hat for her 2000 release, Music?
It's no surprise, then, that youngsters like Dylan and Roy are caught up in the hype, starting in the junior rodeos, graduating from sheep to steers to bulls. By riding bulls in these events, the boys have joined an exclusive fraternity. They mount smaller and less ornery animals than the professionals, but they know the same fear that haunts the men, they know the protocol of chute procedure, and they know the rush of the ride. Here in the chutes, next to cowboys twice their age, they are growing up cowboy. The older guys notice the pair, seeing in Dylan and Roy the promise of youthful talent that has yet to find its limit. Velix points them out. "Those kids are good," he says. "When he grows up," he nods in Dylan's direction, "he's going to show us all up."
Bambi Werner sits alone in the aluminum stands of the Seminole Indian rodeo ring in Hollywood late on a Monday afternoon. A 42-year-old, stay-at-home mom with black hair clipped close to her head in a no-fuss style, she peers intently at the rodeo ring. Her son, Dylan, a thin, long-limbed youth with a finely boned face and earnest brown eyes, and Roy are down in the chutes. The boys are preparing Bodacious and Dopey for a ride. The two older bulls now work in junior rodeo because they no longer buck as fiercely as they once did.
On Monday afternoons for a year and a half, since Dylan decided to give bull riding a try, Bambi has brought him here for practice sessions. The duty fell to her because Dylan's father, Christian, is a captain in the merchant marine who works on boats taking supplies to oil rigs off New Orleans and is home only two of every four weeks. Though Bambi agreed to help Dylan pursue the sport, that doesn't mean she has taken to the idea. "This is no place a mother would want to be," Bambi explains. "Your every impulse [as a mom] is to protect [your child]."
On the wooden platform above the chutes, Dylan has entered his bull-riding groove. Today, he is in full cowboy regalia -- the ten-gallon hat, fringed blue leather chaps with red crosses down the front, well-worn boots with spurs attached, black flak jacket to protect his chest, yellow leather gloves, and the rodeo-requisite long-sleeved shirt with collar.
Dylan bends his knees and raises his right arm in the air, then puts the other arm between his legs as if he were holding a bull rope. He rocks back and forth, hops a quarter turn, and does it again. It looks like a funky new country-western dance. "I don't know where he got it from, but you don't see anybody else doing it, do you?" asks a bemused Bambi.
Nobody except Roy, who joins Dylan with an abbreviated version of the same moves. The Hollywood ring is home turf for Roy, who is a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Today, he's sporting gangsta style, pulling a black, knit watch cap way down on his forehead and talking trash to the older guys. He's razzing them, and they are razzing back. "Where's your cowboy hat, Roy?" asks 19-year-old Matt Lancaster, who's wearing a pair of Wranglers so tight he can barely walk.
"Cowboy hats are for rodeos," Roy shoots back, pleased at his well-timed diss of the getups everyone else is wearing. Yet Roy never rags on Dylan. There's a brotherhood between the two, respect that needs only a couple of words to maintain. Everyone else, though, is fair game.
Matt gives the stock rodeo answer when asked about the attraction of bull riding. "It's just a pure adrenaline rush," he says, his eyes twinkling. "A burning desire."
"That's rodeo," pipes in brother Luke.
"More like wussie rodeo," Roy says with a gotcha grin.
Dylan smiles at Roy's antics, but he doesn't join in the posturing. He's decided boasting is bad form in rodeo. Cowboys let their actions speak for them. "When you're bragging, you're thinking about something other than you and the bull," he says. "I stopped braggin'."
"Who's up next?" asks Joe Castellano, a wholesale flower salesman who has been riding bulls as a hobby for the past year. Roy becomes quiet when it's time for his ride. He spends a few moments by himself, focusing his mind before he eases onto Dopey, sliding into position just behind the bull's shoulder bones. Dylan stands above Roy, offering assistance and encouragement. "We need a pull," Dylan calls out. One of the cowboys standing nearby yanks Roy's bull rope. Then Roy wraps it tightly around his gloved riding hand and clenches his jaw. "Ride up, Roy," Dylan says, offering words of support.
"Ride up," Roy responds, then gives Castellano a nod.
Dopey charges out of the chute. Compact, muscular, and scrappy, Roy sits solidly on Dopey as the bull spins and bucks, trying to launch its rider into orbit.
All of a sudden, Dopey just stops. He's doing a statue move. A puzzled look crosses Roy's face. He's not sure whether to jump or stay on. Dopey decides the issue when he suddenly takes off again, kicking his hind legs up in the air while turning to the right. Caught off-guard, Roy slips. He should hit the ground, but his riding hand gets caught in the bull rope. The 1500-pound bull continues bucking as Roy desperately tries to free his hand.
"Agghh!" Bambi cries out.
"Get him! Get him!" someone hollers, as several men rush out to help Roy. One of the guys pulls on the rope so that the Seminole boy tumbles to the ground, shaken but unhurt. Roy slowly stands up, gathers his wits, then stomps out of the ring, unzipping his flak jacket and throwing it into his bag. His hand is sore and he has a long welt on his arm caused by Dopey's hooves. The color is drained from his face. He looks as if he might puke.
"Hey, Roy," Matt says, "I think it was the hat." That gets a laugh from everyone but Roy.
One of the older Seminoles walks over. "When he stopped bucking, you relaxed," he says softly. "You got to figure, if he stops bucking, he's going to start again."
Roy doesn't look up, doesn't make eye contact. Nor does he protest, whine, or disagree. He just listens, nods. When they screw up, cowboys suck it up. Roy leans against the rail above the chutes, staring into the distance. You can feel his mind, or maybe it's his stomach, churning.
Even though he has just watched Roy almost get clobbered, when it's time for Dylan to ride, he doesn't hesitate. Roy and Dylan exchange a quick, knowing look. They both know Dylan will ride despite the danger. Cowboys learn to use fear. "It makes you try to stay on," Dylan says. Then Dylan climbs inside the chute and mounts Bodacious. Roy has recovered enough from his scare to stand on the platform above his friend, offering encouragement. "Ride up, Dylan," Roy says.
"Ride up," Dylan answers.
Dylan takes a more rootin', tootin' approach when he's ready to leave the chute. "OK, boys," he shouts. "Let's go!" The gate swings open, and Bodacious bucks clear across the ring, kicking up high and rocking from side to side, trying to dislodge the skinny 12-year-old. But Dylan stays centered, in the place he calls "the bull zone." There's beauty in the way he rides, an intuitive ease. While the bull goes crazy beneath him, Dylan has a stillness about him. The more he rides, Dylan says, the slower it seems. He stays with the bull as it shifts and spins and rocks, adjusting his movements as he goes.
In rodeo, bulls and riders are both scored. Bulls that both spin and buck garner the highest scores. Bodacious wouldn't have scored very high. Still, it was a pretty good ride. Dylan leaps off Bodacious and lands on his feet.
When the boy climbs up the fence back into the chute, Roy acknowledges him. Just a few words of respect between cowboys. "Nice ride," Roy tells Dylan.
"Thanks," comes the answer.
Did Dylan think about getting injured? Roy had a pretty close call. "I let my mom worry about that," he says.
Under a picnic gazebo at a ranch off University Drive in Davie, a small band fills the air with rocking, roof-raising gospel. "I'm so glad that Jesus set me free," sings bandleader Andy Ziveti. The congregation is tapping time. It's Tuesday-night Cowboy Church at Triple Cross Ranch. In front of the congregation, Hallelujah Dave, a skinny, gray-haired ranch hand, spins like a dervish filled with the joy of the moment. Cynthea Rainville shakes a tambourine festooned with curled blue ribbons. When moved by the spirit, the congregation's eyes shut, heads turn upward, and hands rise in the air to praise the Lord. Bambi watches from the sidelines, beaming her intense eyes on the proceedings.
Soon after the Werners moved to a duplex in Davie two years ago, Bambi discovered the Triple Cross. The Werners have moved seven times since Dylan was born in 1989, and Bambi has developed a pragmatic approach to threading into a new community. Finding a church, she says, is one of her first priorities. Bambi has home-schooled Dylan since he was diagnosed with dyslexia several years ago, so it's important to find a place where he can mingle with other kids and make friends.
Though Davie is much too crowded for Bambi's taste, living there has been a good experience, she says. The Bergeron Rodeo Grounds, a facility owned by the town, is right down the street from the duplex. And at the Triple Cross, she found community, cows, horses, hay, and bull riders. Dylan and she both felt right at home.
The Werners moved to Davie from a 2010-acre farm on the island of St. Croix called the Castle Nugent Ranch. There, Dylan tasted cowboy life. When he wasn't studying, the boy spent hours working with Castle Nugent ranch hands tending 5000 cattle. He helped round up the herd and dip each cow in insecticide to ward off disease. He mended fences, tagged calves, fed chickens, and branded livestock. Dylan and Bambi also assisted in the birth of a calf, which Dylan termed in a journal entry on January 13, 1999, as being like "a watermelon coming out of a golf-ball sized hole."
"Yeah, that just about describes it," Bambi says, laughing.
Although only ten years old at the time, Dylan viewed the chores as his job. In his journal, Dylan described how an early-morning session with a reading tutor made him "an hour late for work."
The ranch might not be a traditional classroom, but Dylan gained knowledge and a self-assurance that are hard to come by sitting all day at a desk, Bambi says.
In Davie and at the Triple Cross, Dylan used the skills he gained in St. Croix to assist Norman Edwards, who owns the place, preaches there, and is also the announcer at the Bergeron Five Star Rodeo. Dylan handles the gate at the Triple Cross Monday-night barrel races, works on hayrides, mows the lawn, and recently helped break some colts. He does it all without pay. "I just help out," he says, "so I can hang out there."
At Triple Cross's Cowboy Church, Dylan befriended a couple of teens who bull ride, Ryan Krantz and Isaac Diaz. It was 19-year-old Ryan who encouraged Dylan's interest in the sport and who has served as his mentor. He also explained how faith and bull riding work together. "It helps bring things into line with God because you could die any time you ride," Ryan says. "That makes me want to be right with God... I better be."
It's going to be hard for Dylan to move yet again, but in the next few weeks, he and Bambi will leave Davie for Bushnell, south of Ocala. The Werners have bought a 50-acre ranch where there will be room enough for Dylan to have a horse and where Bambi won't feel hemmed in by neighbors.
In the presence of one of his heroes, Dylan is shy and hesitant. Lyle Sankey has made it to the national rodeo finals as an all-around cowboy three times. He is considered one of the best bull-riding instructors in the business. "As long as you guys are craving raw meat, we will keep doing it." Sankey shouts to the students, who range in age from 7 to 41. An energetic, physical guy with can-do enthusiasm, Sankey has been hustling the students through ride after ride at the Reality Ranch in Zolfo Springs.
Dylan readies himself mentally by staying apart from the others. He has had some harrowing rides on this second day of the rodeo school. His first one went well, but during the second, the bull rope tangled around his calf, and the bull dragged him through the dirt for about 15 feet before the rope came loose. His third ride is a 1500-pound black bull that has already given some of the older riders trouble.
Dylan mounts, wraps the rope around his riding glove, and gives the order to open the gate. "OK, boys," Dylan shouts. "Let's go!" The bull is a ferocious bucker compared with those Dylan has ridden in Davie, but the boy handles him well. Toward the end of the ride, though, the animal bucks its way close to the fence that encircles the ring. Fearing he'll smash into the wooden rails, Dylan looks for a place to dismount. The bull feels the rider's weight shift and gives one last buck. Dylan leaps for the fence, slams into it, and falls to the ground. He limps out of the ring, shaking his hand.
"You're going to make a hell of a bull rider when you learn to deal with your fear," Sankey tells him.
When Dylan takes off his glove, he finds a blood blister straight along the length of his palm. His blue plaid shirt is drenched in sweat and covered with dirt. Twelve-year-old Clayton Cash, from Lithia, asks to see the hand but offers little sympathy. When cowboys get hurt, they cowboy up. "Man, I can feel your hand shaking," Clayton says. "Put ice on it," he orders Dylan. "Be a man. Be a man now."
At the close of the session for the day, Sankey takes everyone up to a covered picnic pavilion, where they watch videotapes of their rides. Dylan moves slowly, half dragging his leg. Sitting at a picnic table reviewing tapes, Dylan holds a bag of ice on the calf that was caught in his bull rope during his second ride.
Sankey reviews the students' efforts one by one, offering criticism and encouragement. After watching Dylan's third ride, Sankey observes that the boy gave up too easily. "You were dead center on that bull," Sankey says. "If you're looking for a place to get off, you will always find an excuse." On the tape, he can see that Dylan was almost thrown on one buck and was able to straighten back up.
"I wish you could see through my eyes how talented you are," Sankey tells Dylan. "Then you would try to do everything you can to hang on to that rope. You've got to check your heart. Mechanically, you are doing some brilliant things. You are possibly the most talented bull rider here, but you just jump off instead of fighting to stay on. You deal with that and you would be unbeatable."
Sankey also advises Dylan to get a smaller cowboy hat; it will be less obvious when he looks for a place to dismount.
Dylan soaks it in, sitting with his chin on the picnic table. Later, he confides it was partly fear that made him leap. "I could have done it, but I get scared. I'm scared of these bulls. The bulls over in Davie are nowhere near like these. You can pet them. They're all nice and everything," he says. "These bulls want to kill you when they buck you off."
During the course of the three-day school, Sankey has been through it all. He has talked about the professionalism that makes winners and about proper chute procedure. He has warned the students not to allow a bull to throw them back on the pockets of their jeans. He has also spoken about how to sit on a bull pitched kind of forward with a slight arch in your spine. And he has discussed how to hold your free arm bent in the air so that it can help steer your body back up over the bull when you're off-balance.
On the final day, Sankey organizes a ride-off, a minirodeo for the students. Dalton Burnell, a seven-year-old from Polk City; Clayton; and Dylan will compete in the junior division. Clayton and Dylan will ride junior-level bulls. Dalton will be on a steer.
Before his own ride, Dylan helps out opening the gates to the chutes. He assists 41-year-old T.J. Johnson, a steer wrestler who is riding bulls for the first time at the school, because the bull-rope knot isn't tied correctly. Whenever anyone leaves the chute, Dylan offers his standard words of encouragement. "Ride up, now," he says.
When the time for his final ride arrives, Dylan does well, finding his sweet spot and sticking to it. Clayton gets bucked off early, but he gives it his all, digging his spurs into the bull to make him buck. Sankey is impressed with his try, especially because Clayton feared that the junior bulls at the school were too rank for him. "I'm sure glad that's over," Clayton says under his breath when he finishes his ride.
Dalton goes last. A short seven-year-old with a wide, baby face and a slight lisp, Dalton has been riding since he was three. The day before, when Dalton climbed onto Paunch, the animal threw the boy right out of the chute. It scared him so much that he could hardly get back on the steer.
On this ride, Paunch gives a couple of bucks, and Dalton flies off, landing with a thud in the dirt. The boy lies crumpled in a heap for a few seconds, still in his protective flak jacket, when the steer turns toward him and steps on the back of his helmeted head. There is a cracking sound as the hoof of the 500-pound animal makes an impact on the plastic. Dalton is petrified. He whimpers while three men rush over to him. "Slow down, slow down," says C.J. Brown, who is the stock contractor for the school and Dalton's coach. "Breathe, baby." After coming out of his daze, Dalton gets to his feet and, still whimpering, somehow manages to leave the ring. He holds his arm, crying, standing next to the platform above the chutes.
"You all right?" Clayton asks.
Dalton whimpers in response.
"Good try, little man," says Dylan. "It'll be OK. Walk it off. Walk it off."
At the award ceremony in the pavilion following the ride-off, Dylan wins a clay trophy for the best performance in the junior division. Sankey calls him to the front of the group and asks him to give a speech. "Thank you, Mr. Lyle. I learned a whole lot about bull riding," Dylan says. "And thank you, Mr. C.J., for letting us ride your bulls."
"Good business move, thanking the stock contractor," says Sankey, who is standing next to Dylan.
Dalton wins a cap as the most improved student. In a trembling voice, choking back tears, he thanks Sankey and Brown too.
Despite the instruction in riding technique, Clayton and Dylan say the main thing they learned from Sankey is how to dismount safely. "Look, arch, follow through, and plant your feet," Clayton says.
When the camp is over, Bambi says she's glad Dylan received instruction from a top teacher. "Everything he learned before this has been what the guys around Davie have told him," she says. Before they leave, Bambi offers to let Dylan buy some videotapes that Sankey sells. Dylan chooses Awesome Bull Riding.
"Are you sure you don't want another one?" Bambi asks.
"Yeah," Dylan answers. Cowboys take only what they need, nothing more.
At Davie's Jackpot Rodeo the following Wednesday, Dylan is preparing to take his last bull ride before his family moves to Bushnell.
A crowd has gathered in the stands to watch this weekly event, where locals practice roping, barrel racing, and bull riding. Christian, Dylan's father, is in town for the move. Tonight, he's going to watch Dylan ride.
Christian, 43, is impressed with his son's maturity and discipline. Dylan reminds Christian of his father Paul, who was a naval commander on the USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. "I see a lot of the same focus in Dylan," Christian says. "When I see him ride, it's this cool and calculating little man who knows exactly what he's doing... His mom would rather see him roping, but this is where his heart is."
A friend of the Werners is videotaping. Dylan does his dance to get in the zone, climbs on the bull, and methodically wraps the bull rope around his riding hand, which is taped to protect the blood blister he earned at Sankey's the week before. "OK, boys," shouts Dylan. "Let's go!"
Dylan looks great on the bull, which manages to move him to the left before the boy can readjust. He gets back on center, and the bull tries it again, bucking high in the air, but Dylan stays on. He looks brilliant. In the middle of the ride, though, the night turns from a thing of beauty to a disaster. The bull bucks Dylan off, and the bull rope twists around his hand into a knot. Dylan can't free himself. As the bull continues to buck, two cowboys rush in, but the 12-year-old is dragged underneath the bull, bouncing there helplessly like a rag doll. At one point, Dylan manages to stand and run beside the bull, but one of the cowboys grabs the youth and accidentally knocks him off-balance and back under the bull. Finally, a bullfighter is able to release the rope, and Dylan falls to the ground. It's over in a matter of seconds, but it seems interminable.
"Son of a bitch," says Christian, rushing down out of the stands, vaulting over the fence into the ring, and running to his son.
Dylan lies on the ground for several minutes, then struggles to his feet. The first thing he says, Christian later reports, is, "Can I ride him again?"
Christian walks beside his son as Dylan sort of hops out of the ring, trying not to put weight on his right foot.
Back in the chutes, Dylan is breathing shallow and quick. He's struggling to fight back tears. Between gasps, Dylan gives his analysis of what went wrong. "I started thinking," he tells his dad. Christian strokes Dylan's back, trying to comfort his son.
"Don't rub my back," Dylan tells his dad.
Christian looks bemused. "I guess he's too old for that," he says.
Ryan asks to see Dylan's foot to check whether it's swollen.
"What for?" Dylan says. "There ain't nothing to see but a white foot with a bump on it."
Sandi Goodman, a retired pediatric nurse whose son Matt also rides bulls, and Ryan persuade a resistant Dylan to lie down and raise his legs, which will help blood flow to his brain and prevent shock. They remove his cowboy boots. Someone brings a bag of ice. As Dylan lies on the ground, his breathing returns to normal.
Goodman mentions Bambi. "She probably turned blue," Dylan says. Then Goodman gently talks to him about having the foot x-rayed.
"He just stepped on me," Dylan protests. "I'll be OK."
Christian watches, not saying anything.
"That right there," Ryan says, gesturing to Dylan's legs, "is your income. You got to take care of it."
"I don't like hospitals," Dylan responds. "I don't want to go." His tough-guy veneer begins to dissolve into tears.
"Be smart," Ryan admonishes him. Ryan and Matt Goodman hoist Dylan in their arms, carry him to the family's SUV, and deposit him in the back seat.
"I'll be back over," Dylan tells the well-wishers gathered outside the truck. Though the family is moving the next day, Bambi has promised they will return to the Jackpot Rodeo each month.
Ryan stands at the SUV door talking to Dylan. As a way of saying good-bye, he gives his protégé a friendly slap on the leg.
"Ahhhhhh!" Dylan screams. "Why's everybody smacking on that leg?"
The hospital confirms what Sandi Goodman suspected. The top of Dylan's right foot is fractured, with bone chips in it. Bull riding will be on hold until the foot heals.
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A month later, after the move, the boy hasn't given up the sport. Instead, he plans to compete in a junior rodeo in Bunnell, north of Daytona Beach, in late January.
"He's ready," says Bambi. "He keeps asking the doctor when he can get back on." Dylan has promised the doctor he won't jump on his right foot.
"I ride left-handed, so if I get off on the left side, I should be able to stay off that foot," he explains.
The Werners still haven't found a church. They have been to several and plan to visit more. "It's going to be hard," Bambi says, "to sit in a Baptist pew after Triple Cross."