My friend Bryant and I were talking last night, trading Facebook posts which is often the closest thing to conversation nowadays. He’s posted a clip of a Big Bad, Brazilian rodeo bull, named, The Bandit, an animal nobody had ridden successfully. Bryant has this stuff in his blood – rodeos, bull riding. I knew little about the sport, other than the obvious – that it’s a dangerous thing to do. Bull riding in general – a ride on the back of The Bandit, in particular. Bryant agreed.
“Ya,” I say, “but if it weren’t for the dangerous part, they wouldn’t have as big a payday when things go right.”
Bryant says, “Those guys aren’t making that much compared to the docs putting them back together.”
He’s got a point – a big one. But he’s also stimulated a memory. I remembered that I’d heard about all this before – from someone who knew the story from both sides of a bull – the top and bottom.
I met Jody Tatone in Pendleton, Oregon. For those who don’t know the place, think, Pendleton wool – their blankets and shirts. Then there’s Pendleton whiskey and a hundred years of big-time rodeo!
Tatone, it turned out was an aspiring attorney and professional bull rider. An odd mix, but it was working for him. He had recently qualified for the National Rodeo Finals – something he’d done several times already. At the moment, he was riding a wave of regional fame. I didn’t know squat about bull riding, but I’d heard about Jody and was surprised when, given the chance proximity in the bar, he introduced himself.
A short guy – he looks tough. He was also funny and a genuinely humble guy. Humble, in spite of the hub-cap sized trophy he was wearing, the kind that doubles as a belt buckle. The bigger the prize – the bigger the hub-cap.
I learned a few things about the sport that evening. Not surprising, bull riders are adrenaline junkies, which explains why many don’t stop after multiple body parts are smashed, shattered or both. A lucky bull riders body is a walking demonstration of a wide range of serious injuries. Unlucky riders no longer ride or walk.
Tatone told me stories of his encounters – explaining, (I knew this), that cows fall somewhere between dumb and not very smart. Bulls are the males of the species lucky enough not to have been castrated early in life. Their neutered brothers live quieter, but shorter lives, hanging out in beautiful meadows and eating grass just long enough to make a good steak. Bulls are four-legged testosterone factories with horns. Their bodies pumping rivers of hormones, rodeo stock is selected and prized for temperament. The meaner, the better.
Even with this selection process, Tatone talked about how different rodeo stock can be. According to Jody, each animal is unique. “Some are bored,” says Jody. others act board, he explained, only to surprise everyone, including the rider, when they explode from the chute, twisting a mans spine unmercifully before throwing him into the air, where the rider spins, ass over belt-buckle before slamming back to earth.
Added to the mix of bored, and the, “ready to fake you out” animals, there’s a third variety. These are ones that seem to be as scared as the riders. Frightened as they are, they give a rough ride, adding to the possibility of higher scores. Another plus – after dumping you, as the bull almost always does – these animals run harmlessly for the far fence. A rider lucky enough to go the full eight seconds slides off as gracefully as possible, picks up his hat. Whacks it on a leg, to knock the dust off, he walks casually back to the gate, watching the scoreboard, hoping for a big pay-day.
The head-nod. Every rider has chute rituals – a unique and personal system of rope synchs and superstitious rituals, practiced and carefully executed in preparation for the one move common to all – a single nod of the head. Very, “Old West.” Why say a single word when a nod of the head will do? Pitty the rider who’s wife picks these final moments to ask, “Did you make that health insurance payment?” or worse, “Do you love me?” No head-nod, and he’s screwed. Offering a head nod to preserve his marriage – he’s out the gate prematurely and screwed. So – the head-nod. It’s used once and for one purpose – the only gesture that will open the gate.
As Jody was telling it, a scared bull can be a good bull. But the boring ones can wreck your dreams. Riders who draw one of these are given an easy ride, resulting in a low score. The sport is about drama and danger. You could ride a bored animal all afternoon, and the judges would still hand you low numbers.
According to rodeo legend and Jody’s stories, there are also some killers, bulls known for what passes convincingly, as hatred for the man on their back. We’re talking about animals weighing fifteen hundred to two thousand pounds, up to a ton of mindless anger. These are the ones with an ever-growing repertoire of tricks they execute with blinding speed, each intended to visit pain and injury, if not death to the rider.
Fortunately, it’s rare for a human male to have his testicles clipped. But there’s is an argument in favor of the procedure. Case in point – after visiting with my new friend, and bull riding finalist – even after hearing him tell stories of his painful injuries – his encounters with killer bulls, I still wanted to ride a great big rodeo bull. Again, fortunately, I never got the chance.
So, my friend, Bryant is right. Careers cut short by injury and doctor bills ensure that very few bull riders are rich bull riders.
And I’m right; blood sports pay big bucks. The current, all-time money earner is a guy named J.B Mauney. I bet they pronounce it, “Money,” as J.B’s earnings top seven million bucks. Proof that money and blood run in the same veins.
Mauney may need every one of his millions and more when his riding days are over. News reports tell of his injuries at the Calgary Stampede. Apparently, he’ll only be out of the game for six months, (from the time I write this). But add em’ up – this most recent, compounded by past and future injuries; “Save some of the money, J.B. My friend Bryant is right. Doctors are expensive.