Love Hurts: Roughstock riders risk health, safety in search of a good score

Today’s news from the Associated Press was selected by Media Writing student Alexandria Rogers.

By Mike Vorel, Star-Tribune 

The crowd hears the bull before they see it.

Inside a tiny metal chute, the bull bounces off the fencing like a one-ton pinball, testing the cage’s structural integrity with each crashing thud. A man sits on top of it, tiny in comparison, his face hidden behind a protective mask.

If the bull gets its way, the mask won’t save him.

As he braces for the ride, the man tries not to think negatively. The facts in front of him make that a difficult practice.

The bull is more than times 10 times his weight — and angry as all get-out. It has been trained to resist, to be released into an arena and then fight like hell. It’s built to deliver pain, with horns protruding from the forehead fit to puncture and gore, maim and even kill.

Despite everything in the world that tells him not to, the man nods his head and the gate opens.

The roughstock competitors at the College National Finals Rodeo — bull riders, bareback riders, saddle bronc riders — all know that, sooner or later, the animal will win. They don’t know when it will happen, but it lingers in their subconscious with each ride, a statistical inevitability.

“You don’t really know when you’re going to get hurt, but it’s a guarantee if you keep doing it — just like fighting,” bull rider Steven Campbell said. “If you keep on fighting, you’re going to get beat up.”

The injuries come in all shapes, sizes and levels of severity. Campbell, Panola Junior College cowboy, tells the story of when a bull bucked him off it with such force that he landed on his upper forearm, snapping his humerus bone in half. After rehabilitating for a few months, he rode another bull cleanly, jumping off after successfully posting a score.

He landed awkwardly this time, too, and the bone snapped again.

Saddle Bronc rider Cody Hamm breezes through his injury history nonchalantly, as if it were a honey-do list.

Tore all the ligaments in his ankle. Horse fell on him after a ride. Knocked unconscious and head split open — two of those.

“Other than that,” he says merrily, “I’ve been pretty blessed.”

Hamm would tell you about the time a bucking horse catapulted him headfirst into the metal railings of a side fence, if he could remember it.

“I had more than 30 stitches put into my head, but it wasn’t too serious of an injury,” the Fort Scott Community College cowboy says without even the slightest hint of sarcasm. “I came back and was ready to go.”

Most say that while you’re in the middle of a ride, you’re filled with adrenaline, not fear. Instincts take over. Technique kicks in, hundreds of previous rides serving a very worthwhile purpose — survival.

You try not to think about what could go wrong. Because if you do, something probably will.

“If you do get to thinking, you’re going to get slammed,” Campbell says.

As long as you’re on the animal, you’re relatively safe. The fall, not the ride, is what gets you.

Bull rider Zeke Thurston, a Sheridan College cowboy, breaks down the right way to fall. If you’re bucked off the side of a bull, you can roll onto your stomach and be relatively safe. The 2,000-pound animal might dig its hooves into your back or head, smashing it like a boot on an aluminum can. And that’s, he says, the safe way …

On Friday, Levi Berends took this kind of fall in the worst way. The sophomore hit the ground hard on his back, just in time for the bull to land one a hoof squarely on his rib cage. He quickly turned over to protect the injured area, just to have the bull come down again on his back, pinning him hard into the arena floor. It took two others to help him stagger out of the Casper Events Center, wincing and managing deep, labored breaths.

Whatever you do, Thurston says, you don’t want to “dashboard.” This occurs when the bull bucks you forward, like a passenger being thrown through the front windshield of a car.

Bull rider Michael Crenshaw knows the feeling.

In his run on Friday night, Crenshaw’s bull continued to jump higher and buck harder, until he lost his grip and was tossed upwards. Before he could reach the ground, the bull bucked again and their two heads collided, sending Crenshaw reeling backwards to the dirt floor.

After the head-on-head collision, Crenshaw didn’t know where he was or what had happened. All he knew was that he needed to get out, and fast.

“Your only instinct is to just keep moving. I got up and went to the bucking chutes, and the minute I let go of the bucking chutes everything pretty much let go of me and I hit the ground,” he says. “All I could do was kind of crawl.”

Despite a concussion and a displaced jaw, Crenshaw knows it could have been worse. He butted heads with the bull, but he managed to avoid the horns.

“When you ‘dashboard,’ you really don’t have any say about how you land,” Thurston says. “You’re just flying through the air, thinking, ‘Man, I hope this don’t hurt too bad.’”

These competitors know what you’re probably thinking. You think they’re crazy, for taking the scrapes, bruises and snapped humerus bones and continuing to climb on and nod their heads.

Thurston understands where you’re coming from, but until you’ve done it, you can’t relate.

“People are crazy for doing back flips on dirt bikes, but it’s just an adrenaline rush. It’s what you love,” he says. “We’re thrill-seekers.”

And let’s face it, there is no thrill quite like confronting a bull or a bucking horse for eight seconds, daring it to give you its best shot.

There will be injuries. You will fall more often than you care to, left to scramble out of the path of danger.

But occasionally, if you keep coming back, you will win. And that feeling, for Hamm and all the others, makes the ride worth the risk.

“You go out there and just beat one down and set your feet as hard as you can. When you get off, you feel so happy. It’s just pure joy,” Hamm says. His ribs are still bruised from the last ride. He’s filthy from head to toe. You can look at the leaderboard all you want, but you won’t find his name there.

And despite all of that, this is what he wants.

“There ain’t nothing in the world I’d rather do.

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