Bull Headed

Josh Wagner tips the scales at 150 pounds. The animals he tries to ride weigh ten times as much. Other than that, they're a lot alike.

Reasons for the growth aren't hard to figure. Despite its pastoral origins, bull riding has much in common with the extreme sports ESPN has successfully marketed in recent years--the over-the-top kinetics, the rapid pace, the sense that everything can fall apart in an instant. In that regard it feels very nearly modern, a funny thing for a game that is forever casting its eye back in time.

Yet, at its core, bull riding's appeal seems to have remained much the same as it was a century ago. In the 1947 classic Man, Beast, Dust, rodeo buff Clifford Westermeier made the point as well as anyone before or since: "The bull-riding contest offers the spectator a thrill based on the expectation of seeing a contestant thrown, gored, and tossed on the horns of an ugly humpback bull," he wrote. "[Fans] are not anxious to have anything happen, but if it does, they want to see it!"

These days rodeo announcers invariably offer pronouncements about the physical perils of bull riding, often characterizing it as the world's most dangerous sport. They might be right, judging by what hard data are available: According to a study by the Oklahoma Department of Health, bull riding accounted for a full five percent of the spinal-cord injuries sustained in that state between 1992 and 1995. And a 15-year survey conducted for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (one of the oldest and largest rodeo organizations in the nation) found that bull riders suffer more injuries than all other rodeo contestants combined.

Daniel Corrigan

Considering the nature of the sport, that's not surprising, says Dave Lammers, a trainer with the Texas-based Justin Sportsmedicine Program, which specializes in dealing with rodeo injuries. With the help of modern breeding techniques, rodeo bulls have gotten bigger in recent years; some weigh as much as 2,000 pounds and are strong enough to lift the front end of a car on their horns. "These are big, aggressive male animals, some of them hunters," says Lammers. "They go after a downed man, a gate man, a clown, anybody in their way."

Most bull-riding injuries are relatively minor--torn groins, broken bones, and the like. But, Lammers adds, not all riders are that lucky. In 1989, world champion Lane Frost, one of the sport's first modern stars, was fatally gored by a bull named Taking Care of Business at the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming; just two years ago another champion, Jerome Davis, was paralyzed in a bull-riding accident. In Minnesota there have been deaths as well, incidents no one much relishes talking about but everyone recalls. A young guy got killed in Grand Rapids in '83. A few years back, a novice died during a practice run in Lakeville. And last year a rodeo clown just about died after a run-in with a bull at a show up in the northwestern Minnesota hamlet of Gonvick. "It's not a question of whether or not you're gonna get hurt," says rodeo announcer Billy Don Cash. "It's when and how bad."

But while fatalities in the ring have spelled public-relations disaster for other sports (most notably boxing), in bull riding they merely seem to enhance the myth. Frost's story--made into the tearjerker bio-pic Eight Seconds, starring teen idol Luke Perry--is often cited as one of the factors behind the surging interest in the sport, a growth backers liken to the rise of NASCAR.

Bull riding seems to engender a curious ambivalence among both fans and participants. The hazards are acknowledged, even celebrated; they are also rationalized, shoved aside, willfully disbelieved. Josh Wagner saw a rider die back in 1993 at the national high school championships in Gillette, Wyoming. It's not a memory he cares to revisit. "I haven't thought about that in a long time," he says. "Yeah, it freaked me out. But you have to do your damnedest not to think about it. You just can't. If you do, you're sunk."

His father offers more detail on the incident. "I can remember it like it was yesterday," Dale Wagner says. "Kid got bucked forward. Top of the bull's head hit the kid's head. I was in the bleachers and I looked at him with a pair of binoculars. He never moved. He had blood coming out of his nose and out of his ears. Anytime you see blood coming out of the ears, that's a bad sign." But the elder Wagner hurries to add that the death was "freakish"--and he bristles at media depictions of rodeo that focus on what he terms "the wrecks." "I've seen more deaths on the highway than I have at the rodeo," he says. "I guess a lot of us just think that when the good Lord is gonna take us, it don't matter much what you're doing."

Whatever the actuarial merits of that argument, it is widely accepted in the rodeo world. One Minnesota cowboy, Mike Kohlnhofer, makes the case with singular conviction. In 1985 the Lakeville native was among the top bull riders in the area--a onetime state high school "all-around cowboy" champ who had prospered on the college and semipro rodeo circuits. Then, at a rodeo in Lansing, Michigan, Kohlnhofer dropped into the chute for the last time.

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