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.

"It was just an average ride," he recalls. "When the whistle blew, I went to get off and that bull gave me the hardest buck of my life. That sort of thing had happened dozens of times, but this time I must have landed at just the right angle." At first Kohlnhofer suffered complete paralysis. After months of therapy, he regained the use of his arms, but not his legs.

"Accidents happen," concludes Kohlnhofer, who now runs a hog-farming operation with his brother near Lake City. For the most part he works in the office, though he can operate a specially modified tractor. "It didn't change my feelings about the sport," he says. "I've got two daughters, and if they wanted to rodeo, I'd let them."

Wagner similarly shrugs at questions about injuries he has suffered over the years. "When I was 16, I got my head crushed," he says flatly. "Put me in the hospital for a few days, but it didn't slow me up. I was riding again in two weeks." For a spell he tried wearing a helmet--an increasingly common practice in rodeo, though still rare at the highest levels. Wagner didn't like it. Thought it interfered with his balance. He says he's willing to put up with a few "shaving scars," the facial cuts riders receive from the business end of a bull's horn. He points out his only one, a little crescent nearly concealed by his left eyebrow, with a touch of pride.

Daniel Corrigan

Like nearly all contemporary rodeo cowboys, however, Wagner now wears a special vest lined with impact-absorbing Kevlar. "First night I wore it, I got double-barreled," he says. "Both feet right in the back. Didn't break anything." Other than that, protective gear is limited to chaps and mouth guards. (As for the obvious question, says Wagner's roommate Chad Koenig, "I bet I've been asked about that a thousand times. You don't need a cup. I can count on one hand the number of times I've nutted myself.")

Perhaps the most important safeguard in the ring, says Wagner, are other people--the clowns and "bullfighters," whose job it is to distract the animals after a rider is thrown. "You don't have a good bullfighter," he observes, "you're dead."

 

Wagner started in rodeo at the age of eight--in the Little League-style Little Britches program, where aspiring cowboys try their luck on steers and are instructed in the fundamentals of the sport. Over the years, Wagner attended the occasional bull-riding clinics as well, putting in time on mechanical bulls ("good for beginners," he says) to hone his skills.

"Bulls just always seemed to fit Josh," says Dale Wagner, whose own involvement in rodeo began at the relatively advanced age of 23. Back then he took a stab at bull riding, but, after a series of hard falls, chose to concentrate on roping competitions instead.

Not so Josh. "I just always knew this is what I wanted to do," he says. "The hardest part was convincing my dad to let me try." He rode his first bull at 12--"didn't buck worth a shit"--and soon he was rodeoing his way to the 1993 state high school championship.

Wagner describes himself as an average athlete in his other pursuits, wrestling and baseball. But physical skill, he notes, is only part of what makes a good rider. "It's a weird deal," he observes. "Sometimes there's guys that are real athletic and they just ain't worth shit on a bull."

Wagner first met Chad Koenig when they both were making appearances at rural Minnesota high schools to promote rodeo. "I seen him and I really didn't like him," Wagner recalls with a wry smile. Koenig, who won the state high school bull-riding competition the year after Wagner, agrees: "We started out hating each other." But the Minnesota rodeo universe is a small one, with no more than 50 to 60 shows a year. Over time the faces grow familiar, and Wagner and Koenig soon became traveling partners and friends.

These days the pair share a basement apartment a few blocks from downtown Kimball, a town of 690 just beyond the sprawling northwestern edge of the metro area. They moved here a few months ago, but the house is familiar to Wagner; it's where he and his three brothers lived before their parents divorced, moved away, and began renting the place out. Yeah, it's a little weird to be back in his childhood bedroom, Wagner allows, but the amenities are great: a barn and pasture, where he keeps his prized palomino Charlie, and plenty of space for traveling rodeo buddies to crash.

The apartment itself is classic bachelor pad. Cinderblock walls, low ceilings, a big L-shaped couch. Plastic pop bottles for ashtrays. No phone. A refrigerator stocked with sports drinks and a case of beer. The entertainment center in the living room holds one of the few concessions to décor: three neat rows of the oversized, ornate victors' belt buckles and trophies Wagner and Koenig have accumulated in the course of their careers. They take pride in the fact that they've managed to carve out a living without, as Wagner says, "nine-to-fivin' it"--though both have worked stints of straight labor, framing houses and the like.

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