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.

As the first raindrops fall, he lowers himself into the bucking chute. A tornado has touched down about 17 miles to the southwest and is heading this way, but that hazard isn't much on Wagner's mind. The bull he has drawn, according to the announcer, is one of the best in stock contractor Joe Simon's herd--a beast that last year bucked some of the top cowboys on the Professional Bull Riders tour. When the gate is popped open, the animal charges out a few yards and spins in a tight circle, nearly plowing into the fence at the arena's edge.

Wagner begins to list. For a moment he hangs out over the edge, like a sailor trying to keep a boat from tipping in a squall. He remains there, clinging white-knuckled, for what seems like forever. Time has a way of expanding in rodeo; eight seconds can be excruciating, the difference between physical ruin and a beautiful payday. If he's lucky, or smart, or tough, a cowboy can stave off the end long enough to have a crack at a winner's pot. But that is less a victory than stylish defeat.

Finally, Wagner loses his balance and drops to the ground. The bull, distracted perhaps by the ominous weather, makes no effort to run him down, so Wagner collects himself casually, brushes off his chaps, and climbs over the fence. Missed the whistle by a couple of beats. No score.

Daniel Corrigan

Afterward, he reflects on his ride. What went wrong? He smiles, shakes his head. "Just didn't stay on long enough, I guess," he says, unstrapping his spurs. No cussing. No head-shaking. He doesn't even look especially disappointed. Perhaps that's because bull riding, as much as any sport, is about failure as much as success, about getting bucked, thrown, and kicked. And, as Josh Wagner knows, there's always another bull, another rodeo, down the road.

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