Sean Willingham was at a local Summerville rodeo one Friday before his 2000 graduation from Chattooga High School. Sitting on the fence with some buddies, he decided: “I can ride those bulls.”
If a friend of mine were to say that to me, I would have thought: “I’ve got to find some smarter friends.”
It just so happened that a week ago, “Buckshot” Bob Milano and Jon “Pops” Howard, went as far as our trio could possibly go in the Professional Bull Riders world. We entered the Shark Cage, which sits on the arena dirt.
No one forced us to enter. We were eye-to-eye with these 2,000-pound monsters. Face-to-face, I prayed none of the boys felt like tearing the cage apart, a la Jaws.
No cage destruction on this afternoon, but we were close enough to get a dirt shower and “bull-snotted,” a first-time experience.
Despite Jon telling anyone from a camera operator to an usher: “If anyone backs out, I’m ready to go.” I smelled no alcohol and I never saw Jon take a whack on the noggin, so I knew he was dead serious.
Known as “Cheech” 364 days per year, Buckshot looked at me and smiled. We were both thinking: “We gotta find some smarter friends.”
The PBR hit town last weekend, playing to a full house at the Infinite Energy Arena. My family doesn’t like what has become America’s fastest-growing sport. They’re worried about the bulls being hurt and mistreated.
Let’s ponder this: The bulls weigh in at about a ton. The riders tip the scales at a whopping 150 pounds. Maybe. To hit that weight, the cowboys probably needed to be coated in bull butter.
The bulls have it made: An eight-second (max) workday, followed by a trot back to a cozy RV-like apartment. I wanted to ask a bull about life on the tour and realized: I don’t speak bovine.
As for the cowboys, that’s another story. In Duluth on Sunday, 38 cowboys rode in the first round. The top 15 made the finals. One of the top guys, JB Mauney, nursing a broken leg, needed help leaving the ring. He was too banged up to make it to the money round.
Last seen, he was trying to maneuver to the medical facility that is staffed at every event. Forget any cash, JB looked like he needed a cast. The broken leg appeared to still be broken.
“Ol’ JB will be ready next time,” said one wise sage, who wasn’t so wise. JB looked like he’d be ready to get discharged from his hospital bed in a month.
Several in the crowd used the event to play a little make-believe. Hats, Western shirts, cowboy hats and WWE-sized belt buckles were everywhere. Why even Buckshot and Pops got to make believe they were members of the working press, peppering Sean Willingham and bullfighter Shorty Gorham with questions.
I think they wanted to steal my assignment. They were the biggest cub reporters in the history of journalism.
Shorty is the honcho of the bullfighters. He and his team are simply amazing. A day at the office for Shorty, who has been “doing bulls (his words)” for 25 years goes something like this: A rider is launched. On the way down, he conjures up memories of the first “Die Hard.” He looks like the late Alan Rickman flailing his way towards ground zero.
After the cowboy meets and kisses terra firma, Shorty’s crew descend on the bull like a pack of coyotes. A good day is getting the bull to go get some food and a massage.
But a bad day is an ultimate “Oh $&%?” moment. They must save the rider. Bulls are like teenagers without the bad complexion. Both do whatever the heck they have a mind to.
They must work together to keep the riders safe, lest the cowboys get hurt. That is, get hurt worse than they already are.
Everyone of these guys limp. The pain is worth it, I guess. After all, one rider has made $700K since January. I’ll take my chances with Fantasy Five. No injuries from playing a dollar a day.
And what of Sean Willingham, the Georgia cowboy. For nearly 20 years, he knows all about playing hurt. He got a standing ovation before and after his ride. No eight seconds, no money for the weekend.
In what was most certainly his final ride in Georgia, his reward: “At least I get to sleep in my own bed.”
After interviewing sports figures who take their talent and fortunes for granted, I wish every one of these cowboys could stay aboard for eight seconds, wave to the crowd and limp off into the sunset.
Mike Tasos’ column is published every other Sunday. If you like prayer, patriotism and family entertainment, go see a PBR event next time the tour moseys through Georgia. Maybe Pops will get torn up by a bull named “Kick Me, Cletus.” Comments can be sent to email@example.com. He is also on Facebook.