Pain, glory mix Sunday in Bull Bash
September 3, 2017
In one second, New Mexico’s Justin Neil was sitting on the back of the bull Toes Out in a bucking chute at Romick Rodeo Arena in downtown Steamboat Springs, gritting his teeth. He wrapped the bull rope tight around his hand and hunkered down, almost ready to give the signal for the gate to drop and his ride to begin in the finals of Sunday's Rocky Mountain Bull Bash to begin.
His grip tightened as the bull moved beneath him, shaking in the tight confines and rattling the chute.
Then, seemingly in the next second, Neil was lying on the blue metal scaffolding behind that bucking chute, his friends leaning over him and another fellow bull rider leaning in, waving a cowboy hat as his eyes began to blink open.
"I guess he knocked me out," Neil said later, only able to rely on the accounts of his friends. "They told me I hit my head on the top of the chute and on his head, and he knocked me out."
The event moved on to other riders, some spectacular, some wince-inducing, but 15 minutes after he woke up lying behind the chutes, Neil got his chance to ride Toes Out.
It didn't go well, and he only lasted a few seconds.
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"Maybe I was a little slow," he admitted later. "They told me I shouldn't get on him, but I didn't drive nine hours to not try and win."
To make it in professional bull riding, it takes a lot of skill, quite a bit of toughness and a solid amount of rationalization, and that was all on display as the dirt flew, the bulls bucked and the cowboys limped Sunday at the annual Labor Day event in Steamboat Springs.
This year's Bull Bash featured as many college and high school riders as experienced pros, and many of the riders from all those groups are still trying to figure out the balance between those traits: skill, toughness and rationalization.
"If I had a concussion, I'd be throwing up right here," Neil said, considering his decision to ride after being knocked out. "If you're good at bull riding, you can make a living, and that's what a lot of us are trying to do. I think I can do that, if I keep at it going down the road."
For some, the gamble of climbing aboard an angry, 1,500-pound horned beast paid off. Wyatt Austin, a 17-year old high school student from Queen Creek, Arizona, rode his first bull, Mr. Boombastic, then, in the short round finals, his second, Strange Clouds, clinging on as the bull blasted into the air and spun in a tight circle.
The fans roared as Austin brushed the dirt off his chaps and exited the arena.
He was the only one of the night's roughly 30 cowboys to ride both bulls he faced. He pocketed more than $3,000.
"That's awesome," he said, grinning widely under the bright arena lights. "That's a lot of money for me."
Others didn't walk away smiling.
Ryan Prophet came from Rigby, Idaho to ride. He was in Blackfoot, Idaho, on Saturday for one competition and plans to board a plane this week to fly to Rochester, New York, for another.
He was 17 years old the first time he dislocated his hip bull riding.
He was 25 Sunday when he did it for, he guessed, the 60th time.
"I guess I’m getting used to it now," he said. "It feels like someone's sticking a soldering iron on your butt."
The injury happened in the first few seconds of his ride, and he was on the dirt before his bull was all the way out of the chute. He pulled himself up, limped through a gate to safety and collapsed, burying his head in his hands.
Moments later, a friend came over to help.
Prophet lay in the dirt and looped his arms around the bars of a fence.
He clenched his teeth, and his eyes narrowed.
His friend grabbed his left leg by the boot and tugged hard. Prophet screamed. His friend left, and he curled into a ball.
Several minutes later, however, he was back on his feet.
"I've had bad hips for a long time," he said. "It's just one of those things I deal with."
He's been riding for more than a decade and cracked the top 50 in the Professional Bull Riding standings. The crushing pain of a dislocated hip isn’t nearly enough to get him to stop now.
"I just love bull riding," he said. "It's in your blood. It's who you are. It's what I've been since I was a little kid.
"It's a good life."