Veteran bull fighters, junior bull riders take center stage at rodeo | SteamboatToday.com

Veteran bull fighters, junior bull riders take center stage at rodeo

Dave Shively

Cedaredge cowboy Chance "Crash" Graham, 16, prepares for his shot in the junior bull riding at Friday night's rodeo in Steamboat Springs. Graham says he earned his name the hard way.

— Nobody ever said messing with bulls would be low impact.

A punctured pancreas, broken femur, dislocated hip, a horn through the leg and a hoof through an artery in his arm – the list of injuries goes on for 41-year-old, Hockley, Texas, native Rodney Gaston after 18 years of fighting bulls at rodeos.

Eventually, “Shotgun Rod-ney” found a slightly safer way to entertain rodeo crowds, bringing a specialty act that includes a brief comedy car show and a performance with his 1,800-pound trained Brah-ma bull, Doc Holiday, to rodeos nationwide. On Friday night, Gaston brought his act to the Steamboat Spring Pro Rodeo Series, which continues with another 7:30 p.m. performance today at the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena.

As Gaston performed his act for the crowd, Casey Smith looked on from beneath the grandstands, preparing the next generation of bull-riding cowboys.

The Loveland native, “42 years old, going on 24,” tried his hand at bull riding and rode bareback from the time he was in high school until a broken femur in 1992 bolstered his desire to fight bulls on the ground.

“Rather than getting slammed off the bull onto your back, getting up and then getting run over, with bull fighting you’re already on your feet,” said Smith, who’s fought bulls at Steamboat’s rodeos since 1993. “You have to be aggressive – it’s reaction and anticipation to protect the cowboy. It’s like standing on a street corner and you know an accident is going to happen and you have to react. And you cannot be late.”

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Not that Smith’s 20-year bull fighting career has been without injury. He remembers the 500 stitches to help reattach his ear and the countless broken ribs. Like an NFL running back, Smith credits his long career to healthy knees.

And when it comes to the thrill, it’s easy for Smith to quantify the adrenaline:

“I get 10 to 15 bulls a night to get my fix, rather than just one,” he said.

But the real draw that brings him back to Steamboat and across the nation every summer is the responsibility he feels to the riders.

“If you do your job, and do it good, they put their trust in you to keep ’em safe and they get up and shake your hand – that’s what matters,” Smith said. “I’m not a clown, I’m a fighter. I’m about as funny as a crutch. It just makes you feel good when a guy’s in a jam and gets out unscathed.”

Smith was not fighting Friday, but rather helping the six junior bull riders who had a chance to perform Friday, prior to the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association bull riders in the final event of the show, and will again this evening as the first event.

Junior riders like Chance Graham, Troy Vernon, Justin Flynn, Eric Fleming and Brice Osborne made the trip from across the Western Slope for a chance to ride in front of the big crowd and on the backs of some of bulls belonging to junior section organizer and North Routt resident Guy Urie.

Fleming, a 16-year-old from Craig, and Flynn, a 15-year-old from Rifle, knew what they were getting into. Flynn already has broken a right leg and three ribs, and Fleming has a proud battle scar above his right ear.

“It’s a rush like falling out of an airplane. We’re going to do it for a while or as long as we can,” said Fleming, who planned to leave and drive through the night to be at a Cheyenne, Wyo., rodeo in the morning – not to compete, but to get used to the nomadic summer life for when he turns 18 and can compete as a pro.

Hopefully by then, there still will be fighters like Gaston and Smith to help the young riders minimize the risk and to “take it personal when the guys get hurt.”