Rodeo Life Filled With Breaks, Aches

Thrill Outweighs Danger For Cowboys

May 20, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

One weekend in the life of rodeo cowboy Mike Swearingen adds up likethis: Four rodeos, three states, 2,700 road miles, one leg popped out of the hip socket, a sore body and maybe $500 in prize money.

"In actual reality it probably wasn't a great week," said Swearingen, after he finished his weekend's work by riding a bull for about eight seconds at the Dave Martin Championship Rodeo at the county fairgrounds in Crownsville Sunday.

Swearingen is an upstate New York man who has been making his living as a full-time rodeo cowboy since 1978, when he gave up his home construction business and took to the road. A rodeo champion several times over, Swearingen was among some 130 cowboys who took part in the two-day rodeo in Crownsville, estimated to have drawn more than 3,000 spectators to the fairgrounds each day.

It was a day of steer-wrestling, bull and bronco-riding, calf-roping and barrel racing -- that is, cowgirls on horseback running horses around barrels. It was a day of clowning, in which 23-year-veteran rodeo clown Bob Paul of Galax, Va. ran a mini-truck over an effigy of Saddam Hussein.

It was the end of a hellish weekend for Swearingen, who pulled into the fairgrounds with his cowboy buddies Howard and Clinton Cessna about an hour before showtime. They'd just hightailed it up from Springfield, Tenn. in a pickup truck -- about 920 miles, much of it at 80 miles per hour. They'd driven to Springfield for a rodeo Saturday night from a Saturday afternoon rodeo about 70 miles away in Franklin, Tenn. They'd driven to Franklin from Bridgeport, Conn. -- about another 920 miles -- where they performed in a rodeo Friday night.

That's where Swearingen pulled the right leg out of the socket when his spur caught as he dismounted a bronco. The public address announcer at 90-Acre Park called for a doctor in the house. A chiropractor stepped forward.

After three tries, the chiropractor popped the leg back into place, well enough so that Swearingen could enter the bull-riding competition. The bull bucked Swearingen off, though, popping the leg out again. This time it took six painful attempts to get the leg back in place.

"It hurt pretty good," said Swearingen. "I'm still sore. You can ride with pain. Your adrenaline gets going pretty good."

He's grossed as much as $54,000 in a year, but much of that money gets eatenup in travel expenses and entry fees. This weekend, for example, he would make about $1,400 in prize money, but lay out about $900 in fees and travel expenses.

Those sort of numbers were enough to drive Joe Crigger out of the full-time rodeo business. The Crofton man now works as a sales representative for the Mazo Lerch food distributioncompany in Alexandria, Va. The 27-year-old father of two has been riding bulls for nine years. In 1986, he tried the full-time circuit --Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana. That lasted two months, "until the moneyran out," he said.

Now he does 30, 40 shows a year on weekends. That's enough, he said.

"Something to do for kicks on weekends," said Crigger. "Come tomorrow morning it's back to work like normal. Puton the shirt and tie. Try to be respectable."

Monday morning would be a normal work day also for weekend rodeo cowboy Tom Drury of Millersville. He's a saddle bronco and bull rider who works for the LongFence Company of Gambrills.

"I really don't do it for the money,"said Drury. "I do it for the thrill. You get all that muscle betweenyour legs, you see who is the best."

Drury is 31 years old, an advanced age for a rodeo cowboy. Still younger, though, than Swearingen. He's 36 and contemplating a move sometime soon into a less bumpy end of the business. He said he might open a string of rodeo schools orbuy a stock of cattle and lease them to rodeos. Maybe even go back to home construction.

"Well, I tell you," he said, "about six or seven years ago I figured I'd be done by now." He figures that more sophisticated sports medicine has helped extend his career.

He was leaning against the railing of the stock pen, squinting under a straw hat. His body has borne a catalogue of injuries typical of the veteranrodeo cowboy: Nine ribs broken at various times, two broken ankles, collapsed lungs, torn knee ligaments and a dislocated shoulder. In minutes he would strap on the leather chaps, pull his aching body up onto the back of a young bull and ride one more time.

The bull, as it turned out, would not buck much and that would cost him points, andmoney. Not a great week, but Swearingen figured it could have been worse.

"Friday night could have been a lot worse. I could really have gotten hurt," said Swearingen. "One thing about rodeo, you can't count on anything."

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