It's all mayhem, all the time

SUN JOURNAL

Bull riding: Fans across the country are latching on to this high-octane, stripped-down rodeo spectacle.

January 04, 2003|By Eric Slater | Eric Slater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW ORLEANS - Rockets scream from the rafters, fireballs rise into the darkness and tremendous explosions rattle the New Orleans Arena. Brent Vincent sits on a railing wearing a bulletproof vest.

He is paying no attention to the thunder and flames. The vest is not to protect him from fireworks. He is watching a 2,000-pound bull named High Tide smash its horned head into the corral below.

Another bull about the same size left Vincent, 26, with a broken ankle just two months before. Another one left him with a dislocated shoulder, another with a separated shoulder, two others knocked him unconscious, and yet another gave him that scar beneath his blond hair.

Several other bulls, however, helped him earn $64,277 in prize money last year, with sponsors paying him thousands more.

"High Tide, he's a rank bull," Vincent says with a grin. "Rank."

That means wild, nasty, hard to hang on to. A rank bull is precisely what every cowboy hopes to draw when he competes in this new, fast-growing quirk of an age-old sport.

The sport is not rodeo. There is no calf-roping, no steer-wrestling or barrel racing. There is not even bronc busting. "No sissy events," as one rider put it. The sport is bull riding, all bull riding, all mayhem all the time.

As soon as one rider is helped from the New Orleans Arena a short time later, blood trickling from behind his ear after a bull gored him in the head, the next bursts from the chute atop another bull, only to be thrown in 4.3 seconds, head-butted and left in the dirt clutching ribs that have been broken before and feel like they are again.

The rider picks up his hat and hurries out of the arena. Another launches from a different chute.

"Ride that bull!" the announcer cries.

Six thousand fans howl. It will continue like this for 2 1/2 hours.

Ten years ago, a small group of professional bull riders gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz. They had the most dangerous job in the rodeo business and lured the bulk of every crowd, but they were not being fairly paid, they said.

They decided to break away from the rodeo circuit, trade in its country-fair feel for explosions, spotlights and sponsors, and see if they couldn't drag bull riding into the present. Twenty riders put up $1,000 apiece in seed money.

In 1994, the first season consisted of eight events with $250,000 in prize money from sponsors. An average of 1.5 million watched each of the events on cable television. No one expected the tour to last.

Eight years later, there are 29 events, most held in urban centers, and $9.5 million up for grabs. Last season the Professional Bull Riders tour, or PBR, drew 90 million cable viewers, enough to prompt the networks to tap in. CBS, NBC and Spanish-language Telemundo broadcast events this season.

Along the way, a new type of celebrity has emerged, niche stars for certain, but ones whose fans know if they ride right-handed or left, who know the names and bucking style of the bulls, and how their favorite rider scored last weekend.

With very few exceptions the riders are young cowboys from tiny towns who neither dreamed of nor sought celebrity. They grew up hopping on, and getting bucked off, goats and calves around the farm, graduating to steers, then big bulls.

This year the top rider will earn more than $1 million, and tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars more from sponsors such as U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, Ford trucks, Resistol hats. If they don't stay on, though, they don't get paid, and many riders will spend more on airfare and meals than they win.

"You know, I ain't never had a job," says 20-year-old rookie Craig Sasse of St. Peter, Ill.

"I made $10,000 riding bulls when I was 14. Made about $67,000 in the PBR. I never wanted to do anything else, but I thought I'd have to. This is great."

The PBR has marketed itself carefully and tirelessly, and from the beginning eschewed the "Happy Trails" nostalgia of rodeos in favor of speed, noise, patriotism and dramatics.

High-volume music pumps from a giant sound system, and it isn't country and western. It's all rock 'n' roll.

As the riders return to the chutes. Vincent eyes the bulls, eyes the crowd and wonders if on-the-road roommate Wiley Petersen is going to make it. Petersen, 23, was delayed at airports trying to make his way from his home in Fort Hall, Idaho.

Cody Custer, who is part Choctaw Indian and occasionally meets American Indian children named after him, starts things off on a bull called Hiawatha. When the buzzer sounds at 8 seconds, he is still on the bull.

With only minutes to go before his ride, Petersen arrives in a cab. He suits up, sprinkles rosin on his bull rope and pulls his gloved hand rapidly down the flat rope, melting the rosin and helping glue the two together.

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