Thrill-seekers get their kicks at state fair bull session

September 01, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

I STOOD face-to-face with death the other night and the only thing separating us was a steel gate and the yellow streak down my back that's as wide as a highway dividing line.

Death in this case was a bull named Shock & Awe.

Shock & Awe was the size of a Ford pickup and had the disposition of Don Rumsfeld at a news conference, not to mention horns that could fillet a man's gut in three seconds.

In a few minutes, some poor cowboy would jump on this beast's back and strap his hand under a rope and hang on for dear life - literally - in the pro bull-riding competition at the Maryland State Fair.

But not me, brother.

I just wanted to stand near Shock & Awe and feel his power and look into those clear, dark eyes and see what made him one of the top bucking bulls in the world.

"You won't get me tonight," I hissed, then looked around quickly, since no one wants to be seen talking to a bull.

Bull-riding, I found out, is a sport as capricious as it is dangerous.

Half of a bull-rider's total score is determined by how well he rides, his control and body position. (Oh, and there's the minor detail that you have to stay on board for at least eight seconds to receive a score.)

But the other half is based on how crazy the bull is, and how difficult he is to ride.

And since the bulls have names like Shock & Awe, The Grim Reaper and Tombstone, it's obvious none of the cowboys are in for a pony ride.

(If I ever rode bulls - ha, ha, that's a good one - I'd want to ride a bull called Powder Puff. Or better yet: Tranquilized.)

Then there's this: even when the ride is over, the cowboy is in mortal danger of getting stomped or gored by these monsters.

"There ain't no off-button, no kill-button, on these bulls," the announcer, Chip Ridgely, told the crowd of 4,000 who turned out to watch.

Nevertheless, 32 cowboys were entered in the competition, and none of them had an easy night.

Some lasted the eight seconds. Most didn't. Most were quickly launched into the atmosphere and landed with a thud in the thick brown dirt, where they dodged flying hoofs and angry swipes from the bull's horns as they scrambled madly to safety.

Let me tell you a little something about these bucking bulls.

No matter how big you think they are when you see them on TV, they're bigger in person, averaging 1,700 pounds, with some topping out at 2,300 pounds.

And they jump higher and buck harder than you could imagine. With a cowboy on their back, they turn into a Cuisinart with four legs and they don't stop until the cowboy is unceremoniously dumped in a dusty heap.

It is, obviously, not a sport for the timid.

Sonny Williams, owner of the bull-breeding J Bar W Ranch in Frederick County and the organizer of the pro bull-riding competition, rode bulls for years and has seen the beasts mangle cowboys in every conceivable way.

"Broken ribs, broken legs, broken arms," Williams ticked off. "Most of the time, it's from getting stepped on."

Chip Ridgely, who rode bulls for 16 years, "had a horn stuck in my mouth," he said matter-of-factly. "Took out the roof of my mouth."

This was at a rodeo in Rutland, Vt.

(Is it me, or do the words "rodeo" and "Rutland, Vt." look weird together? "Maple syrup" and "Rutland, Vt.," sure, that goes. "Fall-foliage" and "Rutland, Vt.," fine. But not "rodeo" and "Rutland, Vt.")

Anyway, the bull reared its head back just as Ridgely's head was thrown forward by the bull's bucking.

The result was ugly: blood, gore, a trip to the emergency room, stitches, your whole horn-related nightmare.

You'd think a man who has just had a bull's horn lodged in the roof of his mouth might take it easy for a few days.

You'd think such a man might also use his time off to reflect on whether he wanted to return to such a pastime, or whether he might consider ditching it for, say, pick-up basketball down at the Y.

But Ridgely said he was back riding bulls the next night, which tells you something about the men who ride these bulls.

Yes, yes, I know what it tells you.

It tells you they're insane.

No wonder there were men dressed in Rodeo Rescue Team shirts lining the bull ring last night, as well as an ambulance standing by and four paramedics.

And no wonder the competition started with Ridgely asking the audience to rise for a "Cowboy Prayer" that basically implored the Lord to keep the cowboys from being carried out on a stretcher.

At the end of the evening, a 29-year-old cowboy named Paul Waslyn from Rixeyville, Va., was declared the over-all winner.

For having danced with death all night, Waslyn won a grand total of $1,323, which wouldn't even pay for a decent coffin and funeral, not to mention a headstone.

I found him having a post-ride smoke near one of the corrals and asked what it was that compelled him to ride big, angry bulls for kicks.

"I ride bulls 'cause I'm too lazy to work, too scared to steal and too jealous to pimp," said Waslyn with a smile, although he is, in fact, a horse trainer by profession.

He took another drag from his cigarette.

"It's an adrenaline rush," he said softly. "We're all adrenaline junkies out here."

You hoped they all had memorized the "Cowboy Prayer," too.

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