Ryan McConnel compares what he does for a living to "trying to hold onto a tornado or something."
And he loves what he does.
McConnel rides bulls, rides them for eight seconds at a shot - if he's lucky, which is about half the time. He's a pro, one of 2009's Top 10 riders on the Professional Bull Riders circuit. The New Mexico native's coming off a year in which he earned $146,500, which isn't bad money for a guy who can get the better of a four-footed animal about every other time he tries.
"Yeah, there's easier ways to make a living than riding bulls," says McConnel, who will be at 1st Mariner Arena this weekend, competing in the PBR's 2010 Built Ford Tough Series Baltimore Invitational. "But are you going to love that just as much as doing this every weekend? Are you going to love going to an office and sitting around a computer or pushing a pencil and this and that? Are you going to love that as much as flying around the country, seeing all the country, seeing all the different countries, and doing what you love for a living?
"Are you going to love that?" he asks again, fixing his gaze on his interviewer and making it clear the answer is a resounding "No."
Clearly, the prospect of being thrown off a massive, angry, bucking beast holds little fear for this 22-year-old, even if it scares the heck out of most of the rest of us. Still, there's no denying that he and his fellow PBR riders - 40 of the best will be taking their turns at the arena this weekend - are plenty exciting to watch, whether live or on the broadcasts that show up on TV nearly every week, primarily on Versus cable, but later next month (Jan. 10 and 16) on NBC.
"Our ticket sales are 14 percent ahead of where they were last year," says PBR spokeswoman Jodie Edmonds. "Even NASCAR can't match that."
Adds McConnel, "I tell people all the time, 'We have more fans in Worcester, Mass., and Baltimore and New York.' It's true, we have die-hard fans everywhere."
And what will those fans see in Baltimore this weekend? McConnel, who was in town earlier this month to promote the Baltimore Invitational, promises lots of bucking action, some pyrotechnics, probably a thrown rider or two. Guys like him go through a lot to stay on those bulls for eight seconds - less time than it takes for even the shortest television commercials to play.
"You ain't never seen anything like this before," he says. "You can't tell me that you can go to NASCAR, and they're going to introduce every single driver personally, before they even get in their car. They introduce every one of us before we get on the bull, then they shoot a firework off. And that's just the intro. Wait until you see the real deal. It's an amazing rush."
McConnel, who now lives in Oklahoma, has been riding bulls since he was 14. He grew up riding sheep and calves, kid's stuff, on a small cattle ranch his father had turned into what was pretty much a full-time training facility for bull riders.
"My father started when he was 16," McConnel says. "He rode for, I guess, 25 years. I didn't get to see him [ride] much, but from the sound of things, he was pretty salty at what he did."
Ryan McConnel took to the lifestyle pretty quickly. "My dad, he was always going to the rodeo, and we would at least watch," he says. "I got introduced to it through that. I got on a few sheep, and when I was a few years older, I started seeing friends out at the local rodeo on Wednesday nights, and I started thinking, 'Well, I'd better try my hand at it, since they are, too.' "
Where he lived in New Mexico, apparently, teens hung out at the local rodeo like teens elsewhere like to hang out at the mall. "After awhile, I was loving every bit of it," McConnel says of life lived eight seconds at a time, on the back of an animal that wants nothing more than to throw you down for a serious hurting. "I just kept on progressing, wanting it more and more every day."
In 2006, McConnel says, he finished in 116th place on the circuit. Two years later, he had climbed to 53rd. Last year, he broke into the Top 10, and might have done better had he not had a nasty encounter in Las Vegas with a bucking bull's hoof.
"I was sitting fifth in the finals," he says, "but I got stepped on. That kind of ended my finals, and a couple guys jumped ahead of me. I might have separated some ribs or something. I was mighty sore, I couldn't even get out of bed the next morning. But I'll come get 'em next year."
Injuries, he notes, are part of the life. "I broke my nose one time, and had 20-some stitches around my eye, all kinds of good stuff. I had a bull step on my face one time - there's been a few times where I've been pretty sore."
But the pain's worth it, he says. And not just because of the adrenaline rush. There's some serious money to be made in bull riding. Last year's season champ, Kody Lostroh, 24, earned $1.6 million.