PENDLETON — Ten rows above the Round-Up Arena floor, where two dozen men were willingly putting themselves in danger on the backs of burly bulls Wednesday, Cody Ford remained in his seat. He didn’t cheer with the crowd, not adding a sound to the cacophony erupting around him.
He just sat and watched, wishing the danger was his.
“It wasn’t fun,” said Ford, a 23-year old bull rider from Hermiston. “I guess it was good to see my buddies ride, though.”
On Sept. 1, Ford was competing in the PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series in Thackerville, Okla., when he experienced every cowboy’s worst fear. Just out of the chute on a jet-black bull, Ford said he heard a pop. Well, more like felt a pop as the stands full of yelling fans and the sharp breaths of Asteroid jockied for position in his ears. The rider toppled over the bull’s side and to the ground, laboring to climb the metal fence back to safety.
He could walk that day, barely, but would need the help of crutches soon just to stand. A sudden jerk of the bull had caused a separated pelvis, a tear in the cartilage that holds the two pieces of the bone together in the front.
“I guess I just landed on his back wrong,” Ford said. “It’s hard when you’re trying to make a living and you can’t.”
The risk of injury — or even death — is a facet of life that all cowboys and cowgirls accept when they drop their entry dues before a rodeo. For competitors in the roughstock events, the bronc riders or bull riders like Ford, those risks are only compounded by the unpredictability of the animals with which they tangle.
Injuries aren’t the exception during a rodeo career, said Devin Dice, a certified athletic trainer with the Justin Sportsmedicine team that travels to events in the Northwest. They are the rule.
“You run down that day sheet and I think I’ve had my hands on every one of those guys. And most of the girls,” said Dice, who has worked rodeos for 15 years.
Some riders get more than their share, and Ford deals with a painful reminder of that poor luck every day. At the end of a career year in 2009 that came packaged with $150,000 in winnings on the Built Ford Tough Series, he tore his groin at a rodeo in Portland. Ford missed three full months and more tour stops down the road as the injury lingered during the 2010 season.
“That was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, no question,” Ford said. “I still feel it to this day, especially if I don’t stretch out real well before a ride.”
Then a broken leg in 2010 caused the rider to miss more time, adding to the grocery list of lower-body injuries.
The riders of the PBR make danger their career, said J.W. Harris, a 26-year-old pro. They feed off the adrenaline of the most terrifying moments, much the same way as other extreme sport athletes do. The main difference is nobody’s ever been gored by a skateboard.
“You know you can get hurt, but you have to block it out. You can’t think about it,” the May, Texas, resident said while taping up his wrist before posting an 83-point ride Wednesday. “It’s no different than getting in your car and driving down the road; you can get in a wreck and kill yourself.
“But you do got to have a screw loose in your head sometimes. Especially the riding events, you’ve got to be more mentally tough than physically strong. Your mind can tell your body to do a lot of things that it shouldn’t. If you’re mentally strong, you can talk yourself into doing almost anything.”
Harris, a seven-year veteran, said his rodeo medical history has included three ACL surgeries as well as facial surgeries to implant plates after taking a stomp to the head.
When accidents strike, the Justin Sportsmedicine team, a partnership between the PRCA and Justin Boot Company, is always near. The trailer of professional medical personnel provide everything from massages to stitches as the first line of support. The team, which had tended to more than 100 injuries already by Wednesday of Round-Up week, also sees family members of the rodeo contestants.
“Our goal is to make it so they can ride to the best of their ability, so they can get out there to make some money,” said Dice, who’s also a Justin Sportsmedicine program manager. “The thing is, they rodeo all year ... but it’s not like there’s a big profit margin (for most entrants).”
All the medical attention provided by the Justin team on-sight is free for the cowboys and cowgirls. But hospital bills pile up fast in this business, said Shane Proctor, the defending PRCA bull riding champion. Affordable health insurance is almost always out of the question for the high-risk daredevils.
“It just depends on how truthful you are with them,” he said. “It’s like racecar driving. You can get it, but it’s going to cost you a lot.”
Proctor is just getting back to action after missing most of this season with a broken arm sustained in last December’s National Finals Rodeo. The 27-year old from Grand Coulee, Wash., finished third in Wednesday’s round with an 84.
The return from long stretches of missed time can be as equal an obstacle as the initial wound. Even when the ailment has healed, that mental factor comes back into play, Proctor said.
Mental strength is key, but for Ford, very little has crossed his mind outside of bull riding since his most recent injury. Even as his crutches leaned against the railing of Row 10 on Wednesday, a black baseball cap in place of the signature hat of a rider, he knew where he’d rather be. That first ride back is a little like the first time on a bull all over again.
“You just hope it’s going to hold,” said Ford, whose diagnosis predicts upwards of five months needed to fully heal his pelvis. “You’ve got to go at it full steam ahead. If you’re timid, that’s when you do get hurt.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.