Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010 | 4:11 p.m.
I am led into a small room where the bullfighters working the National Finals Rodeo dress in their comically tattered costumes, where they smear on greasy makeup for each night’s performance.
This rare experience is a lot like being hustled backstage before a rock concert, an environment far off-limits for rodeo fans. But instead of Richie Sambora tuning a Fender Stratocaster, you get a young guy from Wyoming slipping on a pair of suspenders and pushing a Resistol hat onto his head.
I met one of these men, Dusty Tuckness, this past week. He was showing some special-needs children how to rope toy bulls and buck out stick horses at the annual Exceptional Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center. We’d chatted for only a couple of minutes before being pulled away by the kids. But I know the other three men prepping for that night’s session not at all.
As a visitor wearing his own rodeo costume, what would I ask these guys? Maybe the injury question. Everyone who has performed in rodeo at any level has suffered (or, as they would say, “experienced”) a litany of maladies. I glance around the room, and they are all seated on benches, closely together, looking up at the bareback go-round on a TV bolted to the room’s ceiling.
There’s Tuckness, Kenny Bergeron, Darrell Diefenbach and barrel man Robbie Hodges, the most comically adept and certainly most vociferous member of the group. Also seated is one of the sport’s great stock contractors, Don Kish of the great city of Red Bluff, Calif., clutching a cup of Coors and hacking it up with the guys getting ready for the show.
“You ask them the questions,” Kish says, “and I’ll answer ’em.” It’s a good ice-breaker.
So I turn to ask the guys, “Can you tell me about your worst injury?” and as I say that, I catch Diefenbach’s face, the right side of which is slightly caved in. His cheekbone and right eye have been pushed back, depressed in the shape that is pretty clearly that of a hoof -- a bull’s or horse’s.
I want to grab that question back because it is so obvious what Diefenbach’s most serious injury would be. At least, I hope there is nothing more serious to have happened to him than having his face stomped by a 1,200-pound horse or a bull weighing even more than that.
“I had a bull jump on my face earlier this year,” Diefenbach says in a straightforward way, in a heavy accent from his native Australia.
Bergeron laughs loudly.
“Yeah! That’s pretty bad!” he calls out.
“I was waiting for Kish there,” Diefenbach says, now laughing himself. But Kish is sipping from his beer and only says, “I had a blister once, and I couldn’t pick up a beer for a week!” More laughs.
“What happened to you, Darrell?” I finally said.
“A bull threw a guy off and I jumped in, and he shot me in the air,” he says. “I landed on my back, and he jumped on my face. I pretty much had no eye socket left. It crushed all these bones up here (gestures toward his optic area), and when the surgeon looked at my forehead, I had the imprint of the bull’s hoof in my skull. My sinus cavity had to be rebuilt. … When they first looked at me, they said I was going to lose my eye, but they did a great job and I can see out of it. That’s my worst injury.”
The incident unfolded in January at the USC Aiken Extra Inning Professional Bull Riders Touring Pro Division at the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Ga. The 1,800-pound bull's hoof caught Diefenback's face, then slid off to the side, crushing his eye socket and pulling much of the skin away from his face. Diefenbach was rushed to a hospital, where he immediately underwent surgery to try to save his eye. Within a week, two surgeons worked on Diefenbach for 6 hours to repair his eye socket, cheek bone and forehead. Under the skin on his face and forehead is a titanium mesh, held in place by screws and plaster. In a process that can be likened to repairing a kitchen sink, plastic has been used to rebuild his eye socket.
Bull riders Jared Farley and Matt Bohon loaded him up and brought him back to Texas, where he waited for his next surgery. Three days later, two surgeons spent 6 hours repairing the broken eye socket, cheek bone and forehead.
“How long were you out?” I ask, studying that face and in disbelief that this guy is about to take the floor even tonight, less than a year later.
“About 6 weeks,” Diefenbach says.
“I put a helmet on,” he says, explaining that he came back as soon as it was safe for him to face the bulls once more.
Six weeks. I’d come to notice that even the most serious injuries suffered in the rodeo arena by contestants or bullfighters seem to knock those folks out of action for no more than 6 weeks. Bareback contestant Ryan Gray’s lacerated liver, the one he suffered/experienced on the NFR’s second night? Six weeks, he says, and he’ll be back.
Why would anyone so willfully risk their lives just for the honor of being part of the rodeo culture? There are other ways to live -- a very good running back and linebacker in high school, Tuckness tells me he was offered a scholarship to play football at the University of Wyoming. Instead, he dresses somewhat as a clown and sprints into the fray with angry bulls so they won’t crush the athletes who make the rodeo go.
“I thought about taking (the scholarship) and was kind of set to go, coach had everything lined up for me, but I wanted to do the rodeo,” he says. “I feel I made the right decision. I’ve reached the top of the sport. It’s a blessing.”
For the past two weeks, I canvassed the NFR at the Thomas & Mack and assorted outposts where rodeo events and parties were staged. Saturday night, I hung with a few members of Las Vegas Events, which books and navigates the NFR and ancillary events in Vegas. I also chatted with an entirely-in-his-element Tom Collins, a member of the NFR board and maybe the most Wild West public official in Southern Nevada (he even sold a couple of horses at Benny Binion’s World Famous Bucking Horse and Bull Sale at South Point's arena). Nearly 5,000 people packed The Mirage Events Center. The party was on as Pendleton Whisky was consumed in copious amounts, either as small shots or mixed with Coke.
A few more brazen rodeo celebrants made off with cutouts of their favorite contestants. If you couldn't, in fact, pick up on bareback rider Bobby Mote, you could make off with his one-dimensional cutout visage.
Everywhere I went over the past two weeks, I kept hearing such sentiments as “blessed” and "grateful" from those who genuinely felt such an unbreakable bond to be in the sport. And really, it's far more a culture, a way of life, than a sport. You might not "live" baseball or football year-round, but you do rodeo. It’s a calling. I’m certain that it has been said elsewhere, but you don’t pick rodeo. Rodeo picks you.
Most of the contestants I talked with have come from generations of ranchers and rodeo athletes. They storm the country chasing Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned events. It’s not uncommon for even the top stars to take part in more than 50 events a year.
They are not well-paid, most of these cowboys and, in the case of barrel racers, cowgirls. Sure, barrel racer Sherry Cervi has won $2 million over her career and $300,000 during this year. Eight-time all-around champ Trevor Brazile has pulled in nearly $4 million in prize money and won a record $500,000 this year. But such lucrative rodeo careers are rare.
The jarring stat conveyed to me during the week is that 80 percent of pro rodeo contestants -- those you never see at the NFR -- do not break even, and they sure don’t enjoy great benefits. When I asked Rick Foster, head of the Justin Sportsmedicine medical staff that treats NFR athletes each year, about the contestants’ medical insurance, he told me the insurance offered by PRCA is not a great plan and is usually secondary to whatever primary health plan is used by those cowboys.
And that would be?
“Some have other jobs, families, wives, spouses and go out and buy HSA (health savings account) plans, which anyone can buy,” he says. “Whatever your plan is, insurance doesn’t cover a lot of injuries in high-risk sports, especially in the original extreme sport.”
Right. It seems the athletes’ best health plan is prayer, the protective head and chest equipment they finally started wearing over the past decade, and the M*A*S*H unit that is the Justin Sportsmedicine team. It’s these moments you think of bareback rider Gray. If the bareback horse he was tossed from, Golden Dream, had stepped a few inches in the wrong direction, Gray might well have been killed. In 1994, that did happen at the NFR in Las Vegas, when bull rider Brent Thurman was stomped on the head by a bull and later died at UMC.
So much risk, just to be in rodeo. Terming it “the original extreme sport” is dead on.
On Saturday night, near the end of the final session when many contestants and officials are either considering post-event parties or a long-deserved sleep, bull riding contestant Steve Woolsley of Payson, Utah, is tossed from a bull named Palm Springs. He hits the dirt hard, and before any of the bullfighters could intercede, Palm Springs drops its right rear hoof on the back of Woolsey’s head and right shoulder.
A chill goes through the arena as Woolsey lays motionless, and I turn to my left toward announcer Bob Tallman, a veteran of decades of rodeos who knows a somber moment when he sees it.
He asks for prayer.
The medical team descends, and you look for any sort of movement from the immobile cowboy. A back board is brought out -- not a great sign, but it is a precaution in these instances. “We’re trying to see if Steve is conscious, if he can hear us,” Tallman intones. As Woolsey is lifted off the arena floor, his right arm raises, his hand formed in a “No. 1” sign.
As Tallman says, “We love the guys who save the lives.”
We don’t know how long the cowboy will be out. I’d make a guess, though: About 6 weeks.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.