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July 22, 2014

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Fear makes bull riding marquee event at the NFR

They don't like to talk about it. They don't like to think about it.

But it lurks deep in the recesses of their minds.

It's fear, the heart-thumping element that makes bull riders climb aboard a 1,500-pound, twirling, bucking beast to attempt an eight-second tour through hell.

Try as they might, they never seem able to escape that fear. Unsavory reminders repeatedly surface: a stretcher, a wheelchair ... a tombstone.

The dangers of bull riding are what make it the marquee event of the National Finals Rodeo. The NFR -- also consisting of bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, calf roping and barrel racing -- starts tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center and runs through Dec. 13.

"Every time I get on a bull, I'm scared for my life," bull rider Adam Carrillo said.

On the night Carrillo made that statement, it was difficult for him to think otherwise. He was attending a benefit at Caesars Palace for former world champion bull rider Jerome Davis.

A few feet away, Davis sat in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down. Davis was knocked out and thrown headfirst to the ground by a bull called Knock 'em Out John last March.

Davis hasn't walked since. But he still rides in his dreams.

"You'll wake up and come back to reality," Davis said. "There's nothing you can do. Sometimes I want to just keep on sleeping."

Those words dig deep into Carrillo's psyche.

"That is your worst nightmare," Carrillo said in a whisper, nodding his head in Davis' direction. "It couldn't have been any worse."

Actually, it could have.

At the 1994 NFR, Brent Thurman was stomped to death by the bull Red Wolf.

Thurman's best friend and traveling partner, Brian Herman, witnessed the tragedy. But Herman realized if he wanted to become a top rider, he would have to forget. Herman enters this year's NFR ranked 12th in the world.

"You have to block it out," Herman said. "If you're scared, then you're done."

All the mental preparation in the world couldn't keep the fear from creeping up on Herman on one occasion that hit too close to home.

"I've only been scared one time," Herman said. "There were a lot of times when I thought I was scared, but I was just nervous. But I drew Red Wolf after he killed my best friend.

"I was fixin' to pass out."

Red Wolf quickly bucked Herman off.

Fear is what makes bull riding the most popular of all rodeo events. Without bull riding, the sport probably doesn't exist.

"I've known danger ever since I was a little kid," said rodeo superstar Ty Murray, who enters the NFR atop the bull riding money list. "That's why I got interested in it.

"I'm not going to go on a suicide mission, but I can't live my life in a glass box.

"It might be crazy, but that's why people do it. That's why people pay to watch it."

According to Murray, dealing with the mental pressure is almost as much of a challenge as staying aboard the bull until the bell tolls.

"You have to take the fear, the adrenaline, the speed, the money, the titles, the bright lights, the fans and put them all aside," Murray said. "You have to stay focused to do your job.

"To me, that's the essence of every sport."

Even though he is confined to a wheelchair -- probably for the rest of his life -- Davis agreed there is no room for fear or regret in a bull rider's mind.

"I didn't ever think of getting injured this bad," Davis said. "It wasn't nothing for me to get hurt, have my head stepped on and get sore.

"If you're thinking about tragedy all the time, it's more likely it's going to happen. In bull riding you always have to focus on the positives. That's what makes a good bull rider: being relaxed."

Such an approach can be difficult in Davis' presence. It's a stern reminder that tragedy can strike anyone.

"It could just as easily be me as him," Herman said. "He was a world champion. He rode so good. That just goes to show it could happen to anybody, not just amateurs and first-timers."

But any time bull riders speak about their sport's inherent dangers, they almost always try to justify them.

"He could've been injured in a car accident or stepping out of the shower," Carrillo said.

Rationalization is a common defense for bull riders. The automobile analogy is common among them.

"To me, whenever I'm driving down the interstate and some guy nearly drives me off the road, that's when I get scared," Murray said.

"I have more friends I can count on two hands that have been seriously hurt or killed in car wrecks."

But no matter how many examples a cowboy can give, the average sports fan still has trouble figuring out why they risk their lives for so little money, at least compared to other peril-ridden sports such as auto racing and boxing.

The top bull riders earn a little more than $100,000 a year on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit. The Professional Bull Riders tour can double income, but the sum still falls short of the millions earned in other dangerous sports.

"My whole life I've tried to explain why I do this," Murray said. "It's hard to explain to the everyday Joe. There's no way he will ever experience what it's like, the great feeling of taking something that's next to impossible and making it look easy."

But as dangerous as bull riding is, there is no shortage of those who wish they could do it.

"You can go around every neighborhood in the country and ask people if they would like to be a cowboy," Carrillo said, "and they all would.

"If they could put on a hat, a pair of jeans, some spurs and be a cowboy, they would do it in a second."

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