Since first writing this several years ago, Rob has retired with, I am happy to report, all his faculties intact.
The second ride of the evening did not go well.
Rogerio de Souza Pereira came out on Wild Thang and within two seconds, on the third or fourth massive, twisting buck, Rogerio was in trouble, his head snapping back, throwing his weight off balance. The Kamikaze Kid was already moving. Things that were happening faster than thought appeared to be in slow motion.
On the next buck, Rogerio was thrown forward, his face hitting the bull’s head, which was now coming up. It’s unclear if the damage was done then, or if it happened later, when Rogerio’s head hit the bull’s horn as he flopped at Wild Thang’s side, the young Brazilian’s hand caught in his own bull rope—‘hung up’ is the technical term—but by the time the Kamikaze Kid freed Rogerio’s hand, the bull rider was already unconscious and bleeding heavily.
Rogerio fell on his back, loose and inert as a sack of grain, one arm out to the side, the other almost straight above his head as if he were still riding. The bull, still bucking, stepped on his belly, 1700-pounds concentrated onto a hoof the size of a dessert plate, and a collective sound of pain and pity went up from the crowd.
The Kamikaze Kid and the other two bullfighters, Dennis Johnson and Greg Crabtree, were still in motion, twisting and dodging in front of the bull, drawing him away from the fallen man. As soon as the bull peeled off after Dennis Johnson, the Kamikaze Kid, still running, circled back to the injured rider. He knelt by his side, placed his hands on Rogerio’s chest as delicately as a man might touch a sleeping baby, and bowed his head in prayer. The eight-second buzzer sounded.
The whole incident, from the moment Rogerio’s head snapped back, to the stillness of the two men in the dust and noise of the arena, one helpless, the other praying for him, had taken less than six seconds.
“Anticipation is a lot of it.”
The Kamikaze Kid is not a kid anymore at forty-six. His name is Rob Smets and he is considered to be the greatest rodeo bullfighter that ever lived, though he would never admit that.
“You see a rider’s chin come off his chest, you know he’s fixing to come off that bull. Or if you see his back ‘C’, you know, not sitting straight anymore.”
Rob slumped forward like a sullen teenager. His normal posture is Marine color guard at the White House.
“That’s called riding on the pockets and it’ll cant his pelvis. Or if his free arm goes past his head on the back swing or too far across his body on the front swing, ‘cause that’ll torque his hips and then he’s off balance. Or if his feet start flopping, though sometimes that just means the rider’s trying to get a better hold. That’s the sort of stuff you look for. You got to read the bull and you got to read the rider and you anticipate.”
Rob Smets is sitting on the edge of his bed in the Marriott Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, eating a room temperature room service hamburger, his typical dinner before he leaves for the ‘office.’ The ‘office’ tonight is Kansas City’s Kemper arena. Next week it will be the Dallas, Texas American Airlines Center, then the Bismarck Civic Center in North Dakota, then the Prescott Rodeo Grounds, then Cheyenne, Tulsa, North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, California, the states and cities and arenas, the hotel rooms and airports, all piling up like snapshots in a shoebox.
But tonight in Kansas City will be Rob’s first night back after a ten-week layoff following a broken leg in Albuquerque. There are unavoidable hazards to messing about with animals that weigh in the neighborhood of a ton, and it doesn’t make much difference whether you’re trying to sit on their backs for eight seconds or trying to outrun and outmaneuver them on the ground. The Professional Bull Riders Association keeps a running news brief on its website listing the sidelined riders and bullfighters and the extent of their injuries—broken shoulder, fractured ribs, facial injuries (resulting in a titanium plate in the skull), fractured and dislocated hip, broken collar bone, perforated bowel, concussion, dislocated shoulder, torn ligaments, herniated discs, broken ankle, torn groin muscle, the list goes on—but it doesn’t mention the ancillary financial impact on the athletes.
Unlike other professional sports, the PBR makes no allowance for injuries. There is no second string, no backup, no sitting on the bench, no injured reserve list. If you don’t perform, you don’t get paid, so the combined motivation of pride and paycheck is considerable. Rob had already tried to make it to the office in Phoenix three weeks earlier, but the leg refused to hold him on a sharp cut to the right during a practice run, a down-and-out pattern. He has a ranch in Texas that needs to be paid for; he has a wife and child counting on him; he has horses, dogs, cattle to be fed. Above all, he has pride.
“I’m competitive. I want to win. I don’t care if it’s flipping a coin, I want to win. When I get knocked down by a bull, I get up mad. I want to get even.”
Eating his dinner he is strangely relaxed for a man who is about to risk his life—more than risk it, offer it up—to save someone else, someone he may not like nor even know particularly well.
Our mutual friend, Mike Schwiebert, Rodeo All-Pro Bullfighter of the Year in 1978, long retired from bull fighting, is sitting on the other bed: “A bullfighter is like a Secret Service agent,” he says. “The job is to protect the rider at all costs, and if that means taking the shot for him, that’s what you do.”
The analogy seems to amuse Rob and he grins, transforming his face. He is a former Golden Gloves champion and long-time barroom brawler, his face battered and broken by gloves and bare fists and bulls, and within the collage of mashed lips, flattened nose, and scar tissue are eyes as unblinking and dispassionate as a bird of prey. Would it be worth my time to kill you? Would you be good to eat? But when he laughs or smiles the eyes become lighted windows, the mouth a welcome mat.
“Stepping in front of the bullet.” He laughs as if it were the funniest thing in the world, as if the degree of danger from either bull or bullet wasn’t worth anything more than a laugh.
“I first saw Rob in 1977 in Ardmore, Oklahoma and I thought, That kid will never last; he takes too many chances.” Mike is looking at Rob as he speaks. “Three years later I was finished. And now, twenty-six years later, he’s still going strong. How’s the leg?”
“Good. I was in the pool doing therapy two days after I broke it. It’s fine now.”
What he doesn’t say is that those two days were spent alone in a motel room with over-the-counter pain killers, without even having had X-rays taken or anything more than a cursory examination by the emergency doctor behind the chutes after he was helped out of the arena.
“I wanted to wait till I got home to my own doctor. Cheaper. And I couldn’t grab an earlier flight out without paying extra.”
Medical insurance is not an option for someone who makes his living doing whatever it takes to save a fallen rider, relying on his own timing and speed of reflex to distract a misanthropic 1500- to 2000-pound animal. That’s when everything goes well. When things get Western, it can come down to hurling his own body over an unconscious rider and enduring whatever he must endure until the other bullfighters or the single mounted cowboy in the arena, known as the safety-man, can pull the bull’s focus away.
Over the years the broken bones, torn muscles, and torn hide have added up, but most obvious is the aftermath of a twice-broken neck (once, C-1, the same vertebra that paralyzed the late Christopher Reeve). Rob has some partial mobility to the right, but none to the left, so when he turns now to look at the clock he has to turn his entire torso, twisting from the waist and rolling his eyes.
“Oh! I got to go. We’re having a prayer meeting. Hand me that shirt, will you.”
He pulls his T-shirt off and grabs the red PBR shirt he will wear to the arena. He is a stocky, powerfully built man, slightly bow-legged, an attribute that is exaggerated by the extra-long blue jeans falling in folds—called a stack in cowboy parlance—around his boots. The bow-leggedness and his slightly rolling gait make him appear deceptively clumsy in a bear-like way, but now, as he changes shirts, the thick bones and heavy muscles show the boxer he once was. The shoulders especially are massive and speak of long hours on the heavy bag, driving T-posts into hard ground, tossing bales of hay onto a flatbed, staying in shape to stay alive.
Prayer is something new for Rob. His father was a heavy machine operator who worked for mining companies in Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Puerto Rico, and around the States, and fighting seems to have come naturally to a tough American kid in foreign lands. He was finally asked to leave school in Salinas because of the constant brawling.
“My friends were all Hispanic and I didn’t like it when people would pick on them.”
The statement is both true and disingenuous. The impulse to save, to help, to protect—to don dented armor, grab a rusty sword, and ride off in all directions—is undoubtedly very strong in Rob. He wouldn’t be a bullfighter if it weren’t there. But there is also a lot of pit bull in him too.
Three months earlier, a group of men were standing in the kitchen of a remote hunting camp in California, waiting for supper. The men were excited about the next day’s pig hunt, and beer and whiskey and margueritas were flowing. The combination of booze and empty stomachs was making everyone boisterous, everyone but Rob. He was the center of attention, the star, as he is in places where men know anything about rodeo and bull riding, and he leaned against the sink, his face flushed with alcohol, still and deadly quiet. Whenever anyone asked him anything he would answer politely, but the more he drank, the more he gave the impression of a ticking clock attached to a stick of dynamite. The conversation turned to boxing, and from boxing to fighting generally, a few of the men recounting their own exploits, usually humorous, usually self-deprecating, but always coming back to Rob, to his brawls in and out of the ring.
“Hell, Rob. Didn’t you ever lose any fights?” The man who asked was no drunker than anyone else, but perhaps his judgment was worse.
“No. I never lost a fight.” He said it as softly and matter-of-factly as another man might say, No, I’ve never been to Morocco, or, No, I’ve never driven a race car.
“Well, aren’t you worried someone will take you someday?”
“No one in this room.” It wasn’t surly or aggressive or ugly, just a quiet statement of fact, yet behind it was an eagerness no one was drunk enough to ignore.
At least half-a-dozen of the men in that kitchen were substantially bigger than Rob, but there was an uncomfortable moment of silence and then Mike Schwiebert stepped gracefully, humorously in, deflecting and defusing, and the group recaptured their anticipation and high spirits.
The next morning Rob came to the breakfast table looking as much the worse for wear as the others, but his eyes were lighted windows. He stood by his seat as if he were standing in front of the blackboard and said his piece.
“I had too much to drink last night, and I said some things I shouldn’t have. I apologize to everyone here. It won’t happen again.”
The bull fighting came almost by accident.
“I was sitting on the fence at a high school rodeo watching the bullfighter,” Rob told me, “and I could see what he was doing wrong. I kept yelling at him to get closer to the bull until he finally turned around and said, Why don’t you try it, kid. So I did.”
He was an instant sensation in the rarefied world of bull riding, his insane, daredevil style of charging the bull earning him the nickname Kamikaze Kid. But there was another side to rodeo life in the late seventies and eighties.
“I was a total pothead. I’d roll a joint first thing in the morning before I got out of bed. I worked stoned. Sometimes I’d smoke a joint, do a line of cocaine and then go out and fight bulls.”
He is very candid about the drugs and the booze and the brawling and nameless girls in the back of horse trailers, candid too about the price he paid in a failed marriage, failed friendships, and failed finances. What he doesn’t mention are the triumphs: an unprecedented five World Championships; being voted to the PBR finals seven times and to the National Finals Rodeo six times. He doesn’t mention qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo bullfighter’s competition seventeen times in a profession where ten years is the top end of a bullfighter’s working life. Instead he talks about getting off drugs.
“When I broke my neck the second time the doctor asked me if I smoked cigarettes. Well, no, I’d never smoked a cigarette. But he said it could make your bones brittle. So I lay in that hospital bed and thought about it. I thought if tobacco could do that to you, pot probably could too. When I got out, I rolled one last joint and smoked it as I drove home. Then I threw the bag out the window, and that was that. Took me six months to get over the smoker’s cough.”
The next step was meeting his wife, Carla.
“She was a big influence. She works with disturbed children, and I’m her biggest case study. But the religion…. That came because I was always searching for peace, for happiness. I finally realized it wasn’t about booze and drugs and girls. And I realized I couldn’t fix everything, that Rob Smets couldn’t do it all. I had some friends, Lynn Shawls and Rope Myers. They were in a church. I could see the joy in their eyes, and that was what I wanted.”
Now, in Kansas, he grabs his suitcase and his bag with his uniform and athletic shoes and pads—similar to those worn by hockey players—and carefully places his twenty-X Stetson on his head. At the door he turns and smiles again.
“I’ll see you there.”
Most of the sports that came out of the cowboy lifestyle used to be lumped together under the name rodeo. Today, while there is still bull riding in rodeo, it has evolved as a sport on its own, as have cutting (separating a single cow from the herd) and reining (riding a set pattern at different speeds, spinning, and a slide stop, as a test of the athletic ability and training of the horse, and the horsemanship of the rider).
Traditional rodeo events such as saddle-bronc riding, bareback-bronc, bulldogging (steer wrestling), calf roping (tie-down roping), team roping, barrel racing, even reining and cutting, all had their genesis in the day-to-day activities on the long cattle drives in pre-barb wire days, or in the day-to-day activities on the great ranches post-barb wire.
The exception is bull riding. There is no practical reason why any sane man would ever try to ride a bull. In the unlikely event you could get the thing broke to ride, it would be the sorriest form of transportation in the world, worse even than a camel.
Bull riding has only existed as a pure expression of cowboy machismo. Somewhere, back in the dust of history, some idiot put his beer down and yelled, “Hey, y’all! Watch this,” and was promptly killed or invalided. The ancient Minoans risked their lives against bulls in ceremonies that evolved out of the ritual slaughter of their king every eight years to ensure a bountiful harvest, but even those slim and agile youths merely vaulted over the bull. They didn’t actually ride the sucker. (Of course, if you’re going to have your throat cut or be roasted alive for the benefit of the community, anything you can do with a bull, even riding it, looks pretty good.)
Bull riding was always the glamour event in rodeo, and today it stands on its own under the aegis of the Professional Bull Riders Association. It stands on its own because it is more dangerous than any other sport. Infinitely more dangerous. It is not a question of if a cowboy gets hurt; it’s simply a question of how badly and how often. In a society where the threat of dying is no longer a quotidian issue for most of us, where there is pill for every ache and every discomfort, people are thrilled by the spectacle of men risking their lives, and will pay money to see it. ‘Recreational terror,’ as writer Jeff MacGregor calls it, has become big business in America.
All sports, from bowling to boxing to bull riding, offer the spectator a chance to experience vicariously what his own limitations, physical or psychological, keep him from doing. All people and all societies admire courage, whether you’re the first man ever to eat an oyster, or the first man ever to fly a plane faster than sound. The appeal of bull riding lies in the courage of the young men who do it. There is absolutely nothing you can do that is more dangerous than bull riding. It is the ultimate Fear Factor.
But there is far more to successful bull riding than mere courage. There are the issues of balance, coordination, timing, speed of reflex, and – just as important as courage – the ability to ignore pain.
Add to all this the fact that bull riders are young, greyhound-lean and fit, attractive, clean-cut, and have the ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ manners of the cowboy culture, and you can understand why they have such an incredible following. They are revered and idolized. Perhaps not quite as much as the bulls, whose Breyer statuettes sell like hot cakes, and whose names are whispered with breathless admiration—Bodacious! Little Yellow Jacket! Blueberry Wine! Mossy Oak Mudslinger!—but enough that sponsors fight to be first in line with their checkbooks, fans with their autograph books. And after the bulls, Rob Smets is the biggest selling item, even more than any of the riders, on play sets, playing cards, figures, T-shirts, a host of other forms of licensed merchandise.
Cabela’s was one of the sponsors of the Kansas City event (Ford Motor Company, truck division, is the primary sponsor of the whole thirty-one city tour, which bills itself as The Ford Built-Tough Series, presented by Wrangler, the secondary sponsor) and they arranged for Rob and some of the riders to come sign autographs at their 150,000 square-foot store.
You might think nearly three-and-a-half acres under roof would be enough space to accommodate any amount of autograph signing, but the folks at Cabela’s know their business.
In the parking lot in front of the main entrance they had set up a tent capable of holding a three-ring circus, which was pretty much what it held. There was an archery booth inside a specially designed eighteen-wheeler, where people could test their skills with high-tech compound bows; a similar booth, just as large, selling bratwurst; another selling candied popcorn; an enclosed ring with an inflated pad and a fuzzy mechanical bull where people stood in line for a chance to imitate the young men at the autograph tables. The stuffed and padded bull bore a remarkable resemblance to Barney the dinosaur, only brown, not purple, and with horns, and moved in an equally stately and non-threatening manner, but no one lasted eight seconds.
And amid the crowds and confusion and blare of country music, autograph seekers waited patiently in lines so long they snaked around the displays and booths and games and out into the bright heat of the June Kansas sun, waiting to have their scraps of paper or hats or T-shirts signed, their pictures taken with the all-American heroes.
Rob sat behind a table with a stack of photographs in front of him. It’s a color shot of him leaping onto a bull’s back, totally focused on the bull rope and the hand of the airborne young man hung-up below him. And as each person stepped to the table he turned his full attention to them, focusing on his nameless admirers as he had on the hand of the hung-up rider, signing autographs, chatting, answering questions. Over and over he stood up to pose for pictures, until, in an effort to save his legs for the event that night, he began pulling the women down onto his lap, smiling disarmingly at their husbands and boyfriends, laughing and joking, wishing them well, signing more autographs.
Kemper arena is a circular building with a tunnel, also circular, that runs under the seats. Sprouting off the tunnel like cogs on a fly-wheel are storage rooms, maintenance rooms, electrical rooms, janitorial rooms, private entrances for athletes, a private bar and restaurant for VIP’s, administrative offices, and, of course, dressing rooms.
The riders are in one dressing room, the three bullfighters—and the single clown, also known as the barrel man—in another. It used to be that all four men were referred to as rodeo clowns, all wore garish makeup and ridiculous costumes, and all were responsible for entertaining the crowd as well as protecting the riders. In recent years the two functions have evolved away from each other in the PBR, and now the clown does nothing but entertain, the bullfighters nothing but try to keep the riders alive. A documentary on Rob Smets filmed only a few years ago shows him putting on makeup before going into the arena, but that too has been dropped now. The only hangover from the old days is the loose clothing, but that has a very functional purpose: the chest protector and pelvic padding preclude tight jeans or shirts.
In the riders’ dressing room the moods vary widely. Some men sit quietly on benches with mouths as tight as their jeans. Some pray. One young cowboy who had missed the prayer meeting got on the elevator in the hotel praying softly under his breath. He punched the lobby button and finished his prayer before he nodded politely to the other people in the elevator. Now he sits on a bench by himself, lips moving.
Some of the riders laugh and joke and roughhouse. Tony Mendes, currently number six in the PBR standings, is loose as a goose, roping people as they pass by. It is an activity that might spark anger if anyone else did it, but Tony’s goofy charm allows him to get away with a lot. It is hard to tell if the joking and horseplay are a result of relaxed confidence or an effort to stimulate that condition.
The bullfighters’ dressing room is very different. The barrel man has already dressed and gone off somewhere, and Rob, Dennis Johnson, and Greg Crabtree are the only ones in there, so it’s much quieter, for one thing. There is a good deal of razzing and laughter as they dress, but there is also a good deal of the casual catching up of people who know each other but haven’t been together for awhile. Dennis is working with a broken arm and he is struggling to get his shirt on over the cast. Without being asked, without interrupting the story he is telling, Rob pulls the shirt down for him and keeps on talking and getting himself dressed.
All three men are mixing dressing with cursory stretching. All three could benefit from a yoga class. Greg Crabtree, who has the reputation of being the craziest man in the PBR, which is really saying something, lies on the floor in the position known as the plow.
Rob stops talking and looks down at him. “Damn, Greg. Doesn’t your wife let you be on top sometimes?” He and Dennis laugh as Greg keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to touch his toes to the floor.
“We go after each other in here,” Rob fakes kicking Greg in the backside, “we even get into it sometimes, but if anyone out there goes after one of us, he better be ready to go after all of us.”
It is the warrior sentiment, the psychological glue that binds squads and platoons and battalions, the motto of men who only feel truly alive when risking death together. It’s not just talk.
A rider got his spur caught in the flank strap in Greensboro, NC earlier this year. Unlike the bull rope, which is wrapped around the bull’s withers and has heavy bells that hang below to make it come loose as soon as the rider releases it, the flank strap is tied on, and the spur must be worked free or the strap either untied or cut. As the rider came off, the flank strap half-hitched around his spur, jerking him underneath the bull. The animal continued to spin, each turn adding another half-hitch. Cowboy boots are designed to allow the rider’s foot to slip easily out for just this reason, but bull riders use a leather strap just above the ankle to keep the boot secure when they grab hold with their spurs during the ride. There was no way the boot could come off or the spur come free.
Rob, Greg, and Dennis went instantly after the bull, who kept running, bucking, kicking, spinning. Time and time again the bullfighters were thrown, tossed, knocked down. It all happened in a fistful of seconds as the rider continued to be dragged and stepped on.
And then the riders came over the bucking chutes, five, ten, fifteen of them, each man with a knife in his hand to cut the strap, and under their combined weight and strength the bull was finally brought to a halt. The bull had gone from rival athlete to enemy and the entire assemblage of PBR had come together as a single unit to combat him.
Rob is wearing a pair of tight-fitting shorts and a T-shirt that go under his pads and uniform. He walks out into the tunnel and starts for the physical therapy room. Located midway between the two dressing rooms, this is the heart of pre-event activity, a steady stream of young men coming in for attention from one of the three therapists. It is stunning how many of these men are riding injured. Ankles are taped, shoulders are taped, ribs, knees, wrists, elbows. Brendon Clark, a young Australian rider coming back from a knee injury, has his entire leg taped from groin to ankle. (It doesn’t help him. Later that night he will be thrown twice and the second time he will hobble out of the arena in obvious pain.)
Rob briefly rides a stationary bike to warm up his muscles and then lies on a table as a therapist tries to help him stretch out the hamstring of the leg that was broken. Then the therapist tapes the leg from knee to ankle, and Rob starts back to his dressing room.
The circular tunnel is crowded with people: sponsors, press, TV crews, wives, friends, stock contractors, hangers-on, PBR reps, and little knots of remarkably pretty girls. These last are all heartbreakingly young, all blond, all wearing hip-hugging, low-rider jeans that have been spray-painted on, and shirts that leave their arms and midriffs – and as much of their fronts as possible – bare. In the rock music world, they would be called groupies. In the bull riding world, Annie Proulx has called them buckle bunnies.
Walking toward Rob around the curve of the tunnel are a man and woman and a little boy. The boy, five or six, wears glasses and has one arm in a blue cast. Rob has an affinity for children, his own, his deceased grandson, any children.
“Hey, pal. What’d you do to yourself?”
His eyes are beaming benevolently, but the battered face is what it is, attractive but intimidating, and the little boy shrinks back next to his father.
The father tries to do the right thing. “Tell him how you broke it.”
Rob squats down. “Did you fall down while you were playing ball?”
The little boy tries to get between his father’s legs. “Tell him what happened.”
“I just got my leg out of a cast.” Rob pats his taped shin. “They sure aren’t any fun.”
“Tell him how it happened.”
But it’s clear the boy is on the Audible-Speech-Injured-Reserve list.
“Well, since we both had broken bones, give me a high-five.”
This the little boy is willing to do, cautiously and gently, with his good hand.
Rob stands up and the mother speaks for the first time.
“Oh, my God!” She is staring at Rob. “Oh, my God. Do you know who this is?” She doesn’t turn her head away from Rob so it is unclear if she is speaking to her husband or her son, but she doesn’t wait for a reply. “It’s Rob Smets! We got to get a photograph. Can we get our picture with you? Oh, my God!”
She and her husband take turns photographing each other posing with Rob and their son, and either the little boy is aware of who Rob is or he picks up on his parents’ excitement for as Rob starts to leave the arm in the cast comes up and the fingers wave a farewell. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, son.”
The noise in the darkened arena is deafening, visibility almost non-existent. The show starts with pyrotechnics and pounding music, and then the riders walk out one by one in the glare of a spotlight as the announcer calls their names and gives a one-sentence update, this one’s standing in the ratings, that one’s most recent injury, another one’s most famous ride.
The young men walk out from their place by the chutes in their black or red PBR shirts and brightly colored chaps festooned with sponsors’ names—Mossy Oak, Ford, Rocky Boots, Jack Daniels, Luchesse, Branson tractors, Enterprise Car Rental, Jim Beam—and as each hears his name he doffs his hat to the crowd. The applause and cheers are constant, but certain names cause a swell in volume: Adriano Moraes, Justin McBride, Tony Mendes, local Missouri rider Matt Bohon, J. W. Hart, Ross Coleman.
At the other end of the arena the three bull fighters and the barrel man stand in the gloom, waiting. Greg and Dennis and the barrel man fidget and shift nervously from foot to foot, Greg kicking at the dirt with each shift in weight. Only Rob stands absolutely still, arms hanging loosely by his side, and the contrast of his stillness to their constant motion is compelling, the old gunslinger surrounded by anxious townspeople. He is the last to be introduced and he is the only man of the evening to be introduced as a legend. As he jogs forward in the spotlight beam, the applause and cheers swell as they did for the handful of popular top-ranked riders.
The smoke in the air, from the pyrotechnics and a fog machine, and the volume of the announcers voice and the music—an eclectic selection, ranging from Charlie Daniels to Pink Floyd—and the excitement of the crowd, lend a surreal atmosphere to the event, so that it is possible to imagine almost anything occurring in the sand of the arena: a rock concert, a magic act, a sporting event, a human sacrifice.
Behind the platform where the riders are grouped are the chutes where the bulls wait. They are magnificent beasts, all massive, sculpted muscle, reminiscent of some of the more powerful top heavyweight boxers of a few generations ago, Ken Norton, or Ernie Shavers, a young George Foreman.
Looking down on the bulls from the stands it is hard to appreciate the sheer, staggering size of them. From the stands, their size only becomes apparent when one of them gets near the safety man. He is mounted on a rangy, sixteen-hand sorrel, but every time a bull comes near him his horse suddenly looks like an emaciated Welsh cob. It’s like putting a Hummer next to a Mini Cooper.
Walking around the chutes gives an immediate, visceral appreciation of their size. They are colossal, mythological, Jungian symbols of some nightmare archetype.
In size. In temperament, standing placidly and patiently in the holding pens, they are very docile, gazing through the bars with dull curiosity. One of the riders drapes his chaps over the top rail of a holding pen and the Brahma raises his head to smell them attentively. The chaps are fringed and after smelling them for several seconds the bull extends a long pale tongue and samples the fringe. His eyes are bulbous and ringed with white, making him look like an apoplectic bullfrog, but after deciding the chaps are not edible he goes back to his serene contemplation of the flow of traffic around him. A foot-long string of slobber hangs from his mouth.
The bull in the pen next to him paws impatiently at the ground sending a spray of sand over the waiting riders, the TV crew, the paramedics, a PBR official, and some buckle bunnies who have made their way down here. The buckle bunnies squeal and bend over to shake the dirt out of their hair and everybody watches them appreciatively.
The bulls are moved from pen to pen and ever closer to the bucking chutes by a system of inter-connecting pens and gates no less intricate and no less mystifying than the labyrinth Daedalus designed. The two men who move the bulls are respectful of the animals, but not unduly cautious. Of the sixty waiting bulls, only three cause the men to scramble up the rails of the pens. Three alert, aggressive bulls that move quickly and unpredictably, heads swinging from side to side as if looking for someone or something to fight, turning unexpectedly back to the pen they just came out of, or spinning around to catch the men before they can clamber to safety.
But those three are the exception. The rest are true to Hemingway’s assessment: the pacifying effect of the herd instinct makes them safe in numbers. Alone, out in the arena, they will become dangerous.
In the arena the three bullfighters are very busy. Rider after rider gets thrown, a string of nine unsuccessful rides. But even successful rides keep the bullfighters busy. After the eight-second buzzer the cowboy may use the momentum of the next buck to spring to the ground, but the bull, alone and aggressive, is completely unpredictable. He may continue bucking or he may stop. He may charge the first person he sees or he may simply run back to the gate that leads back to the pens. He may fixate on a fallen rider or he may swing erratically from bullfighter to rider to another bullfighter. He may run down to the far end of the arena where the safety man, on his suddenly small horse, will try to get a rope on him. He may just run around randomly near the chutes.
The bullfighters are responsible for distracting him and trying to guide him back toward the pens, and until the gate swings shut behind him anything can happen.
One rider gets his spur caught in the flank rope. The bull runs in a circle, dragging the rider face down and terrifyingly close to the massive pounding hooves of the hind legs. There is an audible intake of breath, almost a groan, from the crowd. The three bullfighters close in on the bull and he swings suddenly to face one of them. The dragged rider becomes airborne as the bull turns; his weight is so insignificant relative to the bull’s strength that it is very possible the bull is completely unaware of his presence. Then suddenly all three bullfighters are on the bull. Dennis has grabbed the horns, Greg the tail, and Rob is on the animal’s back trying to release the spur from the flank strap.
That frozen vignette, less than a second, almost a duplicate of the picture Rob autographs for fans, illustrates the puniness and futility of their efforts. If the bull bucks, Rob will be thrown. If the bull hooks with his head, Dennis will be injured. If the bull kicks, Greg might very well be killed. Yet for no reason, the bull suddenly stops. A second later the rider is freed, the bullfighters move away, the bull gallops back to the open gate, and the crowd breathes again.
Mike Schwiebert, applauding with the rest of the audience, shakes his head. “Sometimes it just pays to be lucky.”
The next rider is thrown hard and Rob runs between the fallen man and the bull. It is a tried and true tactic to distract the animal and it works now. The bull goes after Rob with its head lowered. Rob runs, feints, and cuts to the right, but the bull catches him and tosses him like a cheese omelet, then swerves to go after Dennis. Rob falls and rolls onto his feet as gracefully as a cat and when he turns there is murder in his eyes. His fists are clenched and everything about his body language says there will be no more running, he will stand and fight. But the bull is already on its way back to the gate.
Rob roars and punches the air in rage and frustration. The crowd laughs and applauds. This is part of why they love him so much. He is the ultimate contender. He will never quit. He will go down fighting.
In the stands Mike Schwiebert stares down at his friend. “Ten years ago, even five years ago, that bull would never have caught him like that.”
Just before the last ride of the night the announcer lets the audience know that Rogerio de Souza Pereira is alright. He has suffered lacerations and a concussion and will be out of action for an indefinite period, but the protective vest saved him from any serious damage when the bull stepped on him. The crowd applauds.
A middle-aged woman waves and calls to Rob from the stands. She is wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of kittens wearing bikinis made of hamburger rolls with the caption Beach Buns. She is sitting with a man who appears to be her husband, but she screams mightily.
“Rob! Rob! I love you! You’re the greatest!”
Rob turns. It is unclear how much he has heard, other than his name, for he looks up at the right section but not at the right row. He raises one hand and smiles, happy, proud, the best there ever was. Then he turns. He will face one more bull tonight. He will shower and go straight to the airport. There is a roping in Reno where he hopes to win a few bucks. The Kamikaze Kid will be back in the office in Dallas next weekend.