Saturday, February 11, 2006

For Sean Willingham fans

For his shot at glory, bull rider endures 8 seconds of Heartache
By Edward C. FennellThe Post and Courier
Many a Georgia boy grows up with dreams of being a Bulldog for the University of Georgia or a Yellow Jacket for Georgia Tech, or maybe even a baseball star for the Atlanta Braves.
As a north Georgia youth, Sean Willingham toyed with the idea of playing football or basketball for a home state university. But with one ride aboard a perturbed bull, the now-24-year-old Summerville, Ga., product was bouncing off in a different direction.
Willingham was 15 when, after watching a rodeo, he asked his father to let him try to ride a bull. Terry Willingham, a satellite TV installer, arranged a meeting with some local bulls as young and inexperienced as his son was.
"I was hooked after that day," Sean said. "I was scared at first, my palms were sweating so bad." He said he got tossed on his first two rides but held on the for required eight seconds on his third and last ride that day
"I blacked out on my first try and I don't remember the whole ride."
Professional bull riding is a life of hard work, pain and risks, but nothing compares to the exhilaration that comes with holding on - with one hand - to a raging bull that is leaping, twisting and whirling for the eight seconds that define a successful ride, Willingham said.
Willingham was one of 45 "cowboys" who rode in Professional Bull Riding's "Built Ford Tough" competition - the major-league level of bull riding - this weekend at North
Charleston Coliseum. On Friday he finished tied for fourth place and headed into Saturday night's finals, where he tied for 12th.
Most of the 45 men at the top level of PBR competition hail from west of the Mississippi. Willingham, who is tall and lean and who wears a black cowboy hat and chews tobacco, is among a few from either Georgia or the Carolinas.
He said he thinks the 60 or so bulls that travel with the circuit get as acquainted with the riders as the riders get acquainted with the bulls.
"Bulls are smart. They can feel your weight and you can think you know the bull because you have ridden him four times before, but on that fifth try he can set you up. You will lean one way and he will leave you right there," he said.
Please don't call professional bull riding "rodeo," said PBR Chief Executive Officer Randy Bernard. He said the league was founded in 1994 after separating "the toughest sport on dirt" from events such as calf roping.
PBR has a marketing strategy based on that of NASCAR and hopes to make riders into stars while selling the drama, skills, excitement and danger inherent in competitive bull riding, he said.
"There are two great athletes in every ride - the bull and the rider," Bernard said. He said PBR has an annual budget of $50 million and paid out $11 million in prize money last year to the 800 cowboys involved at the four levels of competition.
Willingham was the world's 14th-best bull rider last year and hopes to be the PBR champion one day. After choosing riding as his career, he competed in amateur events and earned a scholarship to Western Texas College.
"I got a full rodeo scholarship and an apartment. I didn't have to pay for anything, except food," Willingham said.
A year and a half later Willingham joined the professional circuit, where he said riders live on the road most of every year, work out to stay in shape and often ride hurt. Willingham has broken his leg and wrist, and he suffered a skull fracture when a bull horn smashed into his face.
Bull riding is a dangerous sport, says PBR physician Tandy Freeman of Dallas. Freeman heads a staff of PBR trainers and paramedics who look after riders. He said he sees "the full range of sports injuries" - pulled muscles and tendons, torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders, concussions, facial and limb fractures and spinal, head and abdominal injuries.
Since 1995, one rider has died from injuries and two others became quadriplegics because of spinal injuries, Freeman said. About 15 times a year riders are taken to emergency rooms. "The question is not, 'Will you get hurt,' but 'When,'he said.
The worst injuries happen when riders are stepped on or gored by bulls. Many riders don't want to quit, even when badly hurt. The medical staff sometimes has to rule out those riders when continuing to compete could cause serious bodily harm, Freeman said.
Willingham said riders know it's a young man's sport and they don't waste time while injuries heal. You have to be willing to ride with broken bones if you want to be a champion, he said.
After his Friday ride, Willingham said the eight seconds aboard a bull named Heartache seemed a lot longer. "It seems like an eight-hour day. It felt like a full day's work in eight seconds."


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