While living in Lincoln, Neb., a few years ago, I came across a rugged old soul wearing a T-shirt that read: Real Men Ride Bulls. Always a lover of battles between men and “beasts,” I was able to garner from the retired military officer that the world of professional bull riding “rolled boxing, football, rugby, and racing into a cannon and shot it out of range.” In other words, PBR was where true athleticism and a bravery collided with faith.
A Professional Bull Riders (PBR) bull ride is an eight-second contest of strength, balance, endurance and effort between the world’s best bull riders and the world’s best bucking bulls. A rider must ride for eight seconds with one hand in the bull rope and one in the air in order to earn a score. The clock starts when the bull’s shoulder or hip breaks the plane of the gate. It stops when the riders hand comes out of his rope — voluntarily or not. The clock also stops if the Rider touches himself, the bull or the ground with his free arm during the eight-second ride. If the rider makes the eight-second buzzer, he receives a score. If he does not make the eight-second buzzer then he receives no score for that attempt.
Each ride is worth up to 100 total points: 50 points awarded to the bull and 50 points awarded to the rider if he successfully rides the bull for eight seconds. The bulls are competing for points and standings as well and every bull receives a score of 0 to 50 points after every ride or attempted ride whether the rider successfully made the eight-second buzzer or not.
In speaking with two of PBR’s most celebrated riders, Sean Willingham, who’s spent more than two decades on the circuit and newbie, Ezekiel Mitchell, it becomes clear that in addition to having the bravery and brawn to jump atop the meanest creatures on four legs, bull riders also have an amazing amount of humility.
“I train physically during the week for that moment on the weekends, but just before the ride, I try to go to a happy place where I don’t really think about that I’m about to do. It sounds weird, but I try not to think about riding a bull or the bull that I’m getting on up until they run him into the cage and I’m getting on him and it’s game time,” Willingham told The Informer. “That’s when the muscle memory training that I’ve put in all weekend — in that shoot — that takes over.”
Willingham, 38, said that the fear is always there to some extent because the reality of mounting an animal that could potentially stomp and kill you remains. Because of the danger, many riders attempt to train their bodies to react quickly and accurately to the bulls’ movements. Other riders study the bulls and think of nothing but the upcoming rides to prepare, but predicting how each bull will ride, is a gamble.
“Staying on the bull is sometimes the easy part. Getting off and getting away, that’s when the real fight begins. Bulls are very fast animals and also very smart, so they know when you’re on their backs and when you’re off,” Willingham said. “They can also pick you out as soon as you step off, which means you have to be aware when dismounting which way to step to keep from running in front of him.”
Mitchell, one of the youngest bull riders at 22 and the only African American in PBR, has already earned the title of the Rookie of the Year. Having moved from playing football to bull riding, Mitchell said it was not much of a transition.
“I played football and I was decent at it, but I never really liked the concept of being on a team and depending on other people. When I moved into bull riding, I already had a competitive edge and it just flowed from there,” Mitchell said. “It flowed naturally to depend on myself and have that level of accountability.”
Mitchell, like Willingham speaks with a southern cadence of “Yes, ma’ams and “No ma’am,” that make it difficult to picture him in competition with a bull. Knowing that Mitchell trained initially by watching instructional videos on bull riding, makes that much harder. So, how was the move from tutorials to a live, 1,300-pounder?
“It was kind of a blur and I was only on him for about four seconds, but I knew from the moment I hit the ground that it was something that wanted to do and continue to pursue,” Mitchell said. “Either it’s a long eight seconds or it comes too fast — it depends on how well everything is clicking. It feels like It’s forever when you’re not doing it the right way whether — three seconds or eight seconds, and it feels like a dogfight.”
Mitchell said he prays before each ride, has always been a religious person, and was raised in the church. And like Willingham, doesn’t get psyched too far in advance of his rides. He said that while his family (he is one of 11 children) are now all gung-ho about this bull riding, it took some getting used to for his Mom.
“It had the greatest impact on my mom because she definitely didn’t want me to do it. It took a while for her to wrap her head around her son getting on something that could potentially kill him, but now, she’s super enthusiastic about it and wants to see me succeed,” Mitchell said. “She’s happy because my riding shows my little brothers and sisters that they don’t have to settle for less and that they can achieve anything that they want.”
Asked if either had a fear of riding any particular bull, Willingham and Mitchell both brushed off the notion.
“Years ago, there were a few bulls I didn’t want to get matched up with,” Mitchell said. “But I finally got to the point where in my mindset, no matter what bull they run up under me, it’s game time. I’m here to win every time.”