By: Andrew Giangola
May 25, 2016
There’s Gisele and Gigi and Karlie and Chrissy. And now Bonner’s on that list.
Last week, Bonner Bolton signed a global modeling contract with IMG Models, the world’s largest modeling agency and PBR’s sister company within WME | IMG, a global leader in entertainment, sports and fashion. This week, he appears in US Weekly’s “Best Bodies” issue.
Not bad for an athlete who, five months ago, was making the final mental and spiritual preparations that will race through a man’s mind when laying in the dirt, dazed and blinking and barely breathing, unable to move a limb, ready to surrender to what’s next.
Bolton’s subsequent recovery and reinvention from a nearly fatal bull-riding wreck is a storyline made for a Hollywood script. Of course, many fans know the PBR star as much for his role as a stunt double for actor Scott Eastwood in the major motion picture, “The Longest Ride.” Hooking up with the world’s largest modeling agency therefore isn’t much of a shocker. Many a female PBR fan would tell you the stand-in is hotter than the actual movie star, and they often request Bolton’s signature. Where they ask him to plant that John Hancock will be left to the imagination.
Not too long ago, the 28 year-old bull rider had the world at his feet and expectations high as the west Texas sky he’d gaze at as a kid. He’d closed out his rookie year finishing in seventh place at the 2015 PBR World Finals. Starting the 2016 Built Ford Tough Series season, Bolton was in the best shape of his career. This was his time. He’d do even better. Ride your best in the next 26 events, make it to Vegas, and that belt buckle can be yours.
“If I can go three for three in round one of the World Finals, where the spotlight is the hottest and the pressure the greatest, and then in the next round ride Walk Off, a rank bull barely ridden all year, why can’t I win the World Championship?” he asked himself.
Those hopes were dashed in the season opener in Chicago. Bolton had made his eight seconds on Cowboy Up and was leading the event. Time to high five bull fighter Shorty Gorham, make a quick stop to tell CBS’ Leah Garcia it’s great to build on the momentum from World Finals, and go crack a cold one in the locker room to celebrate that 86.75 score, right?
Well, in the PBR, not so fast. There’s what old-school riders call “making the whistle.” Then there’s getting off the bucking bull without shattering something on the dirt or taking a stomping from your raging nemesis taunted by that humiliating buzzer. Eight seconds may be the standard for each all-important qualified ride which puts food on the table, but walking out the arena under your own power is the bull rider’s ultimate goal.
Bolton left Cowboy Up a fraction of a second too soon. Or maybe too late. He cartwheeled into the air, and the sophisticated fan in Allstate Arena with an appreciation for the brutal power, choreographed beauty, and precise mechanics of each ride knew this was not good at all.
Bolton’s scary trajectory ended with his head pile-driving into the ground at the worst possible angle, a perpendicular plant very good for Olympic 10-meter divers and very bad for bull riders.
He hit hard and went limp. Cowboy Up reversed course and appeared ready to stomp him. The bull’s four hooves seemed to graze Bolton’s body as if testing how close he could get without actually jostling the prone rider.
“The bull didn’t do anything wrong to me; he was doing his job,” Bolton said. “I timed it wrong and landed wrong. I was flipped and turned in the air, in rotation and upside down. You don’t know where you are in the air. I wanted to land on my hands, but I didn’t get that full rotation. The ground came before I got my hands up. It was over before I knew it.”
Bolton was conscious but had no feeling from his face on down. He instinctively knew his neck was broken.
“It was without a doubt the most intense moment of my life: Watching the bull stomp around in front…seeing those amazing bull fighters trying to distract him. He came back and ran over me. But he didn’t touch me. I believe to this day there were angels protecting me.”
Down on the dirt, prone, motionless, fighting for his life, he was consumed with big, deep thoughts.
“There have been deaths in the arena. I’ve seen that happen to other guys, and I believed it was my time. Survival was the only thing on my mind, but I wasn’t sure if that was possible. I believed I was dying.”
PBR Sports Medicine rushed out and carefully rolled Bolton over and placed him on the stretcher. Going into the ambulance, he was thinking about family and friends, thanking God for every day of his life, and asking for more time here.
“I knew it was bad and this could be it. I was just hoping and praying I’d be able to use my arms once more to hug my loved ones. My life’s priorities – what was most important to me here on earth – were immediately set in place. I wasn’t thinking about riding or money or winning a championship or a gold buckle or any material stuff that tends to dominate our lives. I was asking myself, ‘Have I been the person I wanted to be? Do my family and friends know how much I love them?’”
At Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, it was determined Bolton had broken his C-2 vertebrae, the same injury suffered by actor Christopher Reeve. Fortunately, unlike Reeve, his spinal cord was not transected.
Doctors fused his C2 and C3 vertebrae, inserting into the bones what looks like a prehistoric clamp chomping his neck. Bolton had his feeling and movement back but had to stay completely still for a month – a frustrating mandate for a young man perpetually on the go since he could walk.
He grew up on a ranch in west Texas, playing soccer and baseball while riding horses, working the cattle, and growing into a bona fide American cowboy. When he was four years old, Bonner’s dad, Toya, a cowboy originally from New Mexico, won the George Powell Memorial, the biggest standalone bull riding event in Del Rio, Texas. A short documentary was made about the prestigious event, and young Bonner was glued to that video every day.
“My dad was always my hero,” he said. “It was completely awesome how this small man could face these giants in the arena and dominate them.”
Bonner joined the junior rodeo when he was 10. All the time, he watched how hard his dad worked, compensating for his smaller stature by being in top shape and never quitting. Bonner would maintain the same kind of mental mettle and intense workout regimen – trampoline tumbling, swimming, hot yoga and tai chi, hour after hour spent sculpting rock hard abdominal muscles and a strong core and legs to center his gravity and build endurance, cardio, balance and flexibility.
Laid up in the hospital, this free spirit who climbs rocks, wakeboards and snowboards when not riding bulls was now helpless, sore, stiff, unable to bathe himself, and completely dependent on others. It was a difficult adjustment. But it provided ample time to go over what had happened, and plan what’s to come, not just in the arena (Bonner was already creating a game plan to make it back to PBR’s elite level), but on the broader canvas, the yawning philosophical questions about a man’s whole existence.
He started asking himself, “What’s my true purpose? What’s going to bring me meaning and fulfillment?”
A tough yet sensitive young man – Bolton studied art at Texas Tech – was healing physically while growing as a person, becoming even more courageous and contemplative.
Two months after his injury, Bonner was taking long walks. The third month, he assisted a friend in laying down flooring. Why should a neck collar get in the way of helping a buddy?
Most days are spent rebuilding his body – neck massages, time in the steam room, and hot tub sessions working his arms and legs in the water, a form of rehab Bonner learned after tearing his right bicep clean off the bone eight years ago. He’s done a few chin ups – one of the small physical tests posed daily. The plan is to focus on the training. Keep pushing forward. Raise your level a little bit every day. On the yoga mat, he’s not quite ready to stand on his head, but don’t bet against it.
“I almost feel back to normal,” Bolton said. “I’m told I may lose 10 to 15 percent of the movement in my neck. But that’s a diagnosis for the average patient. Not everyone’s as determined as I am. I don’t worry what the doctors are saying.”
Rider Relief Fund and Cowboys Helping Cowboys provided crucial financial help to help Bolton stay afloat. An outpouring of love from the PBR community nourished his spirit. The relationship with IMG Models should open new doors.
“Bonner is truly an aspirational modern hero,” said Ivan Bart, President of IMG Models. “He has radiance, spirit and authenticity brands want.”
“I’ve received some unbelievable love and support,” Bolton observed. “We’re all family in this sport. Everybody helps everybody else. That’s the cowboy way.”
Bolton’s brush with death and long comeback are what the insurance policies, reality shows and inspirational books call a “life-altering event.” The question on every PBR fan’s mind is, can a man, no matter how determined, rebound from an injury that severe? Will Bonner Bolton ride again?
“No sane doctor is going to let someone with the hardware that’s in my neck get on a bull,” Bolton said. “It’s hard to contemplate the prospect of maybe never again doing what I love so much. My most recent ride could be one that I didn’t expect to be my last. I’m going to have to be the same athlete or better before I go back. Can I get there? Those are the questions swimming around my head every day. I’ll make the decision when that time comes and be at peace with it.”
He’s a work in progress, asking the questions, not always arriving at the same answers, but unwavering in his gratitude to God for every new day, a true gift not to be squandered.
“My injury has been a hard experience; and I’m dealing with mental and physical and spiritual challenges. What I’ve learned is not to take a single day for granted. This life can be over before you know it. Mine almost was. I got a second chance; some people don’t.
“I want to live my life day to day and to the absolute fullest. I don’t want to take my friends and family for granted for a single second. Man, life is too short to hold a grudge or any hate in your heart. It sounds like a bumper sticker but love is the answer. Always has been. Always will be.”
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