By: Justin Felisko
October 28, 2016
LAS VEGAS – J.W. Harris groggily opened his eyes to a sea of black smoke and darkness swirling around his pounding head on June 6.
Extremely disoriented, the four-time PRCA champion and PBR veteran bull rider could hear his two children, Aubrey, 5, and Dillon, 3, crying in the backseat of his black Ford F-350.
Harris began to gather his bearings ever so slowly when he heard someone asking him in a robotic tone, “Do you need to call 911?”
Barely able to speak, Harris muttered back, ‘Yes,’ to the Ford’s SYNC 911 assistance program and opened his front driver’s side door.
He had to get to his kids, he thought.
Harris next stumbled out of the truck and opened the back door.
A group of good Samaritans had already pulled over to the side of U.S. Highway 84 in Brown County, Texas, and had rushed to Harris’ aid.
The group helped J.W. get his children out of their car seats and to a safe location a few yards away from the wreckage from the two-vehicle accident.
J.W.’s attention immediately shifted toward his wife, Jackie.
Jackie was sitting motionless in the front passenger seat of the mangled piece of steel that once served as the family’s safe haven to trips to the grocery store and vacations.
“It scared me to death,” Harris recalled this week before his voice trailed off. “I looked over and I saw Jackie slumped over.”
A ROUTINE DRIVE HOME
“Honey, I am not cooking tonight. We can go grocery shopping tomorrow,” Jackie had said to J.W. a few hours earlier.
J.W. replied, “Yeah, let’s do that.”
The family had just returned home from visiting Jackie’s parents in Harrison, Arkansas, when they decided to go drop off their dog at a local veterinarian.
After 10 hours of driving, and an unexpected trip to the vet, the last thing the husband and wife duo wanted to do was go about making dinner that evening.
Therefore, the family decided to stop at Chick-Fil-A in Early, Texas.
“We got our food and were headed back to the house,” J.W. said.
J.W. turned his truck out of the parking lot and began heading southeast on U.S. 84/183 toward their home in Goldwaithe.
It was shortly after 8 p.m. when the Harris’s were approaching a railroad overpass between Early and Zephyr where the highway condenses from four lanes to two – one in each direction.
J.W. looked down the road and saw two vehicles traveling side-by-side.
“The speed limit goes up to 75 (mph) there,” Harris said. “Of course, I am going 75. I had seen these two trucks and they were well past where it was a four-lane road. So I scooted over. I didn’t know. I let off the gas and tried to figure out what the heck they were going to do. I look in my rearview mirror and there were a bunch of a people coming behind us. There was a guard rail and I couldn’t get the car in the ditch.
“I just hugged that guard rail as close as I could.”
There was nowhere for him to go.
All J.W. could do was thrust his arm in front of Jackie and brace for impact.
“I guess J.W. did the mom-check to me because the only thing I know is I glance up and the last thing I remember seeing was the white front end of a Ford,” Jackie said.
“The next thing, I wake up to hardly being able to breathe, and smoke, and I could hear the kids screaming. I was just trying to wake up enough to get to them and see if everyone was OK.”
“Our guardian angels were on duty that night”
J.W. and the group of men that had stopped to assist with the car accident, eventually helped pull Jackie out of the truck and get her seated into a lawn chair from a neighboring house.
“We thought maybe she broke her hip because she couldn’t stand or squat to sit down,” J.W. said. “Hell, we had lots of people there. Tons of people helping. I wish I knew who every one of them was because I would like to give them a big hug and a thank you.”
“I don’t know how long had passed,” Jackie said. “I could see the kids were crying, scared and J.W. is up running around. I was telling the EMTs get him sat down. He was in this too. He has a high pain tolerance. Get him put and parked.
“He kept saying, ‘I am fine, I am fine.’ I was like, ‘J.W. I am looking at this. I am staring at a guy (in the other truck) that didn’t survive it and trying to get them to help him. They are telling me there is no help for him and that reality is setting in.’
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the white Ford pickup truck veered into the left oncoming traffic and collided with Harris’ black pickup when an unknown vehicle was passing the white truck on the opposite side.
The elderly couple – 80-year-old Patricia Anne Jones and 82-year-old Willie R Jones – in the white truck died in the accident.
The reality of how close they were to death had already sunk in for J.W. earlier as he worked with the group of men to try and get Patricia out of the white truck.
“It hit me right then and there because the people we were in the wreck with died,” he said. “I was over there trying to get the lady out of the truck because she was still talking and we were trying to get her out.
“I swear we are very fortunate our guardian angels were on duty that night.”
THE ADRENALINE RUSH
Jackie and the EMTs were eventually able to get J.W. to sit down in the ambulance after they placed Jackie on a stretcher.
The paramedics told J.W., ‘You are bleeding,’ as they headed toward Brownwood Regional Medical Center.
J.W. replied, ‘No shit, Sherlock. I have a freaking gash in my head. I know I am bleeding. I will be fine.’
“I wasn’t paying attention to any of the paramedics,” he added. “I said, ‘You just worry about Jackie. I am fine. Get her taken care of. Get my kids taken care of.’
J.W.’s motor was running a mile a minute and the adrenaline had been blocking out the pain he was feeling in his right knee.
“I was holding Dillon and I was starting to calm down,” J.W. said. “I had so much adrenaline running. I felt like I was fixing to go get on freaking Long John for a world title. Then I sat down and thought, ‘Shit, I (messed) my knee up.’
‘I was like damn. It is what it is. We are fine. We have to make sure Jackie is fine.’
At the hospital, Jackie began feeling better and she was able to sit up and start walking.
She didn’t sustain any broken bones and was dealing with only some pain in her shoulder.
The family was sitting there when Dillon, who turned 4 years old in August, broke the ice.
“My little boy was the saving grace of the night,” J.W. said with a chuckle. “He kind of took the pressure off everybody and the worry. He stuck his tongue out and said, ‘Dad, a mosquito bit me on the tongue.’ I said, ‘No son, you bit a hole in your tongue.’
J.W. then added, “My wife got her IV out first and then he was sitting there watching them. When they took the tape off his arm to pull the IV off he reached in and pulled his IV off. He looked at the nurse and said, ‘It is OK, I am tough.’
“We all bust out laughing. He was comical relief. He dang sure took the edge off everybody in the hospital.
“Man, we are fortunate.”
It was a huge relief for Jackie, despite any pain she was in, seeing her children and husband sitting with her safe and sound.
“For me, just to have separated ribs and the shoulder. Yeah, my arm couldn’t work. But, you know, you can limp, crawl, whatever away from it. You were just thankful for that,” she said. “The kids, especially. Our tool box was coming through the back where our kids sit at. Their car seats never broke.
“You are staring at them in the hospital knowing you are blessed, you were surrounded by angels and God was with you for you to survive what you just did.”
ANOTHER SURGERY FOR J.W.
J.W. was less than two months away from returning to the Built Ford Tough Series and bull riding competition after undergoing left hip surgery from Dr. J.W. Thomas Byrd in April, while also recovering from right elbow surgery that he had done in February by renowned elbow specialist Dr. John Conway.
His body was 100 percent for the first time since he began riding in the PRCA in 2005 prior to the car wreck.
J.W. dialed Dr. Tandy Freeman, who is receiving this year’s Jim Shoulder’s Award at the PBR Heroes and Legends Celebration (Nov. 1) at South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa in Las Vegas, shortly after the accident.
He knew there was something wrong with his knee, and he also wanted Jackie to get a follow up.
Freeman informed J.W. he needed to get surgery for a torn right PCL, which would keep him out for likely six months.
“It was really hard,” Jackie said. “He got through the surgery, we knew all of those things were coming and then here is two months left and we have a wreck. It was like, ‘Noooo!’ The light was at the end of the tunnel of being able to feel good and to not have to have a device on or go to rehab. He was just trying to get back from something and that occurred.”
J.W. was more concerned about Jackie, who was still struggling with her separated ribs and shoulder pain, than to feel sorry for himself.
However, he finally reached his breaking point a week or so later.
The family had received so many phone calls of support that it eventually became overbearing for him.
J.W. needed time to decompress and he hadn’t taken it.
“I was sitting in the kitchen and I was cooking dinner,” he said. “My phone rang nonstop for two weeks. I had just gotten to the point where I had enough. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated all the phone calls, but we just needed to kind of chill out. I turned my phone off. I was sitting there in the kitchen and then all of a sudden it just hit me. It was like holy crap.
Jackie knew her husband was struggling. He was trying to take care of the house, cook meals and keep things afloat, while she sat there in pain.
“He was trying to look out for all of us and I told him, ‘You do know this isn’t your fault?’” she said. “You do know there is absolutely nothing more you could have done in your part to preventing this wreck?”
J.W. admitted it was hard to try and be tough in the weeks after the wreck. No matter how fearless of a bull rider he is, this was different. It was different seeing death right in the face of his children and family.
“I couldn’t,” J.W. adds before sighing. “I had enough of acting tough. I was trying to be the strong one. Especially when you have your whole family and two little ones. A 5-year-old and (now) a 4-year-old. Yeah, you look at it and, ugh, it is hard to explain what you are feeling other than to be really lucky to be alive. I knew that. There wasn’t anything I could have done different.
“God has bigger things for us and he wasn’t ready for us,” J.W. said. “It changed my life, I know that for sure. My wife and I are a lot more thankful and appreciative for everything we have, especially our two kids.”
A SEASON-CHANGING PHONE CALL
J.W. went through three surgeries in five months and, for a while, thought maybe his career was over.
“You go through all of these surgeries and there was a point in time where I was like, ‘Do I really want to do this?” J.W. said. “Do I really want to put my body back through everything that I just had fixed? Do I really want to tear it all up again’?
“Plus, whenever you are riding hurt, you are being tough about it and not letting on to it and it is hurting and it’s just mentally draining.”
However, Harris volunteered at the PBR Academy this summer and ran a bull riding school back in Texas, which reminded him how much he loved the sport of professional bull riding and how much he missed it.
“It something we kind of talked about,” Jackie said. “He said, ‘This time off, I wondered what am I ready for? Where I am at with all of this? He said, ‘I know for sure without an ounce of doubt now I still want it. There is no question. I am excited. I am ready.’”
He hasn’t been on a bull since Jan. 30.
Harris has spent the last month and a half fiercely rehabbing his right knee when his cell phone rang.
PBR CEO Sean Gleason was on the line and the PBR Executive Competition Committee wanted to offer J.W. an injury exemption to the 2016 BlueDEF Finals this weekend at the South Point Arena.
Fans can watch all of the BlueDEF Finals on PBR LIVE beginning on Saturday night.
Following a few seconds of uncertainty, mainly because of his knee, Harris accepted.
“I have been like a little kid that just figured out what Christmas was all about,” he said. “I am excited about getting presents.
J.W. and Jackie were headed to Las Vegas on Friday.
He faces Trump Train in Round 1.
“I keep joking, ‘You aren’t excited, are you? Not even a little bit? I can’t even tell,’” Jackie said, laughing. “He is like a kid in a candy shop right now. He is ready. There is just no ifs, ands or buts. He is ready for it.”
Four months following an extremely close-call with death, as well as a year of three surgeries, Harris is ready to turn the page
“I can’t focus on anything else, but riding bulls right now,” he concluded. “This is probably the best shape I have ever been in for riding bulls. I have been working my ass off for the last eight months for Saturday night. It is going to be a lot of fun.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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