PUEBLO, Colo. – J.W. Hart wobbled his way through the out gate with his head spinning and his chest beginning to convulse.
Hart’s world was spinning around him and things seemed fuzzy as he was assisted to the back alleyway inside the Wise County Fairgrounds.
His mouth was only getting dryer as each bead of sweat slowly trickled down his face. Every couple of seconds he would have to pause as attempted to fight off one dry-heave spell after another.
At 40 years of age, he had just gotten rocked by a nearly 2,000-pound bull just minutes earlier.
Now, finding a place to sit down seemed a bit more treacherous than his now- infamous 88.5-point ride on King Buck that ended with Hart getting head-butted, stepped on and eventually knocked unconscious by the bovine athlete.
Finally, Hart was helped to a fence where he slid down to take a seat.
It didn’t take him long to remember why he just risked his life for 8 seconds and took a full-force collision from King Buck when his 6-year-old son, Wacey, crawled into his lap and gave him a huge hug and a big kiss.
The father and son then laughed together as Wacey repeatedly asked, ‘Does that hurt Dad?’ and poked at J.W.’s head.
J.W. smiled while his son laughed at his noggin, which was developing quite the bump, in the same way he would poke fun at him.
“I was committed as I ever was for May 30,” Hart said earlier this week. “It wasn’t necessarily to just make the whistle, of course it was that, but I have a son that I can look in the face now, whether it be tomorrow or 15 years from now, and tell him with true honesty that if you want to do something and you are committed and put 100 percent into it – win, lose or draw – you can be proud of the effort you put out and you can accomplish anything.
“The difference between can and cannot is want to. If you want to bad enough, you can.”
A cowboy effort
Despite being diagnosed with a concussion, Hart still remembers most of his ride aboard King Buck from last weekend.
Hart remembers how he had to fight and grit his way from King Buck’s inside while the bull tried to pull him down.
Once he fought back to the outside and got in a good position, he wanted to show off some, and that is where things started to get dicey for the Marietta, Oklahoma, bull rider.
“I remember him hitting me the first time because I felt when I went to try and spur him I was coming down,” Hart said. “You just want to show off once you are on the stage there. I stayed out and finally I wanted to spur. I got one lick in there and I started coming down and I could tell I wasn’t going to get the bull out of it and I didn’t want to slap him.
“When we hit heads the first time I thought, ‘OK.’ It is all happening so fast and all of these thoughts are in less than a blink of an eye. I thought, ‘Alright, there is one, but just don’t slap him with your free hand.’ The next one I guess is the one that knocked me out. I thought afterwards as soon as I hit the ground I thought I was getting up.”
It was the highlight moment of the Built Ford Tough Ring of Honor: Unfinished Business, presented by BlueDEF, pay-per-view event.
J.W. lived out his “Iron Man” moniker to a T on Saturday. Hart proved he still had his riding-day toughness by holding on to to his bull rope with pure determination, sacrificing his own body to find 8 seconds of glory.
The ride was a rollercoaster of emotions for his wife, LeAnn.
LeAnn had climbed onto her seat in the bleachers to get a better view as Hart was tying his hand into his bull rope. Once he nodded for the gate, LeAnn was jumping and screaming like so many other times in J.W.’s riding career.
However, her happiness turned to fear, panic and tears in milliseconds.
J.W. was motionless on the ground when his score was announced to the crowd.
“I know I have never been so fast to pray in my life because we can count on one hand how many times J.W. has actually been knocked out,” LeAnn said. “He has always had that hard head and toughness. In our 12 years of being together, I don’t know if I ever witnessed him being knocked out with that kind of concussion.”
While King Buck had been ridden in all but one out this season, J.W., who used a strict workout regimen to lose an estimated 18 pounds, can still say at 40 years old he rode a bull that has bucked off such riders as Guilherme Marchi, Austin Meier, Nathan Schaper and Stetson Lawrence.
J.W.’s effort was the kind of effort that Hart and other legends talk about repeatedly in their commentary roles for CBS Sports Network or even in just casual conversation about the state of the sport.
A slow motion instant replay of the wreck even shows Hart gritting his teeth, bracing for the impact.
“Hey, that is typical J.W.,” said two-time World Champion Justin McBride. “That is what made him one of my heroes when I was a kid watching him. He was a professional. It was that grit and that effort. He is a little cocky guy and he backs it up. He is all guts that guy.”
Cody Custer, the 1992 PRCA champion, jumped into the arena as Hart laid unconscious on the ground, while a sports medicine team tended to Hart.
“Oh my gosh, that was rank,” Custer said. “The thing is, we were all badass bull riders one time and we are not anymore. J.W. picked a little deep, but he handled it. The rest of us didn’t.”
Michael Gaffney grinned when asked about Hart’s performance.
“Golly, he hasn’t changed a lick has he?
Special visitors at the hospital
Hart didn’t have to spend much time at Wise Regional Hospital on Saturday evening.
In fact, he knew he wasn’t seriously hurt, but he didn’t want to waste time arguing with his friends and family at the event.
Therefore, after he spent some time with Wacey behind the chutes, LeAnn rushed the family to Wise Regional. J.W. was then admitted immediately for a CT scan, which came back negative, and Hart was diagnosed with a concussion.
While in the hospital, Hart was met by two special visitors: Clyde and Elsie Frost.
The parents of the late Lane Frost are annual attendants at Hart’s PBR Challenge event and Hart considers them good friends.
He was still quite surprised to see them walk into the hospital.
“That is like the godfathers of bull riding coming to check on you,” Hart said. “That is one of the highlights of my life right there. They come to the event every year and we talk back and forth. We are really good friends, but they didn’t have to come to the hospital. That is what kind of people they are. I love those two. They are such great people.”
Doctors wanted him to take an IV to get some fluids in his system, yet Hart is “real phobic of needles.”
He settled for some Pepto-Bismol to lessen his queasiness and took a couple of Advil to help with the headache. He eventually made his way – still wearing his hospital gown – to the fairgrounds in the wee hours of the night to catch up with Jerome Davis and some of his other buddies still around.
“Well, if somebody was going to get hurt, I wanted it to be me,” Hart said. “I knew if anyone of them guys got hurt, I would have felt to blame. If it was going to happen to somebody, I am glad it happened to me.
“The only part that bums me, not that I wanted to do a winning speech, but I would have liked for me and my son to be there to take a picture, give that last tip of the hat and get to get on the microphone and tell the crowd thank you. I didn’t get to thank the crowd, but I have to say thank you.”
Standing up for their era
In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter much at all if the eight PBR legends made 8 seconds or not.
Beyond personal pride, Hart, Shivers, McBride, Custer, Gaffney, Porter, Coleman and White had nothing left to prove.
All eight men wanted to still challenge themselves; regardless of how many years removed they were from the dangerous sport.
They could have picked an easier bull to attempt, but that is simply not in their DNA.
Hart watched the event in its entirety Sunday night and he is proud of all them all, even if only he and Shivers were the only riders to make 8 seconds.
“All eight of those guys still picked a bull that was a half to a full point better than what we are,” Hart said. “We didn’t have to. None of them had to. They all could have picked a 19-point spinner from the high school rodeos that they could have rode left-handed, blindfolded and just put on a show and go home, but they didn’t. They could have picked any bull in the world and they didn’t. Every one of those guys picked a bull that on paper was better than they are on any given day at this age, and they still run their hand in that rope and they grit their teeth and they did everything they could to try and stay on.”
LeAnn said she had faith J.W. was going to make the 8-second mark in Decatur.
“You just don’t ever bet against J.W. Hart, especially when people are saying it is impossible,” LeAnn added. “He will surprise you every time. It is not that he is out to prove a point, but he was out to truly show what it means to bear down. That is what these guys have always been willing to do. This is an unfinished legacy that we want to live on. This cowboy way of life and the true grit that they have. The fearlessness they had to get on these animals and to give it all they have.”
J.W. knows it was a special moment for the fans of the PBR to see the eight legends compete one last time, but he also hopes it can be an inspiration to current bull riders to put the effort in that is needed to succeed.
“I hope the kids can see today that (the legends) didn’t have to go pick that one that was too good for them, but they did,” he said. “So the next time they go to a short round or a championship round and they go to find the easiest one in there they will think about Michael Gaffney or Cody Custer. Those guys picked one they probably couldn’t ride, and maybe they were over their heads, but they challenged themselves because they are cowboys. Maybe they can inspire those guys to try and want to do better. That is the cool thing to me. Them suckers bared down on bulls we probably had no business getting on.”
Old age wasn’t going to stop any of the eight riders from representing their generation.
“I am so proud we stood up for what our era stood for, and I hope somebody can be inspired by it, because I was,” Hart said.
Ending on a high note
Hart never was able to win a World Championship. He, Tater Porter and Ross Coleman were the only three of the eight legends competing that never won a championship in either the PRCA or the PBR.
Still, Hart has no regrets for what could have been and is proud of all that he accomplished during his professional career, which includes winning the 2002 World Finals.
Hart, who bucked off his final nine BFTS bulls in 2007, is extremely proud to know that the final ride of his career was a successful one.
“I never was the best bull rider in the world,” Hart said, “but I felt like I put out the best effort I could every single time, I can live with winning second or third or whatever I ended up with every time. I know where I stand. I didn’t stay in other associations and win all they had and think, ‘Well, I wonder what would have happened if I went and competed against the best guys in the world.’ I know for a fact I gave everything I had and that is what counts to me.
“I never won the world title, but I can live now happy knowing I rode my last one and all the work I put into it was worth it.”
He also now gets some fun bragging rights for the rest of time on his buddies.
“Dang right I do.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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