TULSA, Okla. – Austin Meier was laid up in the Thomas & Mack Center’s sports medicine room in 2012 during the Built Ford Tough World Finals with a pack of ice wrapped around his right ankle.
The badly sprained ankle was the latest injury plaguing him after already struggling with a groin and back injury that had only worsened since being stepped on earlier in the Finals.
Meier knew he wasn’t going to be able to make it to that night’s bull draft for Round 5, so he sent travel partner Ryan Dirteater in his place.
Dirteater selected Shepherd Hills Trapper for his good friend.
Meier remembers thinking, “I don’t know whether to hug you or hit you.”
The Kinta, Oklahoma, bull rider would later want to hug Dirteater as he was able to ride Shepherd Hills Trapper for 90.25 points to win Round 5 of the Finals.
“He loved that bull,” Dirteater recalled this past Thursday. “I rode him one year and it was a nice bull. He couldn’t try to keep himself down and on that bull you have to sit down because he brings guys over his head. Austin was trying not to knock his head. He proved to himself and the whole world he could stick again.”
Dirteater, who had actually bucked off Shepherd Hills Trapper in Round 1, rode Shepherd Hills Trapper in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for 90 points in 2011.
The Built Ford Tough Series returns to Tulsa on Friday and Saturday night for the Express Employment Professionals Classic at the BOK Center.
No one at the time would have believed it, yet it would be Meier’s last 90-point ride of his career.
Meier announced his retirement Friday morning because of a back injury that had progressively gotten worse in the past few years.
“Probably the ride I remember the most, or that meant the most to me, was my ride on him at the Finals in 2012,” Meier said. “I remember with Trapper it was like let’s do this one more time and go out on a bang.”
Two-time World Champion Justin McBride called the ride a classic Austin Meier fistfight.
“Every great ride Austin ever made was a fistfight,” McBride said. “He would be on the end of his arm and you would think he couldn’t make another round like that and he would.”
Meier rode Shepherd Hills Trapper three out of five times, including a career-best 92.25 points in Springfield, Missouri, in January of that same year.
“They’re some of those rides – Trapper, Moebandy.com, Rango, Carrillo Cartel – I will always remember, Meier said. “Whether you were still riding or retired, they will always be special to you just because they were cool. Not so much that you did it to impress or prove it to anyone else, but just for yourself because there are certain bulls out there that you go, ‘I wonder if I can ride him? I think I can. I know what to do.’
“When you do ride him, you are like, ‘Sweet. I did. I knew I was right.’”
THE UNKNOWN BACK INJURY CATCHES UP TO MEIER
Coincidentally, one of Meier’s favorite rides eventually led to a large role in his retirement.
In April 2010, Meier rode Moebandy.com for 89.25 points during the PBR World Cup in Las Vegas.
It was one of his four qualified rides on Moebandy, and he was never bucked off by the D&H Cattle Company bovine.
Austin Meier rides MoeBandy.com for 91 points in the championship round at the 2011 BFTS Sacramento Invitational in Sacramento, California.
However, during his dismount he was struck in the back by Moebandy and Meier felt a tremendous pain rush through his back.
“I fell off in the well and just kind of the way I came off I had my back to him and my hand was still in the rope and he brought his head around and he just hit me,” Meier revealed this week. “He couldn’t have hit me any more direct in the spine than he did and it dang sure hurt at the time. It did do damage and that was something I didn’t find out until a year ago when I finally was willing to go get it looked at.”
Meier ignored the growing pain in his back and he gritted his way to a second-place finish in the world that season – a career-best.
Four years later, Meier began to wonder if maybe he should go get his back checked out after failing to qualify for the 2014 World Finals, which ended a streak of eight consecutive appearances.
Dr. Tandy Freeman and members of the sports medicine team repeatedly advised him throughout his career to get his injuries further looked at, but Meier admittedly was “hard-headed.”
“Really there was an injury there,” Meier acknowledged. “I was just too hard-headed and too focused on the goals I had set ahead of myself to worry about it.”
Meier’s back had progressively gotten worse in the past few seasons. He had gone from a world title contender to cut from the BFTS in just three years.
He recalled a moment at a gas station during his 2014 summer rodeo run when his back had locked up so bad that he collapsed in a parking lot and was in too much pain to get up.
“During that run, I had a bulged disc you could say from that (2010) wreck and basically it wouldn’t go back in or whatever,” Meier said. “Heck, I would get out of the car and be doubled over. One night through that run, we stopped at a gas station and I collapsed onto my hands and knees in a parking lot. I looked like a possum or something.”
Dirteater remembers many occasions being shocked that Meier could fight through as much pain as he did.
Meier would sometimes even say, ‘Dirt, man I don’t think this is right. I feel something jiggling in there and I can’t move my elbow all the way. What do you think?’”
Dirteater said, “We would talk about injuries and stuff. He would complain about his back. It has been bugging him for years. He just still had the talent and the heart to be there.”
Last year, Meier had finally underwent an X-ray on his back and discovered that he likely sustained a compression fracture in his back earlier in his career. According to Meier, the fracture never healed properly.
While there is no way to officially know in hindsight, Meier believes it occurred during that 2010 ride on Moebandy.
Meier spent 2015 trying to work his way back into the Top 35 of the world standings and compete full time on the BFTS one last time.
His back continued to deteriorate and the pain he felt during the week was no longer worth it for the sport that the third generation bull rider has grown to love since he was 12 years old.
He is currently 59th in the world standings.
“Heck, you spent days where, shoot, you didn’t want to get out of bed,” Meier said. “That was a really tough period. Not only dealing with moving from the BFTS to the Touring Pros, but also knowing how bad you are hurting. You end up thinking, ‘If I wasn’t hurting this bad, I wouldn’t be riding this bad.’ I think a lot of my performance inside the arena was how my body felt. I couldn’t put into riding bulls what I wanted too. I guess you could say it has been in a sense leading up to this point. The last couple of years I have really, really been in a lot of pain and had a lot of trouble with my back, but it was more behind the scenes. The days you were at home you could see even when you are not riding how much pain you are in and stuff.
“I would always be like, ‘Nah, I will be alright.’ For a long time you don’t really want to know what might be going on.”
Meier had always planned to ride into his 30s, but things changed over these final two seasons.
Regardless, he says he has no regrets about choosing to retire or ignoring his back pain.
Meier concludes his 10-year career with 291 qualified rides, a 44.70 percent riding average, nine wins, 39 Top-5 finishes and 61 Top-10 finishes at the BFTS level.
“Well, that is kind of one of the deals,” Meier said. “I don’t have any regrets. It is something you can’t change, so there is no sense regretting it. That is the way I look at life in general. It may have caught up to me these last couple of years and obviously shortened my career a couple of years, but heck in our sport we can think we have a whole career ahead of us and that ride it can be over.”
Meier said seeing his cousin L.J. Jenkins forced into retirement because of a broken neck certainly put his own career in perspective. Meier had been struggling mentally with being cut from the BFTS and not qualifying for the World Finals last year.
There was frustration and hopelessness at times about what he could do to regain his prior form.
Now he is happy he regressed the way he did. Meier was able to mentally come to terms with everything before he officially made the decision.
Meier remembers arriving in Wichita, Kansas, in April excited to be riding at the Touring Pro Division event.
Then everything felt different all of a sudden.
He didn’t have that desire to make the 8-second mark.
Meier bucked off Perfect Storm in 2.88 seconds in Wichita and the last qualified ride of his career was an 86.5-point ride on Hillbilly two weeks earlier in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“There wasn’t that fire that we talk about,” Meier said. “I don’t know. Sometimes you walk into a building and it is like there is nowhere else you rather be than right here, right now. You are chomping at the bits to get on, but it wasn’t like that at Wichita. As I kind of got away from it after I got on, I think right there around the Fourth of July is when I was really going through that time of, ‘Am I just taking a long break or am I retired?’”
“I think it was definitely right around that time where it was kind of more reality to me, ‘Yeah I was retiring.’”
MEIER: ‘THERE WAS A TIME I WAS THE BEST IN OUR BUSINESS’
Meier posted four consecutive Top-6 finishes in the world standings from 2009-12 and he did it with guts, determination and the kind of grit you find in the oil fields or deep underground in coal mines.
“You look at him and can tell physically he is a strong guy,” McBride said, “but strength alone is not enough. You have to be willing. He would be in compromising situations. I remember his rookie year at the PBR Finals (2006), the bull’s head hits Austin’s head and knocked his helmet completely off in the middle of the ride and he finished that ride. He rode that sucker. I think they gave him a no score for touching him. I had noticed him before the Finals, but that is when I really took notice of him.”
Four years later, Meier finished second in the world and fell 2,906 points shy of beating Renato Nunes for the world title.
Meier led the 2010 BFTS with five victories and 11 Top-5 finishes. He also posted 14 Top-10 finishes and began the World Finals sitting No. 1 in the world.
“Being on top and holding that number one position for the times that I did and the length of time, even going into the Finals leading it was special,” Meier said. “Whether you win it or not, obviously it is better if you win it, but even that is something special because it is something very few guys are able to do. So that was something special to know at least for a time I was as high as you could get.
“That is just something that has always meant something to me. There was a time I was the best in our business.”
Meier ended up going just 2-for-5 at the Finals, while Nunes went 5-for-6 to snatch the gold buckle away from him.
Dirteater wasn’t able to be there in 2010 because of injuries, but he remembers following Meier’s 2010 run intently on TV.
He later learned much from Meier in the years following that season as they continued traveling up and down the road together.
“Hell, we are best friends,” Dirteater said. “It is going to be tough, him not being in the room.”
Outside of the arena, Meier wishes he would have handled 2010 better personally, but there was no question that inside the arena he was dominant.
“Granted, parts of it were absolutely mind blowing,” he said. “You are like, ‘Was that real?’ Just winning five events, it just seemed like every time you were turning around you were bringing home checks of $20,000, $10,000, $30,000. You had money rolling in left and right. Bringing home those buckles all the time, it seemed like nothing at all for six of the seven days a week could throw me off.”
It wasn’t labeled as a PBR Major at the time, but Iron Cowboy was still one of the most monumental events on the BFTS calendar outside of World Finals during the prime of Meier’s career.
In 2013, Meier was on top of the BFTS mountain one final time when he won Iron Cowboy following two runner-up finishes.
Meier, who began the event as the No. 36 rider in the world, rode his first two bulls, Midnight Mood (87.75 points) and Palm Springs (87.5) before bucking off Southpaw in 3.46 seconds and Bushwacker in 2.67 seconds.
“That is an event that was definitely a love-hate relationship,” Meier said. “That arena will always be a special arena (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) to me. In that single arena, I won over $100,000. You just don’t have many places like that often. It dang sure beat me up every year, but it was profitable. To go two years winning second and then finally winning on that third year, it was dang sure like a hurrah moment.
McBride called Meier one of the best riders for the bracket-style event, which makes a return next week in Nashville with the Jack Daniel’s Music City Shootout.
“Especially an event like that where it could come down to a thing like time, Austin is not a guy they are going to swing off in a jump,” McBride said. “They might have him out of shape in a jump, but he is not going to turn loose for three more jumps after they have him bucked off. He is not letting go of them. He was strong enough and tough enough that he could it.”
Meier enjoyed the format and is glad it is returning in Nashville. For him, it was all about mind over matter.
“That event was different than every other event, especially at that time,” he said. “It was different from your usual bull riding events, even at the Built Ford Tough level. It wasn’t so much you got matched up on the best bulls for your style that weekend or whether you spurred them the most. It was can you crack the ones that you are able to crack and the ones you can’t? How tough are you? Can you last through it?
“That was something that dang sure fit my style because do or die I wasn’t letting go.”
KINTA WILL ALWAYS BE HOME
Meier is looking forward to his new life after bull riding.
There are things he had always wanted to do on his 2,000-acre ranch in Kinta and he has enjoyed being able to watch his little girl Kasey Hunter continue to grow up.
“It is nice to be home and to give back to her,” Austin said. “My wife (Kristen), all of the things she has given to me in my career, now I get to focus on her and my little girl and focus on our place here.
“Kinta is where I will always live now. That is for sure. Kinta is home.”
Meier also hopes to get involved in the oil business as a field technician.
And as far as his back goes?
“My back still hurts, but it is manageable,” Meier replied.
Meier then added that he may no longer be actively competing, but in his heart he will always be a bull rider.
“The PBR and being a bull rider will still and always be a part of who I am,” Meier concluded. “It is not just what I did. It is in my blood you might say.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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