By: Justin Felisko
January 27, 2016
PUEBLO, Colo. – When Robson Palermo packed up his gear bag inside the Thomas & Mack Center three months ago, he had no plans of ever pulling his bull rope out of his bag again.
In his mind, and his inner circle, he was retired from the sport of professional bull riding.
The three-time World Finals event winner had just been stretchered out of the arena on a backboard after landing nearly straight on his neck attempting to ride Fire Rock in Round 3 of the 2015 Built Ford Tough World Finals.
The close call that was eventually diagnosed as a severe neck sprain was the icing on the cake for the 32-year-old. He had just finished outside of the Top 30 of the world standings for the third consecutive season and felt washed up after multiple shoulder and bicep surgeries that eliminated the once perennial world title contender from the World Championship conversation.
“I was really close to retiring,” Palermo revealed Saturday night in Oklahoma City. “I was thinking about it all the time. Right after the Finals, I said I was done. No more. I couldn’t ride a stick horse.”
Palermo then wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead before letting out a bashful laugh.
It is hard for him to even admit he was honestly done with bull riding, especially with how well his 2016 season began.
The No. 4 bull rider in the world standings bucked off his first Built Ford Tough Series (BFTS) bull of the season in Chicago (Arrow Truck Sales Hot Iron), before ripping off seven consecutive rides, four of which placed him in the Top-5 of a round.
Palermo went 4-for-4 to finish the Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden in second place two weeks ago. He had ridden Alligator Arms for 87 points to win Round 1. The round win was just his third BFTS round victory in three years.
He then built off his New York performance with a sixth-place finish in Oklahoma City this past weekend. Palermo may have finished even higher if not for aggravating a lower back injury during his 4.38-second buckoff against Papa Pook in Round 3.
“I am so glad for the guy and how he finished last week,” close friend Guilherme Marchi said. “I am just so proud he is back.”
Yet all of this nearly never happened.
Palermo was home in Texas recovering from his neck injury when his wife, Priscila, began to try and convince her husband that he still had something left in the tank.
Last year was a tiresome one for the family, and it took a major toll on Robson’s mental focus in the arena.
They had a scary incident in Sacramento, California, early in the season when Priscila passed out in the couple’s hotel room. The couple later learned that Priscila was unexpectedly pregnant with the couple’s third child.
Following the exciting news came the reality of the situation for Robson. A reality he let build up inside of him.
He was struggling to stay on the BFTS and there were deep doubts if he still could be a successful enough bull rider to provide for his family. Multiple shoulder surgeries three years in a row and nerve damage in his right bicep (riding arm) have simply forced him to abandon a style that he had grown up with and used to win a PBR record three Built Ford Tough World Finals event titles.
He was eventually cut from the BFTS following the Anaheim Invitational and he spent three months trying to fight his way back to the PBR’s marquee circuit.
The PBR returns to the Honda Center this weekend for the three-day BFTS event, which includes a 15/15 Bucking Battle on Saturday night (Sunday on CBS at noon ET).
Palermo has drawn Crossfire (16-0, BFTS) for the 15/15 Bucking Battle. It will be his first 15/15 Bucking Battle since April 2014.
While on the surface Palermo’s struggles last season appeared to be primarily physical – he still has a screw from a previous surgery that was bent last season when he was stepped on by Super Juan in Stephenville, Texas – it was more the mental anguish of his personal life that was beginning to take a toll.
“Yeah. It was more like my wife is pregnant and I didn’t ride good and I was hurt,” Palermo said. “I didn’t know what happened or what I was going to do if I had surgery or not. Is my shoulder going to handle the situation, right? Yeah, I was kind of worried about you ride bulls because you love and like it, but you need to make money too. If not, what will you do?
“Everything was coming up and every month you have to pay something. I was worried with another kid being born I need to do something.”
It was new unchartered waters for Palermo, who even began to think about retiring to open a bull riding training facility in Bullard, Texas.
Palermo, who already had gone through the first-time father jitters with his first two kids, had never before been so mentally affected by the notion of being a bull rider and a dad.
He was always able to separate the two until last year.
“I remember Ty Murray say that (having children and being a dad would be hard) once in his book and I said, ‘No. It is not,’” Palermo said. “I never had this problem before. This is the first time I was hurt and having kids and everything. When you start getting older and going down into slumps and hurt it is hard. You have a situation with your family at home and with bull riding you have to have time for your mental around the house to prepare yourself and think about bull riding.”
Coincidentally, Palermo basically punched his ticket for the World Finals last year on the same night Priscila went into labor with their now 4-month-old son, Lucas.
Priscila went into labor while watching PBR LIVE as Palermo rode Fire Rock for 86.25 points in Springfield, Missouri. He finished 2-for-4 and earned an important 60 points toward the world standings.
Despite qualifying for the World Finals, Palermo went just 10-for-37 in 16 events for a career-low 27.03 percent riding average.
It is why after the Finals he felt like it was time to call it a career. He no longer could be the Top-5 guy he once was.
Palermo was ready to admit defeat until Priscila convinced him to go to the BlueDEF Tour event in Ontario, California, in November.
According to Robson, Priscila could tell that deep down Palermo still had a fire to compete. He just needed to get his confidence back and think about bull riding again after a stressful 2015.
“I was all the time being depressed and she would ask, ‘What is happening?’ Robson said. “She has helped me a lot and had conversations with me. She put in my mind that I could be competitive again and not be a quitter. She all the time says, ‘You can go compete and you still have a fire. I believe in you.’”
She was right.
Robson went 2-for-2 in Ontario for a second-place finish and concluded the November and December BFTS offseason 5-for-7 for 50 world standings points in the PBR’s lower levels.
With a little momentum under his belt, Palermo decided to embark upon his 11th-year on the BFTS.
“When I started riding good on the Touring Pro I said, ‘I still have something,’ Palermo said. “I went to Chicago and New York City and started going. Everything started to open doors and I started to see. I was thinking before I was never going to come back. Last year, I was thinking I would never be competitive – Top 5 or Top 10. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to come to the event and ride one bull and buck off.’
“I was kind of worried about that.”
Palermo’s narrative is different now.
He rolled his eyes at Fabiano Vieira, who said he was scared last year and was done after the Finals when he overheard Palermo stating maybe he could ride four more years this weekend.
Palermo also added that he doesn’t just believe he can be a contender this year because he is currently fourth in the world standings. He trails world leader Paulo Lima by 355 points.
“Not because I am No. 4, but I believe so,” he concluded. “I can be 10 and up. I don’t want to say I can think that, but every time I ride I want to be No. 1. I won three times at the Finals, but I want to be a World Champion.
“I think it is coming. Adriano (Moraes) won the world title when he was 36 years old. I think I still have a long way to go.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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