BILOXI, Miss. – Sean Willingham had never missed more than two weeks of action on the Built Ford Tough Series because of an injury during his 12-year career until missing the past four months with a dislocated hip.
So it came as no surprise that Willingham was as happy as could be Friday night in Biloxi, Mississippi, as he returned to action for first time since Big Kahuna stepped on him during a BlueDEF Velocity Tour event in Newark, New Jersey, at the end of June.
Willingham missed the first six events of the second half of the BFTS, after spending most of his summer resting and going to rehab at Advanced Rehabilitation in Summerville, Georgia.
“Four months is the longest I have ever had to miss in my whole career in the PBR,” Willingham said. “I have never missed more than a week or two. The only time I missed this many BFTS (events) was because I got cut. I have been pretty lucky, I guess, as a bull rider.”
He competed in 30 or more BFTS events for seven consecutive years (2005-2011).
The 33-year-old couldn’t ask for a much better return this weekend as he rode Jack Wagon for 85.75 points in Round 1. He enters Saturday night’s Round 2 at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum sitting in fifth place in the event average.
The ride also forced Willingham into one of the tougher moments in bull riding – when a rider has to readjust directions mid-ride.
Jack Wagon had come out to the right and into Willingham’s hand before he shot back forward to the left, while also forcing Willingham to lean farther forward than he would have preferred.
“It was a great bull of Paige Stout’s that I got on,” Willingham said. “I had seen him a few times and he looks like he would be pretty good to ride. I kept my composure while I was riding and I picked him up the other way, which is one of the toughest moves in bull riding.”
The ride did everything necessary to test Willingham and his hip by forcing him to readjust his seat and counter each of the bull’s moves.
J.W. Hart dislocated his hip attempting to ride a bull when he was 15 years old and is in Biloxi for this weekend’s CBS Sports Network broadcast.
“They are a big part of riding bulls, because that is where you break forward and lean and sway and bend and everything starts right there with your hips,” Hart said.
He joked on Friday night with Willingham that how when he dislocated his hip, he was only out for a few weeks.
“I was out a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t long. He was out four months. I was 15 and he did his when he was 33. I guess there is three months different in time,” Hart said before laughing.
Willingham could have returned two weeks ago in Laughlin, Nevada, but decided he wanted to make sure he was 100-percent healthy. He said it was a pretty easy decision to hold off on rushing back, because he knew he didn’t have to worry about fighting to earn points to qualify for the Built Ford Tough World Finals.
He is currently ranked 23rd in the world standings.
To make sure he was ready to return, Willingham got on three practice bulls last Sunday. The first one he attempted tossed him right onto his injured hip. He got up, brushed the dirt off himself and knew he was ready to return.
“I needed that right off the bat,” he said. “That was the biggest issue that I would have with myself. What is it going to feel like when you do get swung off and you land on it? Because it is going to happen, and you are going to get bucked off and land on your butt, hip or somewhere.”
Willingham is looking to continue building off an impressive first half of the 2014 season, which before he got hurt, was shaping up to be one of his best seasons in the past five years. His riding average of 41.18 percent is his highest since 2009, and he looks healthy and rejuvenated heading into the final three weeks of the season.
That was one of the major benefits of being forced to sit out for so long, he added. Willingham was able to rekindle that inner fire to compete and also rest his body for one of the first major periods of time in his career.
“Sometimes, it is good for us to take a break away from what we do every weekend and to get away from the sport of bull riding and be at home,” he said. “You kind of get that drive or that craving again when you are out for so long.”
Hart, who competed in 197 consecutive events, agreed.
“When you’ve done it your whole life, you can get burnt out, and when you get pulled away for four months in Willingham’s case, yeah, you can get that craving and you can go get on one with a new head of steam behind it. It will be good for him.”
Willingham has his sights on concluding the season with a strong finish alongside his closest friends on tour.
“Man, it feels good to be back and to see all of my buddies,” he said. “I have missed my friends when I have been gone. It fires me up to be back competing with them. My hip feels great and I am ready to rock n’ roll.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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