PUEBLO, Colo. – When Aaron Roy climbs into the bucking chute for the first time in 22 months at a Built Ford Tough Series event in on Saturday night in Fresno, California, he admits his mind will briefly flashback to that fateful day of July 11, 2013.
It’s a day that will forever be a part of Roy’s history and one that saw his life take an unexpected turn for the worse that no one ever wants to have to face.
The 27-year-old still remembers being bucked off at the 2013 Calgary Stampede and how Gretzky had hipped himself leaving the bucking chutes. The bull eventually stepped on Roy’s lower back after he had landed awkwardly on his head and shoulders.
Roy eventually was able to sit up on the dirt, but instead of climbing to his feet, he used his arms to drag himself back to the chutes. That is when he began to realize something may be wrong.
However, no one knew the severity or the magnitude of the situation until Roy was transported to Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre after being stretchered out of the arena. He would be rushed into surgery that same day as doctors successfully inserted two rods and eight screws into his fractured lower back.
Roy had also suffered two fractures to his jaw during the wreck, but that was the least of anyone’s concerns.
The biggest worry was whether or not the Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, bull rider would be paralyzed from the ribs down following the life-threatening injury.
No one, doctor’s included, knew what the next days, weeks and months of recovery would result in.
Most of all, the notion of bull riding was to be completely thrown out the window as Roy’s first priority was just being able to walk again and to be able to hold his future baby boy by the time he was born in January 2014.
At the time of the surgery, doctors told him he would not be able to lift more than five to 10 pounds for the foreseeable future.
On Saturday, Roy’s long road to recovery will come full circle when he nods his head inside Fresno’s Save Mart Center. It will be almost 20 months since Roy suffered that life-threatening wreck at the Calgary Stampede.
“It is still in the back of my mind,” Roy said. “Is this going to bother me this ride or not? It is just something new I have to learn to put behind me and just go out there and do my job.”
The question that Roy has been asked on more than one occasion is why do this? Why risk further injury to his back after dancing with a potentially horrific fate less than two years ago?
“The drive is I want to be able to know I can still do it at that level,” Roy explains. “When you have five events (exemptions) you can’t just let them go to waste. I feel like I can still do it. I feel like, riding-wise, I can still compete down there. It is kind of hard not to come back to the Built Ford Tough when you were sitting in the Top 10 when you got hurt.”
At the time of his injury, Roy was the ninth-ranked bull rider in the PBR and was on pace for a career-best finish in the world standings.
However, from day one, Roy – a five-time Glen Keeley award winner and the strongest rider from Canada ever to compete in the PBR – has repeatedly said any comeback would have to come with the blessing of his wife, Hallie.
“I am really proud of him,” Hallie said. “It is amazing for the comeback that he has had and he is able to go compete at a Built Ford Tough event again. I am really happy for him and I support him 100 percent.”
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any concerns when Roy readies himself inside the bucking chute.
Hallie was a nervous wreck when Roy attempted his first practice bull 15 months after his Calgary wreck last October and she was still worrisome when he competed for the first time since the Stampede at the 2014 PBR Canadian Finals last November in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“I have been really nervous right from him getting into the chutes until he is back on the chute,” Hallie said. “It is different now. That is for sure. I was scared and nervous before like any girlfriend or wife is when their boyfriend or husband gets on, but this time around it is definitely a little different. Going through his accident and stuff, I definitely still kind of have almost flashbacks of it from Calgary.
“I am hoping with time that it will get easier, but I will still always worry. Hopefully over time it will get easier and I won’t be as nervous.”
Aaron isn’t calling this a full-fledged comeback. He wants to see how his five event exemptions – which he has from finishing 24th in the 2013 world standings despite missing the entire second half of the season – go before making another decision on his future.
It was a similar approach he had going into the PBR Canadian Finals. Roy had very low expectations when he arrived at the SaskTel Centre, which is only 35 minutes west of his native Asquith, Saskatchewan, but by the time he left he was one of the feel good stories of Western sports in 2014.
Roy went 2-for-3 in his return to professional bull riding, including a 90-point ride on Trendon, to win the PBR Canadian Finals event title 16 months after there were original fears he may never walk again.
“It was kind of unexplainable to go in there and even put two rides together, let alone stay on in the short round,” Roy said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I was kind of speechless there for a while.”
What made the event even more special was the fact that the Roy’s now 12-month old son, Axel, was in attendance watching his father compete at a PBR event.
“That was kind of one of my dreams,” Hallie said. “To have our children see Aaron ride and kind of witness how talented of a bull rider he is. It was very emotional and very exciting to have Axel there, and definitely a huge highlight and simply amazing. (Aaron) went into that kind of just hoping to be able to cover one bull, let alone pull off a 90-point ride and win the Finals.”
Aaron added, “It was pretty cool. I knew exactly where she was sitting when I was getting on and every time I looked over he would be standing up on Hallie looking over and waving at me. Every time I had seen him, he was pretty excited. It is really cool having him out there watching you.”
Bullfighter Jesse Byrne grew up with Aaron and rode steers with the Canadian bull rider. Byrne was in the arena at the Stampede Grounds the day that Roy got hurt.
“It was kind of the roller coaster where everybody thought, ‘Well, he is going to be OK,’ to then the reality of him being seriously injured and kind of the whole thought of that being the end and the last time we were going to see Aaron. Here we are today talking how he is going to be back on tour. I imagine it has been quite the process for Aaron to get through physically and mentally. It is good to see him back and I am glad he was able to recover like that.”
Byrne thought Saskatoon would probably be Roy’s farewell. It is why he was surprised and caught off guard when he ran into Roy two weeks ago at the PBR Canada event in Red Deer, Alberta.
“I thought if that is where we are going to say goodbye, it couldn’t have happened any better,” Byrne said. “I guess that this is what this is all about. To do the unexpected, prove people wrong and succeed. He obviously has to have a serious focus and drive to want to win and put himself back in that situation.”
Jesse’s brother, Tanner Byrne, is one of two other BFTS riders (Lachlan Richardson) that will ride with Roy at the Bridge City Chrysler/LA Towing PBR Challenge at the Enmax Center in Lethbridge, Alberta, on Friday night before they all head to Fresno on Saturday morning.
Tanner used to watch Aaron compete on the BFTS on TV when he was a young bull rider growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and he actually placed second overall at the 2013 Calgary Stampede.
He also was in Saskatoon when Roy won the PBR Canadian Finals and noted that his fellow Canadian looked like he “hasn’t lost a step.”
“It is pretty crazy,” Tanner said. “They pretty much told him he would be lucky to walk and never be able to ride bulls again. It is pretty impressive for the guy to not let adversity take over and to see him come back with a total 180 and start getting on bulls again.”
Zane Lambert, who has ridden bulls with Roy since they were kids, added, “I am surprised he is coming back, but it is awesome that he is. A guy knows if he is healthy or not. Aaron knows the game, and if he feels like he is healthy to come back then great. We are going to have another top Canadian in the ranks. It will be pretty cool and I am looking forward to seeing him ride again, for sure.”
Roy says he doesn’t feel any pain in his back when he rides or gets bucked off, which is somewhat of a surprise to him.
“Yeah, I am surprised I don’t have any pain or soreness,” he admitted. “It doesn’t bother me at all. After the Canadian Finals, it didn’t feel any different than before when I was riding. You get more confident after each one. When I got on in Red Deer, it was like I had been on a thousand bulls again. It was routine. I got bucked off pretty hard there and nothing bothered me.”
The fact that Roy is even walking again is a credit to the surgeons, doctors, nurses, friends and family that have supported him along the way.
It is also an acknowledgement to Roy for remaining positive, dedicated and upbeat throughout the recovery process.
By the time he woke up from surgery, Roy was already amazing doctors with his improvement by being able to walk a short distance two times within the first 12 hours.
He wound up spending 10 days in the Calgary hospital, before staying an additional four days at Regina General Hospital, located about an hour southeast of his Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, home.
Surprisingly, he was able to walk out of Regina General Hospital needing the assistance of only a cane and his wife, Hallie.
His first month was spent resting and taking it very easy in Yellow Grass. Eventually, his physiotherapist gave him light stretches and exercises to perform in his home to focus on rebuilding his core strength, as well as his quads, hamstrings and legs.
The mundane, but necessary, process involved him taking walks whenever he felt up to it around his property in Yellow Grass.
Once September 2013 arrived, Roy was walking without his cane and was able to move around under his own power.
“I had to walk with a cane for a while and stuff because my balance wasn’t all there, just to stabilize myself a little bit,” Roy recalled this past summer. “Whenever I got bored, I walked around my yard. They encouraged me to walk and do a lot of stuff like that. I could do lots of walking, but I couldn’t lift more than five or 10 pounds for the longest time.”
It was also around this time that Roy was at his lowest.
The 2013 PBR World Finals were about to get underway in October and the fact that he couldn’t take care of simple tasks around the house with his wife being pregnant made him frustrated and angry at times.
“That was probably the hardest time for me,” he said. “I would go outside and look at stuff that needed to get done, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I would have to call somebody or wait for Hallie to get home and she was pregnant at the time so she couldn’t do it. It was really hard for me to call somebody and get them to come out and do stuff that normally I could do.”
To this day, the Roys remain thankful to all of their family and friends that helped them during Aaron’s recovery.
In December 2013, Aaron was given clearance by doctors to start working out on his own, and in January 2014, he was told he could lift anywhere between 50-100 pounds.
That number was ever so important because the Roy’s son, Axel, was born on Jan. 19. Six months after being told he may not be able to hold his son because of his injury, Aaron was able to pick up the couple’s first child.
Just as Axel was an inspiration to Aaron and Hallie to fight through those tough times in the early recovery process, Axel continued to be a motivating factor for Aaron after his birth.
“He is always there making you smile and laugh,” Aaron said. “He is a big motivation, even when you are down, he comes around and just puts a smile on your face. It brightens up your day, every day.”
Aaron was given clearance to begin getting on horseback one month later, and in May he took a job on horseback with Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration’s (PFRA) pastures. By being on horseback from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Roy was able to build up his muscles in his back and regain some of the flexibility and stability he had lost from the injury.
A few weeks after he began that job, he was coaching at a bull riding school in Manitoba when he decided to hop on a bucking barrel.
“I got on the barrel and rode it a few times and it didn’t bother me,” Roy said. “It kind of put in my mind, maybe I should go and try and do this and use up my five events.”
He approached Hallie about the idea, and after a series of conversations, Aaron nodded his head on his first practice bull five months later with Hallie and Axel looking on inside Clearview Arena in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.
“I was confident I was going to fight my way through it,” Roy said. “I wasn’t confident that I was going to get on again. It takes a lot of mental strength to put that (injury) behind you and go out there and ride bulls again.”
The miracle continues on Saturday night.
“It is definitely going to be exciting,” Roy concluded. “It is going to be like my rookie year when I first got on at a Built Ford Tough. It will feel like I am a rookie again.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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