The New York Times: The Bumpy Rise of a Young Bull Rider

By: Staff reports
February 09, 2016

Cooper Davis with his son, Mack, and wife, Kaitlyn, at the 2015 World Finals.

Cooper Davis with his son, Mack, and wife, Kaitlyn, at the 2015 World Finals.

For two long evenings and one long day in late January, Kaitlyn Davis sat high in the stands of Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, tucked in with her 8-month-old son, Mackston, his stuffed toy bull and a large Louis Vuitton leather carryall packed with baby supplies. “Story of my life,” Ms. Davis said, noting the Vuitton bag and the toy bull.

Ms. Davis, 20, and her husband, Cooper Davis, 21, had driven all night from Buna, Tex., so that Mr. Davis, a professional bull rider, could compete in the three-day event, his first since winning the Professional Bull Riders world finals — along with its $250,000 purse — last October.

Ms. Davis was more anxious than usual about the weekend’s rides. Her husband had recently sliced three tendons while working on his parents’ barn when a metal sheet slipped off the roof and sheared his right wrist. His hand surgeon had cleared him for “normal activities,” Ms. Davis said, “but bull riding is not a normal activity.”


It is not. Bull riders endeavor to spend eight seconds — an eternity, if you’re watching or living it — on the back of a one-ton animal whose bucking and spinning creates a hurricane of centrifugal force. Young men like Mr. Davis, 5 feet 9 inches tall and 140 pounds, hang on with a combination of arm strength, balance and steely focus.

It’s a violent, bloody and, yes, beautiful sport. Concussions, spine trauma and torn shoulders, groins and knees are its most common injuries. Mr. Davis has broken both ankles, a shoulder and his jaw. Not that you can tell by looking at him. Mr. Davis, exceedingly fair and fine-boned, appears unmarked, closer to 17 than 21.

Bull riding is archaic, in that the skills on display aren’t needed much in modern ranch work, and its appeal is nearly mythic, particularly in the Southwestern and Western states, areas deeply imprinted by the pomp and circumstance of both the rodeo arena and the football field. A bull rider is acowboy, distilled — an ideal of a certain kind of manhood that even today packs a wallop.

If rodeo is the last tether to the frontier, as Skip Hollandsworth, a screenwriter and an executive editor of Texas Monthly, put it recently, bull riding connects to something even more primal. “For these young men, many of whom are the sons of blue-collar workers, the myth of the cowboy still resonates,” he said. “They look like James Dean. They speak in laconic drawls. They have their own language: ‘He’s full of try,’ which is an old frontier phrase. ‘A bull is rank.’”

But bull riding, he went on to say, “is different from the gaudiness of rodeo. It’s different from the corporate grandiosity of professional football. There’s no other contest between man and beast like this. People say hunting is a confrontation between man and beast. But the hunter has a gun. All the bull rider has is a rope to hang on to.”

This is why Ms. Davis was sweating out each night, bleary-eyed from the long drive and a tenacious cold. “I’m worried about his hand,” she said. “I wish he’d waited to ride another week.”

Mr. Davis was typically sanguine. “It’s a little sore,” he said. “I’m not thinking about it.”


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