PUEBLO, Colo. – Even though some of his family and friends thought maybe it was time, Sean Willingham said the thought of retiring never crossed his mind after breaking his neck (C-7) and sustaining a torn ligament in Billings, Montana, nearly three months ago.
Instead, the only thing the 34-year-old was concentrating on was making a full recovery and returning to the Built Ford Tough Series.
Willingham took the latest step toward that goal this past weekend by finishing fifth at the Laurel, Mississippi, Touring Pro Division event.
In what he even described as a surprise, Willingham made flawless work of Schizophrenic, riding the bovine athlete for 85 points in his first attempt at a qualified ride since being constrained to a neck brace for 10 weeks.
“I feel great,” Willingham said. “The first one I felt really great and rode him dead easy. I got off like I was supposed to do and all of the good stuff. After that one, I was like shoot I haven’t lost nothing because I hadn’t been on nothing.”
However, Willingham was bucked off by Sandman in the championship round.
“I knew the bull and had seen him in the practice pen for the last month or two,” Willingham said. “He really does buck. He laid down on me in the chute and I re-pulled and he laid down again. He just went down into the front end and his butt was up. He then just gave me a big fake right and went back left just as hard and I was still going right, I guess.”
Regardless, Willingham was still happy to get his first qualified ride since the injury, especially because of the slump he was in prior to the injury.
Before crashing down onto the Rimrock Auto Arena ground in Billings when Cowboy Up bucked him off in 5.28-seconds, Willingham was mired in the worst stretch of his career.
Willingham had only ridden one of his last 21 bulls before the injury.
“It definitely is good to get that first one under the belt,” Willingham said. “That is good for me because I was in a pretty big slump when I was hurt. That was a pretty stupid buck-off streak. I don’t know what it was. It is just bull riding. You go through that and you just need to ride out of them. I guess I needed a three-month break to get everything ready to go again.”
Willingham admitted that in Billings he didn’t think he had broken his neck after being helped off the dirt. There was more of a pulsating pain in his shoulder that caused him to think maybe he had slipped a rib.
Following an evaluation by Dr. Tandy Freeman, Willingham was sent to the hospital for X-rays after having pain when sports medicine had him move his head backward.
He then learned that he broken his C-7.
That is when some of the talk from family and friends began, which Willingham understood.
“Everybody else at home thought I should retire and be done with it. When you hear someone breaking their neck, everybody is freaking out and thinks you are done,” Willingham said. “I never once questioned retirement when I broke my neck. I had a lot of people trying to convince me, but from day one I never thought about retiring. I was thinking about getting better and coming back and getting on some bulls.”
Willingham added that he understands he was lucky that he had a slight fracture of his C-7, compared to the neck fracture (C-1) that ended his buddy L.J. Jenkins’ career.
He also credited friends such as Luke Snyder and a former school teacher who suffered a similar injury with giving him the confidence that he could make a full recovery if he followed the doctor’s instructions.
It wasn’t a painful recovery process, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Willingham was put on strict orders to not lift anything, including his daughter (Lani Michael) for six to seven weeks. Doctors were more concerned with the torn ligament than the neck fracture because if he were to cause more damage to the ligament there was the possibility he could do serious damage to the bicep on his riding arm.
The Summerville, Georgia, bull rider patiently let his injuries heal before being cleared by doctors for a light cardio workout eight weeks after the injury. Willingham then began physical therapy at Floyd Medical Center two weeks ago and started working out twice each day in preparation for his return.
“I made it through it pretty good,” he said. “I had a lot of help from my family, my wife (Kayla), and being at home with my little girl worked out pretty good. We got to do some vacations and (I got to) spend some time with them before they start back at school.
“It was actually a blessing I guess that I got to stay home instead of being on the road all summer long and traveling like I normally would.”
That is all about to change now that Freeman has cleared Willingham to return.
Despite having a couple of injury exemptions to begin the second half of the Built Ford Tough Series with in Biloxi, Mississippi, on Aug. 7, Willingham knows he has no time to waste if he hopes to work his way back into the Top 35 of the world standings.
He heads into Wednesday’s BlueDEF Velocity Tour event in Salinas, California, 46th in the world standings and 150 points behind No. 35 Dave Mason.
The event can be seen exclusively on PBR LIVE on CarbonTV.com.
Willingham plans to compete at the Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Touring Pro Division event and the upcoming BlueDEF Velocity Tour events in Guymon, Oklahoma, and Big Sky, Montana, following Salinas.
The 13-year BFTS veteran is ultimately focused on qualifying for his third consecutive Built Ford Tough Word Finals in Las Vegas after being cut from the BFTS for the first time in his career in 2012.
“That is my goal for sure,” Willingham said. “It is still early in the year. Second half of the season and there are a lot of bull ridings to go. I have come back earlier in the summer where I can still go to some of these BlueDEFs and Touring Pros. If there was a time to break your neck and it had to happen, it happened at a good time and I didn’t miss too many Built Ford Toughs or to many bull ridings that were crucial like last year when I was out with my hip. I missed half of the dang year.
“I am going to treat this summer as a time to gain some ground just to be on the safe side.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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