By: Andrew Giangola
A blazing young sports talent full of big dreams, championship potential, and rocket fuel for crossover fame carries on his strong shoulders a looming weight heavier than even his own mighty expectations: the fate of his family.
He’s at the top level of a high-stakes profession where, instead of basking in the adoring media limelight and enjoying the personal satisfaction of elevating his siblings and parents, it can be, in any unpredictable instant, lights out.
For his isn’t a contact sport. It’s a collision sport.
He’s a professional bull rider – the equivalent of being involved in a few high-speed car crashes each weekend.
It’s a painful, prideful job he admits he can’t quit. Bull riding is in his blood. It’s what he’s meant to do. It’s his way out.
It’s a job luring the bright lights of the big cities. But lose your focus, and when those bulls quickly throw and stomp you like a rag doll, you get paid nothing.
Your family will still love you. But what have you really done for them?
And those who said you had no business being here? Well, they get to preen like roosters.
Those are the riveting dramatic parameters of a new high-octane Snapchat docu-series, Life By The Horns, which premieres Saturday, February 20, following Ezekiel Mitchell on a life-or-death journey to stay on bulls, win a PBR title, come to be known as one of the greatest ever, and carry his family to the promised land.
Oh, and Zeke would scoff at this added qualification because his career isn’t any kind of political or sociological statement – he’s just a cowboy – but, if his dream comes true, for the record books, he’d be the first Black cowboy ever to win a PBR gold buckle.
In the fast-paced 10-part Snapchat series (episodes average about six minutes and are free to anyone with the Snapchat app), Mitchell’s raw talent, beaming smile, dance moves, spectacular rides, and occasional swig from a whiskey bottle are contrasted with the plight of two other young riders pursuing their dream: the harder-working, more reserved Andrew Alvidrez and Zeke’s cousin Ouncie Mitchell who, after breaking his femur, is questioning his commitment to the sport.
Zeke has no such questions, just hard-won realism about the nature of his calling.
“Bull riding is like being in a toxic relationship,” he said. “But you still love that person.”
His business manager and mentor, Max Maxwell, a recurring character in the series, says, “For all these guys, there’s no Plan B. They’re fighting for the love of the sport. For the culture of being a cowboy. For the financial freedom of their families.”
Mitchell says that the money at PBR’s elite level is great, but “you can’t take it into the ground.”
The purpose of money is what it can do for others, mainly his family.
“Bull riding was my way out of poverty,” Mitchell says matter-of-factly. “I told my mama from the beginning, ‘If this goes the way I want to, you’ll never have to struggle, you’ll never have to worry again.’
“I watched my mom and my stepdad and my dad struggle my whole life. I never wanted to be there again. This seems the best way to make it out.”
This being a beautiful, brutal, unforgiving sport where anyone, no matter their level of talent or preparation, can be taken.
When Mason Lowe took his last ride in Denver in January 2019, Ouncie was in the chutes immediately before his out, and Zeke was up next immediately after.
Zeke may be dancing around, sometimes shirtless, flashing his latest neon blazer, a tribute to his dad who loved to dress up, or backing up the bravado in putting up 90-point rides on the toughest bulls in the sport.
But the specter of serious injury is always looming.
“What if he gets hurt? What if I lose him? He lost a little sister in 2000,” Ezekiel’s mother, Janie, says.
She doesn’t want to come near that feeling again. Yet, feelings of pride still overshadow fears for her son.
“Every time I talk to (Ezekiel), I tell him, ‘I’m proud of you, and you didn’t let anyone stop you, not even your mama.’”
Over the course of the 2020 season, Alvidrez, finally riding more consistently and making a run for the World Finals, was pile-driven to the ground, breaking his neck.
“You are the underdog 2,000 to one,” he said. “This bull is faster than you. He’s stronger than you. They don’t care if you’re World Champion. They’ll throw you off their back, and if you land in front of them, they will hurt you.
Proud and defiant, even while recovering from injury, Alvidrez is a rider worth rooting for.
“I was sitting on top of the world, and those bulls just humble you,” he said. “Just like that, they remind you you’re human. I’m used to failing. I’m used to eating the dirt, man. But guess what. I’m a stubborn SOB, and I know how to get back up.
“A lot of people assume (breaking your neck) would just crush you. Honestly, the first thing that came to mind is, ‘Can you imagine the comeback story?’”
Bull riding has often been called a dance. Viewed through the quick-cutting, in-your-face presentation in Life By The Horns, it’s more like dancing with a semi-truck driven by someone who’s impaired.
The series will be available to more than 100 million Snapchat users in the U.S – a giant coup for PBR to reach new, younger audiences, the elusive Holy Grail when viewership of most major sports is down significantly. (PBR on CBS is an exception, with viewership up +8% in 2020).
“Bull riding is jam-packed, fast, and doesn’t take a huge attention span,” said Trevor Paperny, one of the show’s Creator and Director. “It really worked out for Snap’s platform.”
Paperny, a self-described adrenaline junkie who off-roads, surfs and climbs rocks, initially was introduced to bull riding when filming a commercial that happened to include Ezekiel Mitchell.
He and his partners Benjamin Scott and Alastair Ramsden knew they needed to make a show about bull riding.
They started watching PBR as much as possible and, somewhat versed in the sport, wound up with Snapchat, ready to hit the tour, COVID compliance officers in tow.
Across the entire sport, a few things instantly grabbed their attention: Ezekiel Mitchell’s story, his humble background, and how he started studying YouTube videos.
“Overall, it’s a beautiful story, and then you have the backdrop of the full, explosive nature of bull riding,” Paperny said.
None of the producers expected to see the crucial role the bulls play in the sport.
“The whole sport is an amazing dance with the beast; the cowboy and bull become one, riding together, scored as one,” Scott said. “That’s one thing I loved about Zeke. He says, ‘I pray for myself, and I pray for the animal.’ I’m from New York City and had no idea that bulls had personalities or were treated in such a caring, loving way.”
The producers learned a lot of new things. Like that bulls have their own chiropractors.
They were surprised to see the animals treated like royalty — eating the best food and getting massages and those electro-pulse back treatments.
“We found out they are bred to buck and love it,” Scott said. “Some of the bulls will come up to you and want to be petted. There’s mutual love and respect for the animals that I didn’t expect.
During the filming for Life By The Horns, produced by 21st Street Creative & Beneficial Entertainment, the creatives accompanied Mitchell to remote Oklahoma to attend a fundraiser for a bull rider who’d been seriously injured.
“Zeke was the only Black guy there,” Paperny said. “I’m a white, long-haired dude from California, and I have to admit I was nervous. But there was nothing but love. Everybody wanted a picture and autograph from Zeke.”
The crew traveled to 16 states, observing those cowboy values at every PBR event and in the ranches they were invited into. They, too, feel as if they were accepted into an extended family that starts with the riders.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like,” Paperny said. “If you have the balls and heart to get on that animal, you’re accepted as a bull-riding cowboy. Period.”
Fans can meet the stars of Life By The Horns, including riders Ezekiel Mitchell and Andrew Alvidrez, in an exclusive virtual experience on March 1 at 8 p.m. EST/5 p.m. PST. Details on how you can register for a limited audience spot will be available on PBR’s social channels (Facebook & Instagram) shortly.
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