Follow The Bouncing Cowboy During the Mesquite bounty bull ride, one thing is all but guaranteed: The beast wins

September 30, 2001

Late on a summer Saturday night, professional cowboy Byron
Koonsman arrived at the Resistol Arena in Mesquite, Texas, a
suburb of Dallas, hoping to take home $10,000. To earn that
bounty, all Koonsman had to do was ride a bull for eight seconds,
less time than it takes Maurice Greene to run the 100. Ordinarily
that bull would have been Durango Skoal, a one-ton animal that
has gone 93-0 in the last three years as the star attraction at
the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, which is held every weekend from
April to October and draws an average crowd of 3,700. Durango
Skoal, however, was not the featured bull this evening, so
Koonsman should have had a better shot at winning the 10 grand,
right?

Koonsman knew better. The featured bull was Spectacular, a less
experienced but equally frightening critter. "That's him over
there," said Koonsman, pointing toward a mottled black-and-white
bull. "Kinda pretty, as in pretty ornery. He'll try to bash me to
pieces before we even get out of the chute."

Koonsman, a 32-year-old dues-paying member ($300 per year) of the
Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and occasional
patron of some of the finest emergency rooms in the Southwest,
ignored the fact that the odds of his being disabled or killed
were significantly greater than his chances of collecting the
loot. To boot, he'd paid a $45 entry fee for the privilege of
boarding Spectacular, which was akin to a condemned man tipping
the executioner.

The high-risk, man-versus-animal thrill ride is perfect for the
attention span of the modern American sports fan. This fall rodeo
will graduate from ESPN2 to NBC, which will telecast the Bud
Light World Challenge (an event on the Professional Bull Riders
circuit, distinct from the PRCA) from Austin on Nov. 25. Tom
Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Stars, bought
the Mesquite rodeo, the only one in the nation that is held every
week for six months, in 1999 in anticipation of the sport's
expansion into network TV.

Don't expect Koonsman to become a celebrated athlete even if
rodeo becomes more mainstream. Because he's six feet tall, his
high center of gravity makes it unlikely that he'll ever be a
champion bull rider. "I made up my mind at age 12 that this was
what I was going to do with my life," says Koonsman, a native of
Stephenville, Texas, who took courses in blacksmithing at Sul
Ross State in Alpine, Texas, and makes his living as a painter
and handyman.

Bucking-stock breeder Jim Gay, a son of cowboy legend Neal Gay,
who cofounded the Mesquite rodeo in 1958, is sympathetic to the
workplace hardships of cowboys. "With scientific breeding, the
talent gap between the bull and the cowboy is beginning to
widen," Gay says. "The bulls today are stronger, some are more
ill-tempered, and they're getting so big that we'll have trouble
squeezing them into the chute before long. You could compare
having cowboys trying to ride the bounty bulls at Mesquite to a
kid from the Florida State League trying to bat against Randy
Johnson." (Only one cowboy, Scott Frazier, has won the bounty in
the 36 times the ride has been attempted since May.)

Ten minutes before his showdown with Koonsman, Spectacular
entered chute 4. "About now is when the adrenaline takes over,"
said Koonsman. When Koonsman slid aboard, Spectacular made a
hissing noise and appeared to expand. His eyes, cold and
expressionless, rolled back into his head. The chute swung open,
and the bull lunged forward, all four hooves off the ground, and
then executed a violent, spinning left turn.

Koonsman anticipated that move, but Spectacular reacted with a
zigzag twist. Koonsman overcorrected, and after 3.5 seconds he
was on the ground. "He threw his head back, trying to bust my
face in, and in trying to avoid that I lost my balance," Koonsman
said five minutes later. "I just about had him rode. Next time I
will."

Koonsman went home with the standard-issue bull rider's reward:
not even a nickel. On Sunday morning, in a one-paragraph account
of his work, The Dallas Morning News misspelled his name.

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL

Koonsman is an occasional patron of some of the finest emergency
rooms in the Southwest.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)