Shootin' the Bull With Bullfighters

January 22, 2007

SO WHAT? So the bullfighters who risk their lives over 100 times a weekend for the cowboys on the Professional Bull Riders tour are tougher than a hospital steak. And, yeah, they make an NFL middle linebacker look like Richard Simmons. And, true, they may be the bravest, most underpaid athletes in America.

I don't give a cow chip. They're the worst damn interviews this side of the Kentucky Derby winner.

I spent a day at Madison Square Garden with three of the bullfighters who save fallen cowboys from getting gored or crushed on the PBR tour. I even got into the arena with them, wore the pads and the outfit and everything. Yet every time I'd ask anything, it would get real quiet.

One time this cowboy who'd already made his eight seconds was hanging on by a cuticle as the bull kept wildly spinning. So bullfighter Shorty Gorham, 28, cupped his hand over the bull's eye. "Why'd you do that?" I asked.

"Cuz it works," he said. Spit.

Sometimes they'd slap the bulls on the top of the head as the beasts went spinning by.

"Slows 'em down," said Frank Newsom, 32. Spit.

At one point Frank decided 40 feet away was too far from the action for me, so he dragged me up right next to the chute. After the bull busted out, Frank held my sleeve, and I couldn't get him off me. "What's up with that?" I asked, wiping off the bull slobber.

"Case I needed to throw you outta the way," he said.

Even the clown, Flint Rasmussen (above, left), who entertains the crowd and helps the bullfighters, clearly doesn't get paid by the word. I told him I couldn't climb the fence if I had to escape—the first rail was too high. He looked at me and said, "You will."

A minute later the first bull of the day got loose and came snorting at me. Before I knew it, I was on the top rail. Flint came over and said, "Tole ya."

They actually said more to the bulls than to me. One time, a bull was coming at Frank, and his partner, Joe Baumgartner, 40, hollered, "You ugly!" Shorty once yelled, "Yer mother's a cow!" One rider walked away dentless from a serious spill and thanked all three. I heard one of them scoff, "Ah, warn't nothin'."

Me, I think it's somethin' that these three guys risk their limbs and lives for others at 30 events a year. And what do they get for it? About $150,000, out of which the bullfighter has to pay for his travel, lodging and meals for 260 days on the road. Worse, they've got to shell out for most of their own insurance. They need it. Joe has had six screws and two plates put in the orbital bone of one eye; broken his ankle (three times), jaw (twice), shoulder, both wrists, every rib, most of his digits; blown out both knees; ripped a rotator cuff; and punctured a lung, all thanks to bulls. "It's tough," he says, "but at least we ain't tied to 'em."

All I did was displace a rib—running from a bull named Droopy, who came after me like I stole his feed. Droopy chased me around a barrel a few times until Flint threw his hat at the bull. "Somebody put cement in yer shoes?" Joe asked.

The day before, one of the guys called the event coordinator and said in a high-pitched voice, "Hi, this is Nancy from catering. Uh, are there supposed to be bulls back in this hallway?" That was followed by the sound of a scream and a phone dropping.

But the laughs stopped when a bull trapped his thrown rider, Cory Rasch, against a chute post and turned his insides into fettuccine with three head mashes. Rasch was taken to the hospital with a lacerated kidney, ruptured spleen and chipped vertebra. He was still in the ICU when we got back to the locker room. Frank, caked in sweat and dirt, was hanging his head.

"Man, there wadn't nuthin' you coulda done," Joe told Frank. Piped in Shorty, "Wadn't your fault, Frankie." But Frank was sagging. "I think I was a little late."

When I called Rasch a few days later he was out of the hospital and wasn't blaming Frank or anyone else for the four to six months he'll miss with no pay. "Hell, I just got off [the bull] in a bad spot," said Rasch, 28. "I knew it was comin'. Those three, they're the best in the world. I mean, I got some nice friends out here, but I wouldn't get in front of a bull except for only a couple of 'em. These guys do it for 45 riders every night."

We were about to hang up when he said, "You were out there, right? In the bullfighter outfit?"

"Why, yes," I beamed. "Yes, I was."

"Well, thanks for saving my ass," he said, wryly. "You and your notepad. I really owe you one, man."

Ah, warn't nothin'.

TALK BACK
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

"I got nice friends [on the bull-riding circuit], but I wouldn't get in front of a bull except for only a couple of 'em," says one rider. "These guys do it for 45 riders every night."

RIFFS of REILLY

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PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY

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)