Dangerous Games

All athletes test themselves, but sometimes we play too close to the edge
April 20, 2008

I DIDN'T KNOW TimChambers. Didn't have enough time. But our paths crossed two weeks ago inMartin, Tenn., where we went to participate in a three-day camp at the SankeyRodeo School, a bronco- and bullriding school, one of about a dozen in the U.S.Almost all of the 32 men there had an interest in becoming serious bullriders.The rest of us—the ones like me and Tim—had enrolled in the $390 class for theexperience. As a journalist I figured I'd at least wind up with a story. Butlike Tim, a 49-year-old with a wife and two children in East Market, Tenn., Iwanted to know what it felt like to wrestle a 1,500-pound animal and to competein one of the fastest-growing sports in America.

Every year 1.5million people attend professional bullriding events, and the top riders earnhalf a million dollars. The appeal to fans is obvious: There's plenty of actionand plenty of danger. Hard data on bullriding fatalities is hard to find, butjust last November, two riders, one in Kansas, the other in Arkansas, werekilled in minor league competitions. In 1989 former world champ Lane Frost waskilled when he was gored in the side by the bull that tossed him inCheyenne.

There is, to besure, an art to staying on a bucking bull, but danger, you can make the case,is even a bigger business. Look at the dozens of racing schools that offer thechance to drive stock cars, dragsters and even speedboats. You can go to schoolto learn how to race an airplane or how to jump out of one. Danger doesn't justmake some sports more entertaining, it is entertainment itself, at least tothose who watch crocodile wrestling and extreme skating on MTV's Jackass and inthe movies it has spawned.

Last year for anSI story I went three rounds with former super featherweight champion JuanManuel Màrquez. Although at 185 I outweighed him by 50 pounds, I wound up witha split lip and a couple of bruised ribs. But there is a difference betweengetting in the ring with a boxer who can immediately recognize your limitationsand getting on a bull that doesn't care if you're a first-timer or Ty Murray,just so long as you are off his back.

After about threehours spent signing liability waivers (including one that had to be notarized),learning how to use our ropes and spurs, and going over the basics of riding(keep your shoulders square and hold on), we were up on a bull. Riders had towear flak jackets, and we were given the option of wearing a hockey helmet,which I did. On the second day, I climbed onto a particularly ornery animalwhose name I didn't catch. As I struggled in the chute to position myself, itslammed its body against one side of the gate, crushing my ankle until it feltlike it was going to snap. "Push him over!" shouted one of theinstructors. While I was trying to imagine how to do that, the bull crasheddown on its front legs and whirled its head toward me as if it were possessed."Holy s—," I mumbled through my mouthpiece.

As soon as thebull righted itself, I gave the nod and the gate popped open. The bull took offinto the arena, and after a few powerful kicks, I flew over its head onto theunforgiving dirt. "You looked like a missile," fellow student RyanAllen, a police officer from Arlington, Va., said in amazement after I'dscrambled back through the gate. Still shaking, I took off my helmet and leanedagainst the wall. My collarbone was broken, but I didn't know that yet.

A few hours later,at about 2 p.m. on a Saturday, I was back in the arena, an ice bag taped to myshoulder. Tim Chambers—a short, stocky Army vet—was climbing onto another bull.Everything began well enough: Tim got into position, secured his rope aroundits midsection and gripped the gate. When he nodded his head (he wasn't wearinga helmet), the gate swung open and the bull began to buck. It didn't take morethan two kicks for Tim to lose his grip. But instead of flying away from thebull, the way most people do, Tim slid under the bull, which continued to buckwildly. Both of its back legs landed on Tim's body, one grazing his face andone striking his chest.

It didn't lastmore than a few seconds. The bullfighters in the arena calmly lured the bullaway from Tim, who stumbled to his feet. The UT-Martin athletic training staffgot to him quickly, and within minutes the ambulance that had been parkedoutside the arena swung into action. But Tim stopped breathing en route to thehospital and that evening died of massive internal injuries.

The class went on.According to Lyle Sankey, it was just the second fatality in the 33-yearhistory of his school, and he sounded somber when he talked about it. "It'shorrible when something like this happens," he says. "But bullriding isa violent sport. We do everything possible to make sure everyone is safe, butthere is only so much you can do when something that big hits you likethat."

At a local barthat night, Allen, the Virginia cop, and I pondered the question of why we hadcome to Tennessee. "Maybe it was for the adrenaline rush, the sweet-ass barstory or to get chicks," said Allen. "It sure as hell wasn't todie."

No, certainly not,but it didn't hurt that death was a distinct possibility. Tim Chambers, Godrest his soul, had proved that.

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After a few powerful kicks I flew over the bull's head,onto the dirt. Said a fellow student, "YOU LOOKED LIKE A MISSILE."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND

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)