Eight seconds of glory

Bull rider hangs on for dear life at the 2018 Tucson Rodeo (Photo by: Mike Sultzbach)

Count with me. Eight, seven, six, keep it up, five, four, three, don’t let go, two, one. Sure eight seconds might feel like a blip in time for most, but for the Southwestern warriors of the rodeo, eight seconds is an eternity.

Go ahead and ask any rodeo cowboy how they got into this life, and they will all tell you they were born into it. The rodeo has become something so much bigger than just a few crazy men riding angry 2,000-pound animals.

It’s an entire lifestyle full of extra large belt buckles, exceptional mustaches, and some of the most adrenaline-obsessed athletes in the world.

Gary Williams, director of the Tucson Rodeo and former bull rider, was born and raised in Tucson. The son of a bull rider, Williams never doubted that he was destined to add to the Williams’ rodeo legacy.

“I knew from the time I was five that I was going to be a bull rider,” said Williams. “Rodeo is something you’re born into. A real cowboy doesn’t choose the rodeo life. It’s just something in your blood.”

Most start riding before their baby teeth start falling out, working their way up the from an angry ram, to a rambunctious calf, eventually leading up to the prize bull.

Wacey Munsell fends off a raging bull (Photo provided by: Wacey Munsell)

“I can remember being four years old and getting on top of a 100 pound mutton, feeling just like a real rodeo cowboy,” said Wacey Munsell, 32, former rider and current world champion bull fighter.

Now when you think bullfighting you’re probably thinking the Spanish version which involves stabbing the bull with swords and spears ultimately killing it. While the American style of bullfighting shares many traits with it’s distant cousin, the main difference is no harm comes to the bull.

In fact American bullfighting basically consists of the bullfighter either dodging the bull’s angry rush, or getting tossed tens of feet in the air by the snorting beasts.

So what’s it like getting on that bull for the first time? Absolutely terrifying, according to Munsell and Williams.

“Anybody that says they aren’t scared every time they get on that bull is a bold-faced liar,” said Munsell. “The best bull riders and fighters are the ones that can harness that fear, and turn it into something productive.”

Fear and all, it’s a life they love; yet the love for danger and sport comes with a serious price. Williams has had numerous surgeries, as well as breaking multiple bones.

Williams reflected on a point in his college riding days, in which he broke his femur. He wanted back on the bull so badly that his buddy made him a custom cast, and just a couple of days later he was back on a snorting beast, broken leg and all.

Munsell often finds himself in the direct path of the bull, reflected on the luck he’s had, only having needed a few surgeries. Sure he’s broken a hip, dislocated his shoulder blade, and broken a leg here and there, but that’s “lucky” with a life in the rodeo.

Wacey Munsell distracts the bull while the rider is dragged (Photo provided by: Wacey Munsell)

The rodeo, a staple in Southwestern society, is going no place.

“There’s no argument that this is not a mainstream sport, however since it’s essentially a family tradition it’s not going anywhere,” said Williams.

And if you think the rodeo can’t be lucrative consider this; the highest paid bull rider made roughly $500,000 last year. All while riding in only a few rodeos, according to Munsell.

As the sport continues to increase in popularity, events like the Pro Bull Riding Finals in Las Vegas continue to attract thousands of excited fans.

Munsell, won the bullfighting world championship at the PBR World Finals in 2004. He was only 18, and hungry for the glory that comes with the sport.

“Bullfighting and bull riding is unlike any other sport, because it’s just you in a ring with an angry beast, being cheered on by thousands of people,” said Munsell. “There really is no other sport like it.”

Clayton Soileau is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the school of journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at soileau@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photos.











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