COMMENTARY: Taking a turn on Top Gun

Saturday, June 20, 2009 | 9:42 p.m. CDT; updated 12:07 a.m. CDT, Sunday, June 21, 2009

COLUMBIA — Let’s get one thing straight, I am no cowboy. In fact, I am the exact opposite.

I grew up in a suburban town near Chicago, where the only animals around are dogs, cats, skunks and raccoons. The only farm animals I’ve ever seen are the little plastic horses that my sister collected, and those always ended up on the floor where I could accidentally step on them. I don't even own a cowboy hat.

Not only am I not a cowboy, but I also make it a goal in my life to avoid any danger whatsoever. It took me until I was 15 to ride a roller coaster, and even then I wouldn’t have done it unless my parents and friends forced me.

So when I was first offered a chance to sit on one of the bulls while covering the Missouri High School Rodeo state finals, I quickly replied with a “Ha ha, yeah right.”

There’s no way you could get me to sit on a wild bucking bull that could kick me into next Saturday. At this point I had seen what these bulls could do. They’ve bucked riders off. One rider was even knocked out for a couple minutes, and another had to have 19 stitches in his chin after getting kicked in the face. So there was nothing that could get me onto one of those bulls.

But the more I thought about it, and with a little … OK, a lot of prodding from my editor, I decided to do the exact opposite of what I normally do. I decided to actually take a risk. So when I came back to the rodeo the next evening, I took them up on the offer.

Did I want to sit on a wild bull?

"Yeah," I said.

The first reaction I got from many of the bullriders was “Are you crazy?” After explaining that I was, in fact, crazy, they looked at me and just said, “Good luck.”

After the not-so-encouraging reaction from the bullriders, I decided to call my father. A last farewell. When I told my dad what I was about to do over the phone, he couldn’t stop laughing at the sight of me sitting on a bull. After all, he explained, I am a 6-foot-2 bean pole who has never ridden anything but a pony. He did have one piece of encouraging advice.

“Just don’t fall to the side of the chute, because then you’ll be in real trouble,” he said.

Thanks, Dad.

I decided to avoid telling my mom what I was about to do, because she would probably overreact, take the six-hour drive to Columbia and keep me from sitting on that bull.

Bullfighter and ex-bullrider, Darren Murray, explained that the average bullrider begins learning in a rodeo school where they get confidence riding on the easier bulls. Bullriding takes a lot of strength, practice, and flexibility to be able to hang on to a kicking, twirling angry bull for the required 8 seconds. Bullrider Spencer Stith said there is a lot you have to do to stay on a bucking bull.

“When it’s rearing, you have to go forward. When it starts kicking, you have to meet the kick by sitting back. And on spins you have to put your hand in front of your face and get down in the well,” Stith said.

Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to ride the bull. I just had to sit on it. I figured that sitting on a bull wouldn’t be too hard. Who knows, maybe I will be a natural at it.

Bull contractor Keith Wooten helped set me up with one of the nastiest, meanest bulls, a bull that had horns that were at least a foot long. Its name was Top Gun.

In reality, Top Gun, was old and considered extremely gentle.

Then, bullrider David King showed me how to sit on the bull properly. You first have to put your hand through the braided bull rope, hold the handle tight, pull the rope around your hand, and then sit forward.

“Not too bad,” I thought.

However, then the bull started kicking in the metal cage.

It was too late to turn back now, so I had to sit on the bull no matter what. I proceeded to shakily lower myself onto this massive bull hoping it kept calm. Thankfully the bull barely moved, and I proceeded to go through the steps I had learned.

“Wrap the rope around my hand, loop-the-loop. Wait, what did I have to do again?”

The spotter saw me struggling and helped me finish getting the rope tightened on the bull. I proceeded to scoot forward and was ready to get off this killing machine.

Once I stepped off the bull, my legs shook uncontrollably. They felt like jelly.

But I also had a sense of accomplishment.

I walked around, outside the arena, on shaky legs.

"Did you sit on the bull?" a cowboy asked me.

"Yep," I said. Cowboy talk.


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Greg Jackson June 23, 2009 | 12:27 a.m.

This is a very good commentary piece, Brian. It reminded me a lot of Alex Ruppenthal's commentary on the Polar Bear Plunge from February, because they were both "first" experiences.

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