COLUMBIA — Two men are standing on the ground of the brown dirt arena of the Boone County Fairgrounds. One is wearing a cowboy hat, leg padding, and a protective vest around his chest with a jersey over it. The other is wearing clown make up on his face, a bright red shirt tucked into some shorts that also have colorful bandanas sticking out of them.
They are waiting patiently near the blue metal and wooden chutes where a half-ton bull is ready for the cowboys to ride. The rider sits on the bull and nods his head indicating that he is ready to ride.
“Here comes Tilt-a-Whirl,” the announcer says over the loud speaker.
The bull bucks violently to get the rider off his back. The cowboy is kicked off and lands on the soft dirt. He gets up and sprints away from the bull.
When everyone else is running away, the two men standing next to the chute sprint toward the bull. They move simultaneously around the bull to confuse it. One sprints to the front of the bull. The other instinctively moves to the opposite end.
“Yah, Yah,” they shout to the get the bull's attention.
After a few seconds of this, the bull is distracted enough for the two men to redirect it to the gate out of the arena.
The men are Darren Murray and Mark Wilson, and they are rodeo clowns, or as they prefer to be called, bullfighters. Their job this week has been to protect the cowboys at the Missouri High School Rodeo state finals at all costs — even if that means getting run over by the bull.
“We’re kind of like an ambulance,” Murray said. “If it’s us or them, it’s going to be us to take the beating.”
Wilson says that injuries are a part of being a bullfighter. Wilson says that he has had a lacerated liver, a punctured lung, a cracked tibia and a whole list of other injuries, but he says the pain isn’t a big deal.
“It’s a sense of leading my life to be a servant to the rodeo community,” Wilson said. “The pain is real, but you just have to grit your teeth and keep going.”
At first glance Murray and Wilson don’t seem like they are bullfighters. Murray is only 5 feet, 3 inches tall, has a shaved head, a thick mustache and is 42 years old. Wilson is slightly balding with fully grayed hair and is 52. Wilson and Murray understand they are significantly older than the average bullfighting age of 25, but they are going to continue doing it until they are too old to help protect the riders.
“I once worked a rodeo where the combined age of the two other bullfighters were still 10 years younger than I am,” Wilson said. “You won’t find another team as old as us.”
Murray and Wilson have worked rodeos together for nine years. In that time they have been world champion bullfighters in 2005 and runners up in 2007. They’re also best friends, which in bullfighting, Wilson says, is extremely important.
“In this business, you might not always click, but it did for us," Wilson said. "When working with someone you don’t trust, it’s like double duty, you are almost better off by yourself. But that just isn’t the case for us."
Murray and Wilson have been friends for a long time, but each got into bullfighting differently. Wilson was an ordained minister and says he decided to bullfight at the age of 44. He felt it was his duty and calling in life to serve and protect the cowboys.
“The most valuable thing to me is serving and caring for people," Wislon said. "It’s a privilege and opportunity to step in and help these cowboys.”
Murray used to be a bullrider 20 years ago. When a bullfighter didn’t show up for a rodeo, he decided to give it a try. Murray says that after he received his first paycheck, he knew he could make a living bullfighting.
“The money is good, and I get to help the cowboys out," Murray said. "I’m out here kind of like a lifesaver, if something happens we’re out there helping the cowboys.”
After their first rodeo in Dexter, Wilson says they became instant friends and worked rodeos together for nine years. However, last year Wilson moved south and the two stopped working rodeos together because of the distance. Together again for the first time in over year at the Missouri High School Rodeo state finals, Murray says they haven’t missed a beat. They plan to continue working together more in August. Picking up right where they left off.
“After that first rodeo we did together, he’s followed me everywhere. I haven’t been able to shake him since,” Wilson joked.