COLUMBIA — A pink scar is a constant reminder of the dangers Justin Smith faces during competition.
The mark below Smith’s ear is the result of a bull trampling on the left side of his neck.
Smith, 16, of Columbia, is a bull rider in this year’s Missouri High School Rodeo State Finals at the Boone County Fairgrounds.
Smith and other high school riders face serious dangers every time they hop on the back of a bull, but they say the adrenaline rush makes the dangers and injuries worthwhile. Smith says he has never considered not getting back on the bull.
“If you get hurt playing football, they go right back out there, and that’s how we do it,” Smith said.
Smith, who began riding sheep at age 4, has suffered many injuries from the sport. He has separated his shoulder, broken his collarbone and been knocked out, resulting in concussions.
“There’s no way to prevent injuries,” Smith said.
But the riders take precautions.
They wear a helmet with a mask, a shock-absorbing vest, a mouthpiece and leather to protect their legs.
Phyllis Smith, Justin Smith’s mother, travels with her son every weekend to different rodeos. Even though she has witnessed his injuries, she still supports her son’s passion.
"He knows what to do to be safe," Phyllis Smith said. "You can't always be safe, but we do everything to keep him safe."
Nate Warthen, a 17-year-old from Joplin, is another bull rider who understands the risks. He says he used to be scared, but now he accepts there’s a chance he may get injured.
“When you’re going against a creature so powerful and you’re competing against it, the adrenaline rush is an awesome feeling,” Warthen said.
Bull riding takes more than physical strength and flexibility. To demonstrate bull riding's demands, only one of the riders in Thursday night's competition stayed on for the eight seconds required to receive a score.
“It’s mostly a mental game,” said Cole Bass from Jonesburg. “If you think too much, you’ll forget to do something and get bucked off.”
No matter what strategies they use, the riders can all agree that bull riding is a passion just like any other sport.
“If it’s something I enjoy so much,” Warthen said, “Why stop?"