National Geographic Channel
On May 29, 2003, Mike Lee sat atop Chili, a nearly 1,700-pound (772-kilogram) bull at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's rodeo in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Lee, just 20 years old, was tense, shaking his neck, and taking deep breaths. His left hand clutched the "bull rope" bound behind the beast's front legs. Chili heaved and snorted and tried to maneuver his body in the tight-fitted, gated steel chute.
Surrounding Lee in the arena, the crowd roared, awaiting what some sports commentators consider the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.
The last thing Lee remembers was the chute opening. After six seconds, the bull threw Lee, causing their heads to collide. The smashing of skulls left a hole in Lee's memory that has yet to be filled.
"I fell off the bull, crashed into the ground, and ran away, my mom tells me," Lee said. "There was blood gushing from the right side of my skull, but I only remember waking up in the hospital." The injury kept him out of competition for four months while he recovered from brain surgery.
Just last week, on February 13 and 14, Lee placed fifth at the Anaheim Open professional bull-riding event in California. The placement catapulted Lee into the top tier of bull riding; he now ranks second worldwide on the 2003-2004 professional bull riders major-league circuit, called the Built Ford Tough Series.
Obscurity to Popularity in Ten Years
Professional bull riding has skyrocketed in popularity in the last ten years. In the early 1990s, bull riding was still a small, obscure, extreme sport. But the 15-fold increase in yearly professional prize moneyfrom U.S. $650,000 to almost 10 million dollars on the Professional Bull Riders tourand regular national television coverage have raised the profile of bull riding and brought the sport to the masses.
NBC Sports covered the Anaheim Open professional bull-riding event, and over a hundred million people are expected to watch televised bull-riding events worldwide in 2004.
"Professional bull riding is on a fantastic growth spurt," Tuff Hedeman, a former four-time bull-riding world champion, said. He is also the president of the Colorado Springs-based Professional Bull Riders, Inc., which hosts and organizes professional bull riding in the United States and abroad. "People just love it everywhere the tour stops. It's one of those sports that, once you see it, you're always going to be thrilled by it."
Despite Danger, Riders Compelled to Compete
Part of the thrill comes from watching professional bull riders match their riding skills, intuition, and courage against animals 15 times their weight. Not surprisingly, riders suffer injuries every year. Riders, like Lee, often compete again long before they are fully healed.
"Occasionally I do my best at begging them to not compete," said Dale Butterwick, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary Sport Medicine Centre in Alberta, Canada, and president of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team. "But the cowboy culture is certainly to ignore things."