Photos by Owens Daniels
It’s my first rodeo.
So I get to the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum an hour early for the first night of the Carolina Cowboys Professional Bull Riding home stand, where I meet a floor tech named John-Jon, who tells me it’s his first time, too.
“I usually work with Disney,” he says.
Together we grapple with our limited understanding of the sport of professional bullriding. Is it like monster trucks, which has a predetermined outcome? Or is it like a surfing competition, where riders are awarded with style points for tricks and such?
Over the course of the three-day competition we both come to a better understanding of the sport, the men who engage in it and even the bulls themselves.
“They’re right there,” John-Jon says, gesturing to a flank of pens just behind the jumbotron.
And there they are: more than a dozen of these giants standing silent and stock still as colored lights splash across the arena’s empty seats and dirt floor while Bob Seger’s “I Remember” tumbles through the sound system. Fifteen-hundred pounds apiece, shoulder muscles bunched like a couple of bowling balls, spreading horns as thick as contractor-grade PVC pipe, their points dulled to menacing knobs, each bull bigger than a tractor, with a head larger than my own torso, they shift their weight silently, pivot their necks, wait their moment.
These bulls are raised for the sport at specialty ranches across the globe, just as the riders themselves come from far-flung places — the American West, yes, but also Canada and Australia, with healthy South American contingents on every team. And just as the men are scored on their rides — up to 50 points if they can hold on past the 8-second mark — the bulls, too, are scored on their performance, up to 50 points for speed, power and orneriness. If the rider holds on, the total points are awarded to his team. If he gets thrown, his team gets an X and the bull gets the points.
The riding of bulls by humans, of course, has been around for as long as the two species have coexisted on the planet. But this is the inaugural year for the PBR Teams Series, which turns an individualized sport into a group effort. And the Carolina Cowboys, out of Winston-Salem, begin their first home series in Third Place.
Each team posts five riders who take their turns on the bulls; occasionally, when the bull underperforms or the clock starts late or some other infraction occurs, a reride order will be issued, giving the team one more shot at 8 seconds.
It’s a team sport, but individual performance is paramount, a sentiment summed up succinctly by 19-year-old Rookie of the Year Bob Mitchell of the Kansas City Outlaws: “It’s still man vs. bull.”
Players are pulled from the ranks of the PBR circuit, the young ones paying their dues and the older ones still trying to earn a living in a particularly punishing field. They’re drafted and traded, like in any other sport, and their earnings and stats are tracked online. Longtime riders like Chase Outlaw, Keyshawn Whitehorse and “The Iceman” Kaique Pacheco have strong followings. Some have earned more than $1 million on the circuit.
The bulls have fans, too. John-Jon has learned that the bull named Big Black is known as “the Michael Jordan of Bulls.”
Mitchell is not the youngest rider; — that would be 18-year-old Vitor Losnake of the Arizona Ridge Riders, who came from Brazil just a few weeks ago to make his PBR debut. The oldest is 47-year-old Ednei Caminhas, coaxed out of retirement by the Texas Rattlers for this first season of the Team Series. They’re all short, powerful men who seem made from leather and sinew, with forearms like nautical ropes and outsized hands that look like farm tools, each of them willing to be tossed and thrashed by an angry bull, like a ribbon tied on the end of a stick, until they either get thrown — which happens about half the time — or they hit the 8-second mark, which is a lot longer than it seems when you’re clenched atop a ginormous beast that’s doing everything it can to fling you off.
There are eight teams in all — elegant! — and our home squad, the Carolina Cowboys come in third place on Friday. Over the course of the weekend their riders — including former world champion Cooper Davis, the Brazilian Leonardo Lima and closer Daylon Swearingen, the current world champion, called the “closer” because he rides last — climb to No. 1 in the standings before heading to Oklahoma City this weekend.
Bullriding is big in North Carolina. Carolina Cowboys Head Coach Jerome Davis, of Archdale, won a world championship in 1995, three years before a throw from a bull paralyzed him from the chest down. He coaches the team froma wheelchair.
More than a few of the PBR team riders are from the Old North State, including Ezekiel Mitchell of the Austin Gamblers, who lives in Winston-Salem, and Eli Vastbinder, closer for the Oklahoma Freedom, from Statesville.
And bullriding scenes from the 2015 film The Longest Ride, adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, were shot right here in the LJVM.
For the event, the Joel has been transformed. Out in the parking lot, a Cowboy Days festival coincides with the Carolina Classic Fair, happening at another section of the fairgrounds. The concession ring is lined with sponsors: Bobcat, Cooper Tires, Boot Barn, Kubota Farm Equipment, US Border Security Patrol.
A fat layer of red dirt covers the floor of the arena, with a pyrotechnic stage set in the middle. A VIP section, where Carolina Cowboys Owner Richard Childress entertains his guests, runs along one side, and a podium for the TV announcers sits at the far end.
In its first season, the PBR Team Series is already huge. By Saturday night the place is sold out, seats filled with hip-hugging bluejeans and Daisy Dukes, white cowboy hats and plaid shirts with the sleeves cut off.
That night, the second of competition, the home-team Cowboys harnessed that energy to climb to First Place in the standings with strong rides from Cooper Davis, Madison Taylor and a stunning 87.75 score from Daylon Swearingen atop a bull named Jailhouse Cat at the close to defeat the Ridge Riders 256.5 to 169.5, capping off a 6-game winning streak.
Sunday afternoon’s competition did not go as well for the Carolina Cowboys.
In the first round of their match against the Nashville Stampede, Iceman bested the Cowboys’ Davis by just .75 points. After an 84.5-point reride by Swearingen, again atop Jailhouse Cat, failed to cover the spread, the Cowboys lost by just 1.5 points, 259.25 to 257.75.
The home team rallied in the Bonus Round, however, scoring the maximum 8 points after Taylor rode Duke the bull for an 89.75-point score.
It was enough to put them in sole possession of First Place in the PBR rankings before next week’s matches in Oklahoma City, then events in Ridgedale, Mo.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Glendale, Ariz. before the championships in Las Vegas begin on Nov. 4.
This makes the Carolina Cowboys the best professional sports team in the state right now, and Daylon Swearingen, still No. 1 in the PBR rankings, its greatest athlete. So far this year he’s earned more than $1.5 million, eight seconds at a time.
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