Brendon Clark's worst injury as a professional bull rider happened when a near one-ton American Bucking Bull thumped his chest, resulting in a lacerated liver, bruised lung and broken ribs, which sounds horrible. Yet it seems far more tolerable than having to lug your melon-sized, black and blue, swollen genitals around for three weeks, which is what 11th ranked PBR athlete Jory Markiss had to do following his nastiest bull beating. You're cringing, fellas? You haven't heard the story about how it went down. Just wait.
"The injury happened in Stephenville, Texas, which is the Cowboy Capital of the World," Markiss says. "You have all the baddest bulls you've ever seen within a 10-mile radius in every single direction. I had a broken hand at the time, so I swapped hands. I got bucked off the first bull I rode. Then I got on this one-horned Bramer bull and he jerked me down on one hand, and then he popped me off him and up in the air. When I was falling to the ground, he caught me in between my legs by my left teste and threw me all the way back up in the air. I crash landed, but the adrenaline hit me so much that I got up and gave a shout to the crowd. As soon as I got behind the bull chutes my throat swelled up and I went to hurling."
Now you can cringe.
"It was like carrying around a cantaloupe wherever you go," Markiss (at right) says of the swelling. "You have to pick it up to be able to sit down. There's scar tissue and it's black and blue. I had to walk like a gunslinger because when you got a big balloon between your legs you can't stand straight. I didn't get back on a bull for three weeks."
Only three weeks? 'Never' would seem a fair amount of time for a normal man ... but the men of the PBR, or Professional Bull Riders, are not normal men, at least not in the occupational sense. They don't punch a clock or crank out lines of code or have three-way conference calls with quality assurance. No, the men of the PBR spend their working hours riding ornery, 2,000-pound biceps with four jackhammers on the bottom and two horns on top. And it's a little slice of heaven to guys like Markiss.
"I've been a country boy my whole life and rode horses and whatnot," he says. "When I was younger [he's 24 now], I saw a kid who was getting on the school bus every day with arm slings, crutches, black eyes, stitches ... I asked him what he did and he said he was learning to ride bulls. I was like, I want to do that. I was 15 at the time and got on some average 1,000- to 1,200-pound bulls. Just some solid angus bulls in the barn. As I got older, the bulls got bigger and when I turned 18, I decided I was going to be a professional bull rider like the guys on TV. So I sold grandpa's shotgun, took grandma's old Town Car and moved to Colorado to train."
The way you to train is simple: You get your ass kicked by bulls until you don't. The way you don't get your ass kicked is the complicated part.
"My first day of training, I went to a practice pen and got on about ten bulls and got the snot hooked out of me by every single one of them," Markiss says. "By the end, I couldn't feel my toes. Every inch of my body hurt. I got bucked all ten times that first day. I could barely close my hand on the last one, but I was passionate about it and I was determined to be the best."
Markiss is only three years into his bull riding career. Brendon Clark, after 11, is in his last.
Clark was born in Australia and started riding little calves when he was 6 years old. The calves were only about 300 pounds, but then again, at the time, Clark was only about 50 pounds. He worked his way up from there until he decided to move to Texas to try and compete with the best riders in the world on the PBR.
"When I first got here, I just wanted to get to the Built Ford Tough Series," he says. "Bull riding is just like any other sport. You know where the best are and where the highest level is. For us, the highest level is the PBR. Every young bull rider has the dream of being here."
By Clark's estimation there are about 400 bull riders starting to ride every year and only 35 get to travel on the PBR. Of course, the love of being a cowboy, the adrenaline rush, the crowds, the pyrotechnics and a passion for bull riding are all at the heart of why a man would choose this for a career, but the money isn't bad either -- if you're good. Each of the top ten riders of all time have earned more than $2.5 million in career winnings, with the current active leader, J.B. Mauney, racking up over $4.6 million in prize money.
Anybody can be a bull rider -- at least on paper. All you have to do is be 18 years old and purchase a PBR membership. Once you're a member, you'll receive a riding permit, and this permit will give you the ability to enter the Touring Pro Division. If you can stay on enough bulls to rack up $2,500 in prize money, you’ll be upgraded from permit status to cardholder status. From there, you can work your way up the standings until you earn a position on the Built Ford Tough Series, where Markiss and Clark both work.
"The goal for everyone is to be a world champion,” Clark says. “Once you get to this level, you find out pretty quickly that no matter how good you’re riding, things change pretty quickly. The bulls up here are a step up from anywhere you'll ever go. I've never seen any bulls as rank as the ones that are here and I’ve never seen guys that could ride this well."
Bull snot is glorious; it slingshots from bucking bovines’ noses like silly string. On some of the really good, high definition promotional stills of the bull rides, you can see it flinging through the air, several yards long, like paint heading to a Jackson Pollock canvas. The wide-splash radius of the mucous is a testament to the ferocity with which the bulls whip and torque their bodies around in an effort to rid themselves of the man riding them.
The bulls also have names that bring to mind WWE wrestlers and horse racing. The king of the mountain is Bushwacker, but name-wise, The Wreckoning, Warlord and Mr. Hyde are equally strong.
"The bulls definitely want to get you on the ground," Clark says. “When they're younger and haven't been ridden very much, they might start just by turning back to the left and staying to the left. As they get more experience and get ridden a few times, they start thinking about what they can do to get a guy on the ground, so they might change directions or they might jump forward and then go back."
The thundering violence on a good ride lasts eight seconds.
That's how long a cowboy has to stay on for his attempt to be scored by the judges, who rate both the bull and the rider. Cowboys are judged on how well they match a bull’s moves and by how well they maintain control of the ride. They aren’t allowed to touch anything with their free hand and they’re given points for style.
Bulls are judged on athleticism, which in this case means spins, direction changes, kicks in the back end, drops in the front, height of jumps and the sheer difficulty of the ride. In some ways, judging bull rides is very much like judging a dunk contest - it's not until you see the replay that you truly appreciate what you just saw.
“The bulls know where they're at and what they're doing," Clark says. “I know they obviously know something is different when they hear the crowd."
Clark says that most cowboys will watch video of a bull, if they get a chance to pick up tendencies of certain animals, but in the end, it’s a wild animal and it’s going to do what it damn well pleases.
“We watch to get an idea of what the bull might have done the time before,” Clark says. “If a bull almost does the same thing every time, like he always goes left, you get an idea of that. You can't pay too much attention to it."
But if video doesn't really help, what does? Or, put a better way, how the hell do you stay on top of a pissed off, one-ton beast intent on slamming you to the ground (while holding on with one hand)?
Here’s Jory Markiss with a quick primer on How to Stay on a Bull:
"Squeeze your chest and stick it out. This helps you stay level and parallel with the bull. That’s your sweet spot. Set your knees, your ankles and your hips. If you’re out of position during the ride, it's about readjusting, letting your legs go, hitting your rope again and staying small and in front of yourself."
Then again, while Markiss is a top rider, he says his face gets banged up on a regular basis.
"Usually just the left side, though," he says, laughing. "I've had my left eyebrow split open about a dozen times because I won't quit. I get hit with the bull head, the horns, the hump, the hip, all of it."
And if the bull doesn't get you, getting bucked will.
"It all depends on how you hit the ground," he says. "You might fall on your shoulder and pull a butt muscle. But the only way to get better is to get on, get on, and get on again. It's getting a feel for the ride and getting comfortable with it. It's controlling your adrenaline and learning to focus any fear you have in a positive way."
Like any other sport, the goal is to become a legend. Unlike any other sport, you're not only competing against your fellow man, but you're also taking on, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest creatures in the animal kingdom. Skill will only take you so far. Swagger will put you over the top. And that's something Jory Markiss and the rest of the men on the PBR have in spades.
"They remember a lot of the world champions, but they never forget the legends," Markiss says. "I came here to tame the baddest bulls there are, and that's the only real way to be remembered."
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.