Awarded Best Student Magazine in the Country by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021!

Bull Ridin’ Jus’ Ain’t What It Used to Be

The former world champion L.J. Jenkins was there. So was Ryan Dirteater, who’d won the tournament two weeks earlier in Wichita, along with a cadre of talented Brazilians, including this year’s favorite for the championship, a 23-year-old from Pilar do Sul, São Paulo, named Silvano Alves. The best in the world were buckin’ bulls in downtown Hartford. You had to think they were in the wrong city, and possibly the wrong century. Ain’t no cowboys in these parts, someone should have warned the organizers of the Professional Bull Riders, which is the major league of bull riding and the governing body for what may be this country’s newest spectator sport.

Douglas Duncan
Douglas Duncan held onto Chocolate Thunder to take second place in the championship round at Hartford.

I arrived in Hartford on a Friday night. On my way to the XL Civic Center, I drove past clubs, bars, and darkened office buildings, and—inexplicably—small crowds of cowboys and cowgirls of all ages wearing denim and plaid and boots. The scene outside the city’s virtuous Old Statehouse was a foreigner’s confused vision of America: cowboy hats leaning together and proud, colonial brick.

I gradually realized few of them were anything like “real cowboys”—whatever that meant—and that was disappointing, because I had come to Hartford with the intention of meeting one. I was looking for someone who appeared more comfortable on an animal’s back than on his own two feet, with a leathery face and a lean jaw and an intense, flat gaze, like you might use to stare down a bull. I had come out of curiosity. You see, I’m one of that rare species of troglodyte that Flint Rasmussen, the Bull Riders’ clown, kept calling “city people.” (“People are staring at me—city people,” he told the audience. The crowd at the Civic Center had just dressed up for the night. They were city people too.) I felt that after having lived here for twenty-one years, it was time to learn what America was really all about.

Yet although someone says something politically incorrect and vaguely offensive into the arena’s microphone about once a night, I discovered bull riding shows are for the most part designed to appeal to people like me as well, not only to true Americans. The prayer that’s repeated before the bull riding begins each night noticeably avoids the words “Jesus” and “Christ.”

I caught Rasmussen shortly after he had officially declared his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election. He had aimed a pair of political jokes right and left—following a line about joining the other clowns in the presidential race with “I don’t have time to occupy Wall Street, because I have a job”—but he told me he almost always avoids political comedy. “These people pay money to come and sit for two and a half hours where they’re not watching the news,” he said.

The Professional Bull Riders have changed the sport, and if I had gone looking for a genuine hick good time, I wasn’t going to find one. The organization is building a national television audience, and bull riding is becoming corporate and mainstream. As Jeff Robinson joked, “We’re not just redneck-based oriented anymore.” Robinson is one of the country’s major stock contractors. That is, he owns thirty-five of the bulls who were in Hartford, including Stanley FatMax, a bull named after the hardware brand, and New Britain – 1843, named for the town and year in which Stanley was founded. Several of the wildest, most powerful bulls in the world are also his, including I’m a Gangster and Chicken on a Chain, who would be bucking in the World Finals in Las Vegas at the end of October.

There would be only one more stop on the riders’ tour before they went to Las Vegas. It was a last opportunity for some of them to qualify for the championship, so the stakes were high.

Of course, it is a gross oversimplification to say that this country is split into city people and cattle people and they never talk to each other. I myself have had several experiences with the other kind of American.

There was, for example, that one fellow, my friend’s cousin’s husband, a retired engineer whom I met at a dinner party in Knights Landing, California. If you haven’t heard of Knights Landing, that’s because it’s not much more than a plot of houses amid other plots of rice, tomatoes, and sunflowers the same size and shape. The engineer was a short man with pale blue eyes whose hobby was racing automobiles and who spoke in deliberate, exact sentences. “I like Bill O’Reilly,” he told me. “I think he calls a spade a spade.” I really wanted to ask him about politics because he seemed like an intelligent man with strong opinions and a point of view unfamiliar to me. We stayed away from the subject, though. It seemed in the past he’d had heated disagreements with his father-in-law, who was sitting at the head of the table and telling stories about immigrating from Mexico as a young man, becoming a farm operator, and harvesting more than fifty thousand tons of processing tomatoes in one bumper year. America meant very different things to those two men. Besides, the engineer’s mother-in-law kept serving me more of her enchiladas.

Then there was the woman who spent many months trying to get my grandpa to marry her. The relationship finally ended earlier this year. “She thought Jesus wouldn’t like her,” my grandpa said. “But people need companionship, and I think He would understand that.” Getting married didn’t make sense to him, though, because nothing of that kind was going to happen anyway. I have always wished I could share my grandpa’s magnetism, but I’ve at last come to admit that at 94, he is the handsomer man by far.

I called my grandpa the morning I left New Haven for Hartford. “Whatever you do, don’t get on a bull’s back,” he warned.

“I wouldn’t ever have thought of it if you hadn’t suggested it,” I said.

At the back entrance to the Civic Center in Hartford, I met a pair of technicians. One of them had twirled the ends of his impressive moustache. The other looked me up and down and said, “If you came to work this show, you’re definitely overdressed.” I had thrown on a pair of jeans and my blue blazer because—well, obviously, the corduroy one would have been out of place. As it turns out, the blazer and jeans is a good strategy if you’re going to watch bull riding. It’s what the announcers and officials wear who aren’t cowboys. What gave me away was the necktie.

I explained that I was there to report on the event. “Don’t speak to this man; he’s from the evil news media!” the technician joked to his partner. This might be a difficult weekend, I thought then, but as it turned out, everyone involved with the bull riding seemed happy to have me hanging around. A moment later my phone vibrated. It was Jack Carnefix, the Professional Bull Riders’ affable press officer. I excused myself and met Carnefix in the bowels of the Civic Center, where he explained what bull riding is all about.

“First thing, nothing’s tied around the bull’s balls. That’s the most common question,” he said. A rope called a flank strap is tied around the bull’s waist to encourage him to buck harder. It’s an annoyance to the animal, who will try to kick it off with his hind legs. Another rope, the bull rope, is wrapped tightly around the bull’s shoulders and over the rider’s palm.

The rider must keep his grip on the bull rope with his other hand free for eight seconds. If he isn’t thrown before then, the ride qualifies, and the rider is awarded a score out of a hundred points by four judges who consider whether the rider appears in control and how hard the bull is bucking. A decent score is between eighty and ninety points; scores above ninety points are rare.

Besides the rider, there would be several others in the arena. The three bullfighters would protect the riders after they’d been thrown by distracting the bulls. “If you’re a rider, and you get thrown, first you got to figure out which way is up. Then you’re running for the nearest fence,” Carnefix said. There would also be a mounted cowboy, who would lasso a bull if the animal couldn’t find the exit after throwing his rider. Presidential hopeful Rasmussen would also be present.

Rasmussen (it is not a pseudonym) is officially an “entertainer,” not a rodeo clown, because the Professional Bull Riders don’t organize rodeos, and they’re very sensitive about the distinction. At a rodeo, you’ll also see steer wrestling, cutting shows, saddle- and bareback-bronco bucking, and barrel racing, among other competitions. “Whatever you do, don’t call us a rodeo,” Carnefix told me later.

But before I saw any of these people, the lights in the Civic Center went down, and a movie about the United States Air Force was played for the audience on several large screens. The Air Force is a sponsor of the Professional Bull Riders, and the gist of the movie was that the two organizations share a set of American values as old and as sacred as the Constitution itself. After the film, a squadron of about twenty Air Force recruits marched into the arena in three columns to swear their oaths of service publicly and to promise to defend those values. They wore blue jeans and blue Air Force T-shirts and looked very young. I felt bad for the recruit on the corner of the phalanx nearest me, who stepped off on his right foot and stumbled.

“Ladies and gentlemen: 365 days a year, 24/7, may it be here, or may it be abroad, they’re men and they’re women that protect and defend these United States of America,” as one of the announcers described the Air Force later, emphasizing these. “I think it is our American duty to tell them from the bottom of our hearts how much we appreciate what they do for our country.” The audience didn’t need the encouragement, though. They’d interrupted Lt. Col. Horst Knorreck of the 319th Recruiting Squadron with spontaneous applause during his speech before the swearing-in.

Several minutes later, there was a series of loud explosions and heat on my face: Carnefix had positioned me underneath a set of four flamethrowers that were shooting columns of fire to a height of around twenty-five feet. Flashes of magnesium lit up the Civic Center, and the letters “PBR” burned in propane on the dirt floor of the arena. The announcers introduced the cowboys, who ran out of the gate, tipping their hats to the audience. The current top five riders stood akimbo on platforms above the arena. Over their heads, beams of light crisscrossed through the smoke and more stuff blew up. The ecumenical prayer was said (“We don’t only ask it of you of our cowboys, we ask it of you of our livestock as well”), and the 319th Recruiting Squadron Honor Guard presented the colors.

The National Anthem was followed by the Party Rock Anthem as the lights came on again. I had expected, even hoped for ostentatious displays of patriotism, but I was so surprised to learn that everybody’s shuffuhlin’-shuffuhlin’, including the toughest cowboys in the world and their fans, that I missed the first ride: Mike Lee, the former world champion from Decatur, on a bull named Get Back, for eighty-five points. It was a mighty fine way to start a weekend of bull ridin’.

It turned out there were several reasons for the Professional Bull Riders’ presence in Hartford, the group’s first visit to the city in their nineteen-year history. The riders have stopped at Mohegan Sun, the casino in Uncasville, for the past several years. This year, there was a scheduling conflict at Mohegan Sun’s arena with the state’s Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Connecticut Sun, who took priority. As to why the cowboys were in the state in the first place, Carnefix explained it was part of a vision of building a national audience for the sport. The organization couldn’t just hold events in Texas and Oklahoma. “We want California. We want Connecticut,” Carnefix said.

That vision seems to belong mostly to Ty Murray, one of the twenty bull riders who left the rodeo circuit in 1992 to establish the Professional Bull Riders. (“Ty wants to make this a mainstream sport. And really all of us do,” Robinson told me.) Murray has won the world championship nine times, and he gave television commentary in Hartford. “I want to see it where it’s on ESPN every week, just like the other sports,” he told me, adding later, “I want to see it grow as much as possible. Whenever we go after something, we try not to limit ourselves. We set our goals pretty big.”

Before the Professional Bull Riders, Murray told me, riders competed in  “a lot of stand-alone, one-off things that different promoters would do. They ranged from big and good to little and crappy.” His organization has succeeded in making the sport “followable,” he said. “Football wouldn’t be that big if it was just some random game and you didn’t know anything about it every Sunday.”

The New York private equity firm Spire Capital bought a majority share of the Professional Bull Riders in 2007 for an undisclosed amount. The same year, the cowboys traveled to New York for the first time. Bull riding at Madison Square Garden was sold out, Murray remembers. “We were really adamant about going to places like Boston and New York City. When we sold out Madison Square Garden, it dispelled the myth that it was a Western sport.”

Today, the Professional Bull Riders estimate their international television audience at 100 million. The events are broadcast in eighty-five countries. Not only has the audience for bull riding grown, it has broadened as well. “When you look at the crowd at a PBR event compared to a more traditional rodeo event, you see a more diverse crowd. You see young people, you see every race, creed, and color,” Murray said. “It’s not your traditional everybody’s-in-jeans-and-hats-and-boots.”

The field is wider, too. Some of the riders are city boys, including many who had never ridden until their late teens. Then there are the Brazilians, who held five of the top six spots in the overall standings during the Hartford tournament. “The Brazilian contingent goes stronger every year,” Murray said. Many of the Brazilians don’t speak English, and when a bull’s name is lost in translation before a round, it’s funny to see the world’s best riders looking confused in the middle of the arena. Brazil has always been strong—Adriano Moraes, who won the first world championship in 1994, is Brazilian. But, Murray said, “They dominated this year like no other.”

Yet Murray left me with the impression that his dreams had less to do with audience numbers, much less advertising revenue, than with seeing bull riders get the respect they deserve. Though there’s more money in the sport now than there used to be, the athletes’ earnings remain comparatively modest. The top bull riders earn about $1.5 million a year in “on-bull earnings,” or prize money, excluding sponsorships. The riders aren’t employed, and if they can’t hang onto a bull for at least eight seconds all weekend, they’re paid only a nominal four hundred dollars to cover the expense of traveling to the tournament. Their independence and low pay is a point of pride—Rasmussen made a joke the first night about Alex Rodriguez’s $32 million salary after the Yankee shortstop left men stranded in the last game of his team’s season, which they lost to Detroit. But as a friend of mine who is a lawyer pointed out, serious injuries are so common among bull riders that employing them would probably be prohibitively expensive.

Over the weekend in Hartford, Harve Stewart tore his ACL, the bull Angry Bird stepped on Pistol Robinson’s left arm, and the Brazilian Rubens Barbosa strained his neck when King Lopez threw him off headfirst. Barbosa was wearing a helmet and avoided a concussion, but many of the riders still insist on cowboy hats.

Toughness, after all, is the cardinal virtue of the Professional Bull Riders. Their tour is officially the “Built Ford Tough Series,” the sport is nicknamed “The Toughest Sport on Earth,” and the seats over the chutes where the bulls and riders enter the arena are “The Toughest Seats on Earth.” Rasmussen joked about the pampering football players receive after minor injuries. Demonstrating how a cowboy treats a hurt elbow, he picked up a handful of dirt from the arena floor and rubbed it on his forearm.

It’s “ludicrous,” Murray told me, that bull riders aren’t seriously considered for the ESPY’s, ESPN’s annual awards for athletic performance. “Those are the kinds of things that drive me insane,” he said. “If you claim to know anything about sports and athleticism, there’s no way that you could not give our sport five minutes and not see that it takes an incredible amount of athleticism, physically speaking, and that it also takes an incredible amount of athleticism, mentally speaking.”

That the ESPY’s include a “Best Driver” and a “Best Bowler” category does seem unfair to bull riders. Yet if Murray wants his sport to be taken seriously, you couldn’t avoid feeling he still has some work to do. There was the fact that the cowboys had been pushed out of the Mohegan Sun by a women’s basketball team—which was purely a contractual matter and had nothing to do with whose sport was tougher, but which was still a little bit embarrassing. Carnefix, the press officer at the event, was in a good mood because ESPN, which is headquartered in Bristol, had sent a few folks to check out the tournament. The group included anchors Mike Hill and Michelle Beadle. “We kept coming to Connecticut because we were trying to get ESPN to notice,” he joked, expressing frustration at how little attention bull riders receive from sports media. “It took us eight times.” I wasn’t sure if Carnefix knew that the network had also sent a humor writer.

Cord McCoy tamped the dirt with the toe of his cowboy boot and waved to Randy Spraggins. “You see that? We’re talkin’ ’bout nice. It’s not always like that,” McCoy said. Spraggins and his crew had hauled 750 tons of dirt to the Civic Center for the event, spreading it eight inches thick over the arena floor. The bottom five inches were packed tightly, but the top three were loose. Making sure the dirt had the right density and moisture content was Spraggins’s responsibility. “I have a really good source for this dirt,” he told me.

The first night of bull riding had just concluded. Alves, the favorite, had ridden last, holding onto a rookie bull of Jeff Robinson’s named Riggin Slinger past the eight-second buzzer. Only one rider had ever scored on Slinger before Alves. But his score wasn’t high enough to beat Luke Snyder’s 87¾-point ride earlier, and the night ended with Snyder in the lead. McCoy hadn’t had a bad night either—he’d ridden a bull named Country Boy for 84¾ points before jumping onto the dirt. “It’s got some cushion,” he said. The stuff may have been soft, but it had held up under the weight of forty bulls that night.

The bulls, I found, are the ones who make bull riding worth watching. They’re agile and fluid, whipping their hindquarters into the air and around in a circle with all the ease of a puppy chasing her tail. They know where their riders are sitting. “Some of the bulls—I feel like they’re trying to set you up,” McCoy said. One jump will imbalance the rider, and the next is meant to buck him off.

When the rider is on the ground, the bull will usually trot obligingly through the gate out of the arena—as if to say, “It’s nothing personal”—but sometimes he’ll lower for the rider or for one of the bullfighters. It’s animal instinct, Robinson explained to me, and it seems that once everybody jumps on the fence, the bull, having demonstrated his physical superiority and territorial dominance, will calm down and leave. If he doesn’t seem to know where to go, that’s when the cowboy on horseback, the “safety man,” will rope him and pull him away.

There’s a lot of downtime in bull riding. Each rider has to settle himself on his bull in the chute, a narrow pen exactly the dimensions of a bull that opens from the side into the arena. One of the rider’s competitors pulls hard on the bull rope to tighten it, while another steadies the rider, holding his shoulders. “You and the bull know what’s fixin’ to happen. You’re thinking about what you need to do,” McCoy said. Only after the rider has wrapped the bull rope over his palm and nodded to signal he’s ready will the gate open. If the bull won’t hold still, the process can take several minutes.

Filling those minutes is mostly Rasmussen’s responsibility. He wears a cowboy hat, basketball shorts, a Cooper Tires jersey, athletic shoes, and clown make-up, and his shtick is that he can dance to any song you’ve ever heard. In one four-minute segment, he danced to everything from Elvis Presley to Flo Rida’s “Low” featuring T. Pain, including Michael Jackson and The Sound of Music. Rasmussen, who is forty-three and balding and shaves his legs, can do a particularly convincing impression of Beyoncé. His “Single Ladies” routine is always a crowd-pleaser. After a few of his more suggestive moves, an announcer commented, “Dads, take your kids fishing when you have a chance, or they’ll turn out like him.”

I had prepared myself for more country music than I heard over the weekend in Hartford. Rasmussen’s repertoire is simply too wide for a single genre to encompass.

“When you saw bull riding, maybe you thought there’d be cowboys in town who walk like this,” he told us, slouching and bowing his legs out, “sit on the fence, and say, ‘Yee-haw!’ ” If so, we were mistaken. “We’d like to have a little fun—play some tunes, do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight!”

If anyone were to shout “Yee-haw!” I would have expected it to be McCoy. When it comes to cowboys, the 31-year-old rider from Tupelo, Oklahoma is the genuine article. He rode his first calf when he was 5. I asked him how to tell a real cowboy from a city slicker who’d just dressed up for the show. “The thing is, the bulls don’t care what you wear. You could ride one like that,” he said, indicating my necktie.

That night, McCoy and his three roommates sat down in a Denny’s to talk about the bulls they’d drawn for the next day, figurin’ how best to ride ’em. McCoy would be on an animal named Flashpoint. “He looks like a really good draw. He’s honest; he has no tricks,” McCoy told me. Then they headed back to their room at the Hartford Marriott for a good night’s sleep.

The bulls, meanwhile, were spending the night at Crowley’s Stables, just over the state line in Agawam, Massachusetts. “We’re staying at the Hotel Marriott because we couldn’t get into Crowley’s Stables,” Carnefix said. You could tell it was a joke he’d used many times, but it was still funny.

I drove up to Agawam the next day after lunch to meet Jeff Robinson, the stock contractor. (“It’s a hot item, bull semen,” McCoy said, adding that Robinson is “the producer of the year. He’s kind of cornered the market, if you know what I mean. He’s got it cornered, or froze. He’s got the market froze.”) After having heard a rumor or two, I wanted to hear the true story of how Robinson’s bull Chicken on a Chain got his name. Chicken on a Chain is a popular animal who has been bucking riders since 2005, even though the career of a typical bull lasts only two years before he is put out to stud. Chicken on a Chain has just over 3,700 fans on Facebook, and Robinson told me he receives a couple dozen emails a week asking about him.

Robinson, with his deadpan cowboy sarcasm, has a keen appreciation for the ironies of what was originally a predominantly rural sport. “We don’t fight chickens or dogs where I’m from,” he told me. He is also the kind of stock contractor who enjoys messing with you. For example, after I told him I was a Yale student, he convinced me, briefly, that Rasmussen was a Harvard alumnus. More than one reporter asked Robinson over the weekend how many bulls he owned. “Oh, several,” he’d say. (Robinson operates three trucks that carry around a hundred bucking bulls to events around the country, and there are more animals at his ranch in Mars Hill, North Carolina.)

At Crowley’s Stables, Carnefix and I had been joking about my prospects as a bull rider. “We got some guys that will teach you. You’re not too young to learn,” Carnefix had said. Carnefix mentioned this post-graduate plan to Robinson. “You’re the right size,” he told me.
I asked Robinson what a good size for a bull rider is. (I am 5-foot-9.)

“ ’Bout your size,” he said.

We stood around watching the bulls leave their temporary pens and trot up into the trailers in which they’d ride down to Hartford. Eventually, I asked Robinson about Chicken on a Chain. He’d bought the bull on a farm somewhere in north Georgia.

“It was kind of creepy,” Robinson began. “It was a junky, junky set-up.” A boy about ten years old met him. “His teeth were all rotten, and he looked he was on meth. He said, ‘Hey mister! You come to get this motherfucker?’” Robinson looked at the bull, a huge animal even by bovine standards. “He’s the meanest Goddamn bitch you ever seen,” the boy said, “and his name’s Chicken on a Chain.” Robinson asked for an explanation, and the boy obliged, continuing in the same vein. “That cocksucker got into my daddy’s fightin’ roosters,” the boy began, indicating a hillside behind him, where Robinson saw a number of roosters tethered on short chains. Apparently the bull had got a prize cock’s chain tangled in his hind feet and drug the animal around the farm, and that was how he got his name.

“That’s the last time I been to north Georgia,” concluded Robinson. Turns out some folks are too redneck even for the country’s biggest producer of bull semen.

I made no effort to determine whether Robinson’s story was true.

Tickets for two decent seats for the weekend came to six hundred dollars, but money was no object for the devoted bull riding fans of New England and New York. Georgina Vitarius, the organizer of the Professional Bull Riders Bronx Fan Club, led a group of about ten fans to Hartford. The Bronx group is “mostly single women, sitting in their rooms screaming,” she said. “This way, you can scream together. You don’t feel so alone.”

Vitarius met Cori Bielecki in Hartford, and by Sunday, the two had become fast friends. Bielecki, a lissom 31-year-old horsewoman and vegetable farmer from Nantucket, is one of the riders’ favorite fans. She spends a lot of time with them during the tour, and had run an errand to Walmart that morning to pick up a couple of tanks of propane for the show’s opening pyrotechnics. Her cowboy boots are covered with the riders’ autographs.

“They were drunk as skunks last night,” she told me. She’d been out with them until 5 a.m. as the cowboys drank, flirted, and ordered pizzas. “The girls are flocking… They’re just living the little rock-star lives that they’ve built for their little bull-buckin’ selves,” she said.

(McCoy, who wears his wedding ring when he rides, was not among the group. “I like to think that most of the guys are here for business,” he told me. If that’s not always true of the Americans, it is of the Brazilians. “One word—dedication,” McCoy said when I asked him about their rides this year. “They come a long ways with one goal in mind.” Many of the Brazilian riders send their winnings home to families who can’t support themselves otherwise.)

The fact that the riders spend time with their fans—at the very least, to sign autographs, take photos, and shoot the breeze through the fence after a night of bull riding—is an important part of bull riding’s appeal. “That’s what makes this sport great,” said Chuck McCoy, an appliance repairman from Bridgeport, New York, who isn’t related to the rider. As bull riding grows more popular, though, it’s inevitably losing some of its intimacy.

Chuck McCoy came for the weekend with his wife Doreen, who has an album filled with autographed photos of herself with bull riders, and they would be traveling to Las Vegas at the end of the month for the championships.

The McCoys have been bull riding fans for about eight years. When the tour came to Mohegan Sun last year, the bullfighters, who are officially the Dickies DuraBullFighters and who are also Built Ford Tough, were sent to a hardware store in the small town of Colchester, Connecticut to meet fans and advertise Dickies jeans. Even though Colchester is half an hour away from the casino in Uncasville, the McCoys followed them.

“No one knew who they were,” Chuck said. “People were going in there, buying garden supplies, their pet food. Nobody was there.” Doreen wrote a letter to Dickies, letting them know the McCoys felt the company had gone too far. Everyone involved in bull riding is expected to be accessible to their fans.

The McCoys weren’t the only ones nervous about the sport’s future. “It’s going to get further and further away from the fan-rider relationship,” said Pete Archibald, a retired well-driller from Lyndeborough, New Hampshire. “It’ll be like NASCAR, where you can’t even get near them.”

The comparison between the Professional Bull Riders and the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing is often drawn in the press, and Carnefix himself had mentioned NASCAR earlier in the weekend. Though the sport is now receiving more airtime, not too long ago, sports shows’ highlight sequences only included wrecks and drivers with comical names. In the same way, Carnefix explained, sports shows feature bull riding only when a bull picks up a rider on his horns and tosses him, especially if the rider has a name like Ryan Dirteater.

I asked Murray if he thought that bull riding could continue to expand without straining the riders’ relationships to their fans. “I think it’s tough. I think it’s a balancing act,” he answered. The former world champion keeps his own personal cell phone number private. “People are looking back to when there were fifty people that wanted to meet the guy. Now there are fifty thousand that want to meet the guy. It just gets harder.” But, he concluded, “We’re still far and away the most fan-friendly and accessible sport.”

That may be true, and the bull riders’ fans will remain wildly loyal no matter what. It’s also true that bull ridin’ jus’ ain’t what it used to be. “Years ago, we were one big family,” Chuck McCoy told me. “Now, you have to kiss ass and get down in the dirt just to talk to the real cowboys.”

Saturday night, the riders gathered in a concrete-floored room of the Civic Center basement, big enough to drive a truck through, to draft their bulls for the third and final day of riding. At traditional rodeos, the riders draw their bulls out of a hat, but the Professional Bull Riders introduced the draft to add an element of strategy to the sport.

The cowboys sat around several small round tables with computer printouts and markers. The Brazilians had a table in the corner.

“Dirteater couldn’t get out on him,” I heard one cowboy saying to another.

“Dirteater couldn’t, but you could get out on him,” the other said.

“I’m not even gonna try.”

Fabiano Vieira, a rookie from Brazil, was the only rider to have qualified on all three bulls he’d ridden in the first two days of the tournament. He had the first pick, and he chose a bull named Hannibal.

Tight Rope was the next bull, Luke Snyder’s pick.

Then Slim To None, Exotic Justin, Tornado Alley.

“L.J., which one? Did you say Tornado Alley?”

Flashpoint had bucked off Cord McCoy that night, and another rider picked the bull McCoy had hoped to ride the next day. McCoy chose Real Legit on the advice of the guys who happened to be standing next to him at the time. “You shoot from the hip,” he said. He wouldn’t ride Real Legit either, and would finish the weekend with only four hundred dollars.

Vieira, on the other hand, would ride Hannibal the next day and another bull named Who Dat in the championship round to win the tournament. He’d had a perfect weekend, and left Hartford with just under forty thousand dollars.

I wasn’t going to leave the tournament with a check, nor were any of the other fans merging onto Interstate 91 that afternoon. I was lucky, though, to have talked to the real cowboys.

Photography: Andy Watson

More Stories
Yale Men in the Cabinet