GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It takes someone a little different, a little on the edge to physically tie themselves to a beast.
Welcome to the world of the Professional Championship Bullriders tour, which bursts into town at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9-10 at Van Andel Arena. It’s the excitement of the original extreme sport and the danger of man vs. beast – men have died trying to tame wild bucking bulls.
“There is something about the danger that draws people to our sport,” said Robert Sauber, a former bull rider who runs the PCB. “They may not want to see anyone get hurt, but people want to say they were there when the wreck happened. Yet, there’s something beautiful when it all comes out right.”
John Braska knows that well. While some of the top bull riders in the circuit will be making their way to western Michigan, Braska will serve as a welcoming party, of sorts. The Grand Rapids cowboy hopes to keep the title here at home – tickets are on sale now at the arena or through Ticketmaster.
“I’ve had some unspeakable injuries,” said Braska, 26. “One of the toughest was when I broke my jaw. I got plates on both sides of my jaw, screws. It was pretty rough, and I had to eat oatmeal for six weeks.
“But in this sport, you’ve got to keep riding unless both legs and both arms are broke. It’s a job, and the only way you get paid is to ride your bulls, whether you’re hurt or not.”
It’s the put-up-or-shut-up nature of the sport, where there are no guarantees. In fact, contestants must pay a fee in order to compete, and that money goes into the prize pool. If a cowboy bucks off or fails score high enough to be among the leaders, he is out the entry fee and his expenses getting to the event. The cowboy with the best overall score wins the lion’s share of the prize money, and Braska would like to keep that cash in Grand Rapids.
“Yes, there’s a lot of pressure in competing in my hometown,” said Braska, who began riding calves when he was 7 and has been one of the best in the circuit for several years.
Braska got his start after watching his older sister ride during 4H rodeos. The youngest of a large clan, he expects a large crowd to be in his corner inside Van Andel Arena.
“My whole family will be there, and I’m not going to get thrown off,” he said. “I’m sitting second in the PCB, and I’m going to try to win the whole thing this year. I’ve been in the top five for three straight years.”
The field will include some of the stalwarts of the game, including another PCB finalist in B.J. Carter of St. Cloud, Fla. Carter won the association’s 2008 finals that took place in Chicago, and he’s anxious to prove it’s no fluke.
“I started riding calves when I was 6 years old,” said Carter, 26. “I started taking bull riding serious when I was 10.”
Bull riding is serious business. There’s no way a person can engage a fierce animal like a bull without taking note of the dangers involved. Men have died trying to tame wild beasts, and riding bucking bulls is no different.
“I do this because I love it,” he said. “This is who I am.”
So what can fans expect? There will be plenty of thrills and a ton of high-paced excitement each time the chute gate opens. There’s a rush of anticipation, whether it’s fan, cowboy or bull.
“The first time you ride a bull, you can’t remember anything,” Braska said. “There’s so much adrenaline and it goes so fast that it overwhelms you. I’ve been doing this so long that I rely on my memory muscle and my ability. You don’t really have time to think about things. You just try to make moves with the animal.”
Some bull riders do their homework on the animals that are selected for them in a random draw. They’ll ask about size, speed and which way their bull might spin. They’ll ask about kicks and belly-rolls and other tricks that the nasty bovines have been known to throw at their would-be jockeys. It’s all in an effort to gain any sort of an advantage.
But Braska has a different approach.
“Some guys let the nerves get to them, but I don’t even thing about riding bulls until my hand’s tied in there and I’m ready to nod my head,” he said.
The Professional Championship Bullriders is also in the blood of Rob Smets, one of the best-known bullfighters to ever look a bull in the eyes and step away while protecting fallen bull riders from the dangers of the sport. Now retired from active bullfighting, he serves as the color analyst during the performances, working closely with veteran announcer Roger Mooney – who, three times, has been selected to work the National Finals Rodeo.
Funnyman “Radical” Ryan Rodriguez, who has worked some of the biggest events in the sport, from Calgary to Denver to Las Vegas, and Joe Garretson, the 2008 PCB Bullfighter of the Year, is scheduled to be part of the action. Not only does he bring a history of terrific cowboy protection to the table, but he also adds to the excitement of the performance, just like the wonderful women of barrel racing, who jockey their athletic animals around the cloverleaf barrel pattern in mind-bending speeds.
“Last year I got on a bunch of good bulls and rode good,” Carter said. “I know I need to do that again if I want to win the title again. Those events are top of the line, and a lot of guys out there feel the same way I do.”