Slumped against a wall inside the medical trailer, J.W. Harris wriggled dirt-stained jeans up his wiry legs — messes of hair, fleshy raspberries and tattered medical tape.
To his left on a bench, a bullfighter fastened the buckles on two clunky knee braces. At the opposite end of the dimly lit, close-doored trailer a bald trainer with a perspiring scalp uncoiled an Ace bandage.
It was 30 minutes before night three of the Kitsap County Stampede, which culminated Sunday with the ESPN-televised Xtreme Bulls competition in which Harris competed.
For the cowboys getting taped up, it was a routine.
“I guess my worst injury was (when) I had a bull crush the left side of my face last year in San Antonio,” Harris shrugged as hooting fans and groaning livestock filed into the adjacent Thunderbird Arena. “They had to put plates and screws and all kinds of good stuff in there.”
A champion is born
The product of a rodeo family, Harris first sat on a bull at the age of 4.
He joined the professional ranks in 2005, scraping by on meager winnings, and became the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion in January with a first-place finish at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The 23-year-old, a native of May, Texas, successfully rode six of 10 bulls to earn 507 points, leapfrog season-long points leader Chance Smart in the world standings and secure a championship purse of $96,364.
It was, he said, a “dream come true.”
But like the highways on which Harris has traveled, the road to the top wasn’t always straight.
He dabbled in both saddle bronc and bareback riding and remembers, as an 18-year-old, getting frustrated each time he was bucked off, throwing things and kick himself.
“I told myself, you know, if I put that much effort into riding (bulls), I’d probably never get thrown off,” he said.
In time, Harris learned to “take hits” and manage his emotions. Nerves were never an issue — “I never really get nervous about riding in front of people” — so becoming a world-class bull rider was a matter of repetition and practice.
It was a 96-point ride on the bull Werewolf at the Xtreme Bulls competition in Reno, Nev., in 2006 that catapulted Harris into the limelight.
“It becomes second nature; you don’t have to think about it to do it, you just do it,” Harris said. “It’s just a reaction to what’s going on out there.”
Life on the rodeo rode (bold)
Harris currently leads the 2009 PRCA world bull riding standings with $162,186 in earnings, according to www.prorodeo.com, and finished his world championship 2008 with $208,437.
He also hauled in $2,503 in the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour portion of last weekend’s Stampede. (Xtreme Bulls points count toward NFR qualifying, while Wrangler Million Dollar points count toward the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha, Neb.).
Yet Harris said the best part about bull riding isn’t the money, but rather life on the road with “the guys.”
“They are your extended family,” he said. “They are your best friends; you can count on them for anything.”
Rodeo takes Harris to all corners of the country.
The Wrangler Tour includes visits to Arizona, California, Oregon and Colorado and the Xtreme Bulls tour, which concludes this weekend in Ellensburg, stops in Texas, South Dakota, Nevada and Wyoming to go with Washington.
“You’re on the road more than you’re at home,” Harris said. “And whenever you are home, you’re having to work to make up for the days you’re gone.”
Most of Harris’ travels are overland in truck and trailer, meaning he has plenty of time to build camaraderie with his cowboy counterparts while also seeing places he otherwise wouldn’t visit. He meets fans, other cowboys and the rodeo committee members who coordinate the events in which he competes.
Harris has competed in the Stampede every year since 2006.
“This one, it’s more of a laid-back rodeo for me because the people are so good to us,” Harris said. “They try to make you feel as close to home as possible. They feed you three times a day, you get massages and haircuts, they’re just great people. It’s a great rodeo.”
On the bull (bold)
The recipe for a quality bull ride is simple, at least for Harris.
“Just keep your hand in the rope for eight seconds,” he said. “That’s the basic thing; just ride everything you get on.”
On the day of a big ride, Harris does nothing different than he would on any other day. He sleeps in, eats whatever he desires and gets dressed an hour before the rodeo begins. The cowboy has no superstitions, nor does he allow himself to get too amped prior to a ride.
“I don’t do anything special,” he said. “Shoot, we (bull riders) show up an hour before the rodeo.”
A level-headed approach is important because one successful ride doesn’t guarantee another. Harris compared riding a bull to playing football in that both running backs and bull riders must avoid “tunnel vision” while wearing helmets.
To qualify for a score, a bull rider must hang on for eight seconds.
“You gotta be able to see out the side of your helmet,” Harris said. “You just do it … You’re having to work the whole time, but you’re not really thinking about it.”
Riders mount the bulls in a closed chute, which is yanked open after the rider indicates he’s ready. The cowboy-bull duo then fly onto the arena floor.
For champions, the dance lasts eight seconds.