SB Nation

Michael Graff | October 24, 2012

Man and bull

The story of paralyzed bull rider Jerome Davis

His legs once made him great. Every bull rider knows that the key to riding an animal whose sole purpose is to toss you straight to cowboy heaven is this: balance. And the key to balance is keeping your knees as close together as possible. But if you wobble, if you lose your balance, the emergency plan is to spur – to take the star on the heel of your boot, dig it into the thick hide, and hang on for your riding life with your legs.

Jerome Davis was able to do both simultaneously. He could keep his knees close together, almost tight enough to squeeze a soccer ball in between them, while pointing his toes directly sideways.

"It’s the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen," says J.B. Mauney, one of the top bull riders in the world today. "I can’t even do it standing on the ground."

Few people have ever shared such a kinship with a 2,000-pound mass of bucking beef.

Davis was so freakishly good with his legs, he not only spurred when he was in danger, he went on the offensive with them. Riding in perfect balance, he’d kick one side or the other, not to hurt the bull, but to talk to it. Each kick was a whisper. I’m over here, boy … Go this way … Go that way. Few people have ever shared such a kinship with a 2,000-pound mass of bucking beef.

An unknown from North Carolina, Davis rode straight to the top of his profession. When he left home and went to Texas after high school, he was an outcast, and nearly nobody gave him much chance of making it. Ain’t no cowboys from North Carolina, they told him. A year later, Davis won the national intercollegiate bull riding champion at Odessa Junior College. In 1995, he was the first rider from east of the Mississippi to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championship. He was one of the founding members of the Professional Bull Riders tour. He made more than $1 million in his first five years of professional riding. He was a stunt double for Luke Perry in the movie 8 Seconds. A portrait of a cowboy, Davis became an icon back home, launching a generation of East Coast boys who dreamed of doing something a little wilder with their livestock.

Over the first two months of the 1998 season, Davis lasted the full eight seconds on 14 of his first 17 bulls. He was ranked No. 1 in the PBR, at the top of his world. He had friends with private planes. He had a wedding date set with his perfect match.

Everything was in balance. What happened, then, on March 14, 1998, was almost inconceivable. In Fort Worth, Texas, Davis settled aboard a bull named Knock ’Em Out John. The chute opened. Davis and his legs went to work.

Davis spurred harder than usual, the whisper becoming a yelling match between man and beast. Five seconds into the ride, Knock ’Em Out John kicked his back heels up and dropped his front hooves down. Davis felt his arm extend.

Six seconds into the ride, Davis flew over the front of the bull, a human arrow arcing toward the dirt, legs-last.

To an amateur observer, bull riding looks like a sport in which control is either seized or lost with that one hand tied to the bull. It looks like a sport where all you do is hang on. That’s not the case. Good legs will keep you on a bull; balance will keep you on a bull. The main rule for your arm is that you keep it bent and flexed for mobility. With his arm locked straight, Davis was at the bull’s mercy. Knock ’Em Out John’s nosedive yanked Davis’s arm, which yanked his head. The bull was already jumping back up. Their two heads met – bull’s and rider’s – and Davis was knocked unconscious.

Six seconds into the ride, Davis flew over the front of the bull, a human arrow arcing toward the dirt, legs-last.

Jerome Davis wheels to the top of the stairs. Ten steps stand between him and the floor of the Greensboro Coliseum, where the PBR Built Ford Tough Series event is tonight.

It is the last weekend in September. Inside the arena are about 80 of the top bulls in the world, 35 of the top riders, and a whole bunch of dirt. Circling the arena are advertisements for Wrangler, Ford, Jack Daniel's, and Stanley tools. Fire flares out of the top of giant, inflatable Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. Outside of the arena, it’s raining. In another building in the same complex, comedian Ron White is getting ready to take the stage. Several people wonder if the storms and White’s show have dampened the crowd in the stands here tonight. What crowd there is, though, is strikingly handsome, confirming most stereotypes about pretty cowgirls and strapping cowboys.

This is where Jerome Davis feels home, even if he can’t get down the stairs.

The wreck in 1998 paralyzed him from the chest down. Fourteen years later, he’s still in a wheelchair. He teeter-totters, only able to move his arms, neck, and head. He’ll never ride again, but the sport still sticks in him like a spur.

After the accident, Davis started a new career. He raises bulls, the very breed of animal that nearly killed him. He raises them from birth, growing them, training them, running them, and turning them into bucking bulls. The man who could whisper to bulls while riding them now acts as a father to about 100 on his ranch in North Carolina. He spends most of his days thinking about genetic lines, trying to cross the right bulls with the right cows to produce the perfect bucker, the best bull in the world, a bull that nobody can ride, a bull that will send every cowboy who hops aboard flying.

The rider has joined the other team.

Bull riding can be difficult to watch. In the chute, a rider wraps a rope around the midsection of the animal, squeezes it tight, and then wraps the rope around one hand. On the last wrap of the hand, he punches the rope hard to make it stick in his palm. If this takes too long, the bull, stuck in a narrow box with a man on his back, becomes restless. He’ll try to shake the rider. He’ll try to jump out of the chute. He’ll get his hooves caught atop the railing, or his horns stuck in the gate. And so the rider will start all over, wrap by wrap.

A ride begins with a simple head nod from the rider to indicate he’s ready. It takes two men to open the gate – one to unlock it, and another to pull it open by a rope. The bull bursts into the ring, and with each snap of his head, streams of bull snot fly five or six feet in any direction.

Then, of course, at the end of every ride, the rider falls. If the fall occurs before eight seconds have passed, no score is counted. If it happens after eight seconds, it counts. Either way, the rider must dismount. So even the winner is guaranteed to wind up on his ass. It’s the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run, rounding the bases triumphantly, and then standing on home plate to take a fastball to the gut.

It is also one of the few sports in which the two competitors can be teammates. A rider needs a bull to buck hard in order to score big points. But the rider has to stay on. This is raw risk – ride a better bull, score more points; fall off any bull, score nothing.

Yet underneath all of the snot and dirt and broken bones, underneath everything that’s unpleasant about the sport, there is something purely beautiful about it: love. Nobody does this without loving it. And for most, that love continues well beyond the final fall.

Davis, now 40, can’t imagine doing anything else. He wanted to be a bull rider when he was a young boy, and now, even from his wheelchair, he’s one of the most respected figures in his sport.

Davis is a quiet and impenetrable man, and he’s most often found smiling and talking about the rodeo. He still hosts youth riders at his house and teaches them how to ride. His story and presence continue to shape his sport. He remains a hero to many young riders who are making millions today because of him.

He has three bulls entered in the Greensboro event. He raised them all from calves to bulls. If they do well here, if they buck hard, they might be selected to go to Las Vegas and compete in the world finals in late October.

One of his bulls is a four-year-old rookie named Boogity Boogity Boogity. This is his first month of competitive action. He bucked vigorously at a rodeo at Davis’s ranch earlier in the month, and Davis brought him here to see how he’d do against Built Ford Tough Series competition.

Davis believes he’s one of the best bulls his ranch has ever produced. Promise matters little, though, if the bull doesn’t buck.

Davis wheels over to the railing at the top of the stairs and looks at a handicap chairlift. "Anybody know how to work this thing?" he shouts. Within seconds, four men in cowboy hats and jeans hustle to the top of the stairs. They look at the automatic lift. Nobody’s sure how to operate it, and it’s clear that even if they did figure it out, they’d spend more time thinking than it’s worth.

"Hell, Jerome, we’ll just carry you."

Each of the men grabs a wheel and lifts.

He proclaimed to anyone who’d listen – teachers, aunts, friends – that he was going to be a bull rider.

They called him Jerome Danger.

Born in 1972, Davis was four when his parents took him to see his first bull riding event at the old Winston-Salem Coliseum, about an hour away from their farm in rural Randolph County, North Carolina. When the event was over, Davis wanted to see more. "Diddy," he’d ask his father, "can we go to the buckin’-bull place?"

Back then, boys in this part of the South didn’t dream of being bull riders. Most of them didn’t dream beyond the family farm or local textile plant. For a select few, though, the stillness of rural life stirred a need to do something extreme. In the 1940s, a few rebel boys ran moonshine along these old red-dirt roads and started NASCAR. The Petty family launched its racing dynasty in a garage just one town over from Davis’s family farm. Richard Petty was the biggest sports celebrity in the region in the 1970s.

Davis’s parents, Carson and Pam, grew up here in farming families. Their son, though, craved something more thrilling. He proclaimed to anyone who’d listen – teachers, aunts, friends – that he was going to be a bull rider. Carson and Pam, who later divorced, promised the boy that if he still had the dream when he turned 12, they’d let him ride a bucking bull.

He played other sports. When he was nine, he was the youngest kid to ever hit a baseball into the woods at his Little League field. "OK, now we’ve got to go get that dang ball," his mother remembers the umpire saying.

Consequences never bothered Davis. So when he did turn 12, he went straight to his dad and started the sentence, "Y’all told me …"

His parents sent him to a junior rodeo in Silver Valley, North Carolina, hosted by Calvin Wagoner, a former rodeo champion from the 1960s. Wagoner liked the boy almost immediately, and he gave Davis a bull rope, a pair of spurs, and a 55-gallon barrel. He also gave him a piece of advice: If he wanted to ride like the old-timers rode, he should keep his knees together for balance and point his toes out as far as he could.

Davis never forgot that advice. He rode everything like that – knees in, feet out. He turned the 55-gallon barrel Wagoner gave him on its side and tied four ropes to it – two on each end. He climbed to the top of his father’s barn and tied the ropes to the barn beams, suspending the barrel just a few feet off the ground. He called it a bucking barrel. For fun, he’d sit on the barrel while his friends yanked those ropes from either side, making the barrel rock.

"I was eat-up with it," Davis says of riding.

"I’m going to Texas," he said. "I’ll be back at Christmas."

By the time he was 16, he quit every other sport. He made $22,000 riding bulls during his senior year of high school, traveling around the country to smaller events. His mom worried and tried to stop him, but her son fought back.

"She’s always trying to tell me what to do," Davis thought, "but I’m making more money than she does already."

He and his dad built an outdoor arena on the farm and started hosting small-time rodeos. And in 1990, Davis finished high school and told his dad he was leaving.

"I’m going to Texas," he said. "I’ll be back at Christmas."

"Win a bunch," his dad said.

He did. The day after he won the intercollegiate bull riding championship in 1992 in Bozeman, Montana, he drove to Reno, Nevada, and turned pro.

One day later, he was in the hospital, nearly dead.

In one of Davis’s first rides as a professional, a bull named Orange Pop tossed him and stomped on him, slamming nearly 2,000 pounds directly on the chest of the 150-pound rider. The stomp left Davis in a hospital with a tube down his throat, unable to breathe or eat on his own. It was the closest he’d ever come to dying, and he was just 21 years old. His traveling partner, a young rider named Ty Watkins, was so shaken by the incident that he quit and went back to his family ranch.

Davis’s parents flew to Reno, and his mom tried to convince him to do the same.

"You gotta remember that it’s my dream," Davis told her. "Who in this life gets to do what they truly love?"

She never asked him to quit again.

"You gotta remember that it’s my dream," Davis told her. "Who in this life gets to do what they truly love?"

After the accident in Reno, Davis came home to recover. He was at a horse auction one afternoon and ran into an old friend named Tiffany. She was from a town about an hour away from Davis’s house, but they knew each other through farming circles. A few months after the accident, they started dating. They were a good match: That Christmas, Tiffany gave her new boyfriend 22 head of cattle from her family farm as a gift.

When Davis was healthy again and back on tour, Tiffany flew with him everywhere. They went to Brazil and Canada, any place with bulls to ride. Tiffany videotaped him doing his work, and Davis would spend hours dissecting rides that lasted only seconds.

"I never did worry about him," Tiffany says. "He was so good that he didn’t get in a lot of bad accidents."

Right around the time he started dating Tiffany, Davis made an investment that would eventually make them financially secure. He was in Arizona when a group of bull riders held a meeting in a hotel room. Until then, bull riding was only part of the PRCA, which also includes saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, tie-down roping, team roping and barrel racing. The men in the room – 20 of them – believed the rodeo’s signature event, bull riding, could be its own sport. They formed the PBR. Anybody who wanted a stake in the original ownership group had to invest $1,000. Davis had $500 in his pocket. He handed that money to them and promised to win the rest at the next weekend’s event. He came back with the other half the following week.

"I can’t do nothin’ outside today," he told her. "Let’s go get you one of them rings."

Two years later, Davis won the PRCA bull riding championship. In 1996, he earned more than $400,000 in competition and sponsorships and finished third in the PRCA’s final standings. In 1997, he was second. He decided then that the next year, he’d only enter PBR events.

One day just before the 1998 season, Davis was home working on the farm. A storm came up, so he went inside, wet and muddy, and proposed to Tiffany. "I can’t do nothin’ outside today," he told her. "Let’s go get you one of them rings."

They went to the local Service Merchandise, and he told her to pick out a ring. She wanted the ring to be his choice, so they agreed that she would narrow it down to two, and he’d choose the winner. After she gave him her finalists, Davis asked the clerk, "Which one of these is the cheapest?" That’s the ring he gave her.

They were set to be married in May 1998. Davis was nearly flawless in the early part of the bull riding season. He was the top-ranked PBR rider on tour. He won an event in Tampa. He’d been on 17 bulls and only tossed off three times. Going into Fort Worth, he had ridden nine straight bulls without falling.

The night before he was paralyzed, Davis ate crawfish etouffee in New Orleans.

He’d flown there with Tiffany and two of their friends to see the Ultimate Fighting Championship 16: Battle in the Bayou. After dinner, they went to the Pontchartrain Center and watched Frank Shamrock win the light heavyweight division fight.

They woke up the next day and took off to Texas in their friends’ Cessna Citation. It was storming in Fort Worth, though, so the plane couldn’t land there. They detoured to Waco, rented a car, and sped up Interstate 35 – about a 90-minute drive. They pulled into the arena 30 minutes before the event started.

A security guard stopped Davis at the gate. Davis didn’t have his credentials. The guard, unable to recognize bull riders, told Davis he couldn’t enter. Davis spent his last minutes on two feet begging a guard to let him go in. Everything about the life he loved was in there. Finally, another staff member came to the door and assured the guard that Davis was, in fact, the top bull rider in the world and a competitor in the evening’s event. Davis ran to the locker room and changed. "If he’d have held me up 30 more minutes, I guess I’d be in pretty good shape," Davis says now.

Tiffany took a seat beside the wife of Tuff Hedeman, another bull rider and the event’s host. Tiffany didn’t have a video camera; she was just a spectator that night.

Davis loosened up his riding rope, put on his chaps and hat, and ran into the arena just in time for the national anthem and a prayer for the safety of the riders. Then he strapped himself on to Knock ’Em Out John.

Later that night, Davis woke up on a stretcher, being carried into the tunnel. The first person he saw was Tater Porter, a friend and fellow bull rider. Davis told Porter to take off his riding glove. "I already did," Porter responded.

Hedeman’s wife escorted Tiffany into the tunnel to see her fiancé. They rode to the hospital. A doctor told Davis he’d fractured the sixth and seventh vertebra in his neck. Two months into the best season of his life, two months before his wedding, Davis heard a doctor tell him he’d never walk again.

"So you're telling me I can't ride bulls?"

"So you’re telling me I can’t ride bulls?" Davis replied.

Suddenly, the man who never thought about consequences had to figure out what to do next. He didn’t have insurance. He’d lost the ability to make money the only way he knew. The first thing he did was tell Tiffany that it was OK if she wanted to leave him.

"Not an option," she said. "Quit being stupid."

After two months in a Fort Worth hospital, Davis flew to Charlotte – about 90 minutes south of his home – to start his rehabilitation. The PBR held fundraisers and eventually raised enough money to cover almost all of his uninsured medical expenses.

From his hospital bed in Charlotte, Davis hatched a plan to make money: He would host his own rodeo at the family farm. He started making phone calls. That August, Davis and his father held the first annual Jerome Davis PBR Invitational at the open arena they’d built a decade earlier.

They set out to start a family – man, wife and bulls.

That October, he and Tiffany married in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They set out to start a family – man, wife and bulls.

In 1991, when Davis was in college in Odessa, a baby calf was born in Oklahoma.

The calf was the son of 161 White Sports Coat, one of the best bulls of all time. The young bull’s name became Houdini.

Over the course of his 19-year life, Houdini – a giant, white bull – would become the greatest sire in the history of his sport. In 2002, a breeder named Gene Baker purchased Houdini for $100,000.

Baker bred Houdini like a scientist. He used an advanced process called embryo transfer, in which cows are injected with follicle-stimulating hormones so that they produce multiple embryos. After about 10 days of receiving hormones, the cow is bred with its bull – in this case, Houdini. After seven more days, those fertilized embryos (maybe a dozen or so) are flushed out of the cow and distributed, one by one, to other cows, called recipient cows. In essence, Houdini could breed with one cow and impregnate a dozen more.

Since farming practices began 10,000 years ago, humans have been manipulating genetics of animals for their own purposes. The bulls of the PBR are not normal bulls. They buck because their ancestors bucked. In theory, through simple evolution, the bulls of today should kick harder and faster than those of the previous generation. This spawns an eternal hope among breeders – the next calf could become the next great bull.

One day in 2005, Davis flew to Oklahoma and bought two cows from Baker, each carrying Houdini-fertilized embryos. Each cow cost about $1,800. One of those cows produced another female, and one produced a male.

Two years later, the male started to buck. Davis put a dummy on the bull’s back, and the bull kicked like crazy. Davis looked at this bull, the son of Houdini, and named it Off the Hook. Two years later, Davis bred Off the Hook naturally with one of his cows. A new bull was born in late 2008.

Two years later, that bull started to buck. Davis encouraged NASCAR personality Jeff Hammond, who lives nearby, to invest in the bull. Hammond brought along legendary driver Darrell Waltrip, whose oddball catch phrase became the bull’s name.

Together, the three men looked at this bull – son of Off the Hook, grandson of Houdini – and named it Boogity Boogity Boogity.

Bull Riding Infographic
"Pain goes with the territory," he says. "You play a man’s sport, you pay a man’s price."

How do you raise something, nurture it from an egg, and make it do something that can kill someone?

How do you raise something that is exactly the same breed of animal that paralyzed you?

Davis’s response is clear: He doesn’t know anything else. And aside from his wife, he doesn’t love anything else. They have 100 bulls on their farm now, and they own about 200 cows on farms scattered throughout North Carolina. Davis isn’t yet one of the top stock contractors in the business, but with each calf that’s born, so too is hope.

Jeff Robinson, the two-time PBR contractor of the year, joined the stock contracting business 10 years ago. But he doesn’t raise most of his top bulls. He buys them as two-year-olds and three-year-olds, after they’ve already proven themselves.

Davis is different. His favorite part of the job comes when the calves turn two and he can start bucking them with dummies. "It’s like opening a Cracker Jack box," he says.

To Davis, he isn’t spending his life raising the animal that hurt him; he’s just spending his life raising animals. He’s just farming. Davis drives a cart with a hand-controlled brake around his property every day. He rigged up a tractor so he can control the speed with his hands. He agonizes over the weather like any farmer, and he cuts and bales hay in the spring and fall.

In 2007, the original investors of the PBR sold the organization to Spire Capital. Jerome made enough money on the deal that he and Tiffany were able to build a 5,400-square-foot cedar-log home on the back side of the family property. They moved in this August, just after he turned 40. The home is equipped with an elevator, and in the elevator is a poster of him riding. The back porch looks out over his field of bulls.

He wakes up every day and tries to do as much as he can on his own – putting on his jeans, his shirts, his hat, his boots, and rolling himself into his wheelchair.

At least once every five minutes, he must press down on the arms of his chair and stretch up to take pressure off of his lower back, which is chronically in pain.

Also, he can’t sweat. His body simply heats up. So in the summer, if he doesn’t cool down by pouring water on his head or finding an air-conditioned space, he’ll have a stroke. Davis manages to keep his frustrations hidden. "Pain goes with the territory," he says. "You play a man’s sport, you pay a man’s price."

Davis endures physical therapy one day a week, a task that’s more daunting mentally than physically. He works out next to people who are unable to move anything but their heads. He sees people who are barely able to afford therapy. He sees his own life in relation to them, and finds so much handsome about it by comparison. He feels lucky.

He’s always moving. The basement of his new house is equipped with a full kitchen, bath, and a flat-screen television, so he can board riders who want to train on his bulls. He helps host an annual hunt for people who are disabled. He hosts a kids’ rodeo each fall, in which his money and donations from others cover the entry fees for any children who go to church that Saturday. He calls it "He Paid Your Fees."

He belongs to something called Cowboy Church of the Triad, a new church set up in an old livestock arena just down the road from his house. Just before the service most weeks, Jerome and Tiffany cook breakfast for a group of kids and take them to church in their Ford Town & Country minivan. The pastor of the church calls Jerome the "principle person of peace" in the congregation, meaning he has more influence than any other member – simply by showing up.

The most difficult thing about being paralyzed, Davis says, is asking people to help him. Once, while out in the field checking on his bulls, he drove over a bank and flipped his cart. He keeps his cell phone with him at all times, so he called Josh Faircloth, a 23-year-old bull rider who lives nearby. Faircloth sped over to Davis’s house, ran through the field, and saw his mentor wrecked near a pond.

"Get me up," Davis said simply.

"I got you, Danger," Faircloth replied.

Jerome drove off; Faircloth drove off. For an introverted cowboy, asking for assistance requires him to shave off his rough edges. Davis, though, seems to do two deeds to help others for every one deed done for him. It helps keep life in balance.

It is the first weekend in September, Labor Day weekend. The sun is setting, but the air is still thick and hot. A full moon begins to rise over the cornfield behind Davis Ranch in Archdale, North Carolina. Freshly painted bleachers surround an oval-shaped dirt ring at the center of the open arena. Loud speakers blare with a mix of country and rock. Davis’s mom, Pam, stands at the base of the driveway, directing cars to park. Davis’s wife, Tiffany, drives around in a cart, making final preparations. Jerome remains inside the house, avoiding the evening sun as long as he can so his body won’t overheat. All 10,000 seats in the open-air arena will soon be full.

About 40 riders have flown in for the Jerome Davis PBR Invitational. Now in its 14th year, the event has grown into the largest outdoor bull riding event east of the Mississippi. This is a Touring Pro Division event, the equivalent of Triple-A baseball or the Nationwide Series in NASCAR. One of the riders tonight is Matt Triplett. He’s drawn the rookie bull, Boogity Boogity Boogity. If the bull does well, Davis will move him up to the Built Ford Tough Series event in Greensboro later this month.

Triplett, meanwhile, is 21 years old. He flew in from his home in Montana, paying his own way. If he does well here, he might wind up at a Built Ford Tough Series event one day, too. More immediately, if he does well here, he might be able to pay for his flight home. In the PBR, riders don’t make money if they fall. Triplett doesn’t know anything about the bull he’s drawn, and he doesn’t want to.

The crowd stands and cheers. Some people cry. Davis makes a short speech to thank everyone who came.

"If you let it get to you, and you think about the story behind it, you’re done," Triplett says.

When told that he’ll be riding a Davis-bred bull, Triplett looks down and calls Davis a hero. Then he stiffens up.

"It’s just another bull," Triplett says.

The announcer introduces the riders in a pompous ceremony. The letters PBR are lit in fire in the dirt. Fireworks go off. Davis drives his cart up to the gate . The announcer introduces Davis by saying, "A hero every single day – Jerome Davis!" The gate opens. Davis presses the hand-controlled accelerator and drives to the center of the arena. The crowd stands and cheers. Some people cry. Davis makes a short speech to thank everyone who came.

He drives out of the arena. A friend puts Davis on his back, and Davis rides him up 16 stairs to the open-air booth. Another friend carries Davis’s wheelchair. Davis takes his seat and wheels himself into an overhang. On the front of the overhang is a sign dedicating the arena to his father, Carson, who died in 2008 of a heart attack. Carson’s death, Davis says, is the hardest thing he’s ever endured.

"I catch myself wanting to give him a call and tell him about something that’s happened, but he’s not there," Davis says. "That’s just part of it. That’s just life. I’ll see him again one day."

Davis also believes he will see a cure for paralysis. He followed the story of an Arizona woman who went to Costa Rica to receive stem cell treatments and is able to walk some on her own now. In the United States, research continues with some success and setbacks. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to raise the cost of traffic violations by $1 to fund a program for spinal-cord research. In politics, the matter of stem-cell research still causes debates among people who either support or don’t support the manipulation of embryos.

Sitting atop his arena, Davis watches 10 cowgirls ride in on horseback to Toby Keith’s song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." Just as the song reaches its jarring line, "We’ll put a boot in your ass," one of the cowgirls stands up in her saddle and rides, holding an American flag high. The crowd hollers in approval.

The patriotism on display may be a bit exaggerated and coarse, but still, there’s something about bull riders that typifies the modern-day American story. Riders spend a lifetime chasing this dream, but even if they make it, even if they emerge from the danger and become the best at their profession, they’re only a short fall away from losing everything.

The bulls, meanwhile, are kept in a complicated maze of cages in a field behind the arena. After each ride, two rodeo cowboys and two bull fighters lure the bulls out of the ring and down a tunnel. In the back, men close gates behind the bulls as soon as they pass through. The bulls, for all their ferocity, follow basic rules of logic – they go to the open gate. Humans are the ones who seek the trouble; animals just follow natural instincts.

The 37th ride of the night involves Triplett and Boogity Boogity Boogity.

Tiffany Davis stands beside the chute, holding a strap around the bull. When she softly pulls the strap off and the gate opens, Boogity Boogity Boogity bursts into the ring. Snot flies everywhere. He was born to do this.

The bull follows the gate as it opens. He kicks. Triplett stays on. The bull kicks again. Triplett’s still right there. The bull spins. Still riding. Davis pulls on the railing and leans forward to get a better view. The bull kicks again. And four seconds into the ride, Triplett goes flying. In his first big competition, Boogity Boogity Boogity wins. Triplett pushes himself up out of the dirt and shakes his head.

Davis leans back and smiles. Tiffany runs up the stairs to go over Boogity Boogity Boogity’s ride with her husband. Perhaps the most cruelly uneven element of bull riding is the element of time. Jerome and Tiffany have been raising this animal for four years, preparing for this night, and his ride lasted only four seconds. They carefully dissect each one. Davis will later decide to move the bull up, to take him to Greensboro and the Built Ford Tough Series. Boogity Boogity Boogity will buck hard there, too – his rider will ride him for eight seconds, but together they’ll score enough points to finish in first place after the opening round. The young bull, raised from an egg, shows promise.

A few minutes after Triplett brushes himself off, the event stops for an intermission before the final round. During the break, the DJ plays John Mellencamp’s "Jack and Diane." The rodeo clown standing in the ring waves his arms and encourages the crowd to join. The people start singing. Then, near the end of the song, just before the last chorus, the DJ abruptly cuts the music.

The crowd of 10,000 people becomes a spontaneous choir, belting out the final lines of the song: "Oh yeah, life goes on … long after the thrill of livin’ is gone."

Davis sits high above them, bobbing his head.

After the last rider has been tossed to the dirt, Davis checks to make sure the cowgirls ride into the arena one final time with the flags for the sponsors. Then he wheels to the top of the stairs. Four men scramble to help. They each grab a wheel and lift from the knees, balancing Davis above their shoulders, trying to keep him steady as they go down the 16 stairs. His head bounces with each shaky step. At the bottom of the stairs, the men set him down and wipe their brows of sweat. Davis presses down on the chair’s arms to relieve the pressure from his lower back.

Fourteen years after his last bull, these are the rides that make up his days.

As soon as Davis hits the dirt, people stand and form a line in front of him. They wrap around the bleachers and into the field, waiting to ask the cowboy in the wheelchair for one more favor. He smiles, pulls a pen from his breast pocket, and signs autographs deep into another moonlit Southern night.

About the Author

Michael Graff, a Maryland native, is a writer in Greensboro, North Carolina. His work appears regularly in Our State magazine and the Greensboro News & Record. He was the author of "Man and Bull," published on SB Nation Longform in October. A full bio and more stories can be found on his website, And he’s on twitter @michaelngraff.