By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Cunningham, a former PRCA rider who is practicing for a season on the sport's senior tour, says bull-riding is more a matter of guts and concentration than anything else.
Three nights a week for the past several weeks, Cunningham has been making the 185-mile round trip from Greenville to tutor Sammy, a good friend's son and a soft-spoken kid who would ride every night if he didn't have to work at the local grocery store to pay his car insurance.
"I got my start here, and so did Sammy's dad," Cunningham says. "This is home. I grew up here. I've met most of my best friends here."
Sammy has been on only 20 bulls; Cunningham, more than 1,000. After six nights at the Kowbell--with the help of teaching tools such as videotape and Cunningham's experience--Sammy will nearly double his total, with some surprisingly good results.
In chute No. 4 on one practice night, Sammy gets ready to ride a sorrel and white Hereford named Socks. He lifts himself from the catwalk and eases down on the animal. "You don't want to sit on that bull too long. I'd get on up and wait until Billy gets here," urges Cunningham, who's standing on the narrow catwalk that sits just behind the chute.
He's referring to chute boss Billy Ford, who has been at the Kowbell for 39 years. Ford directs traffic and tightens the flank straps--the antagonizing "bucking strap" that is placed just behind the bull's rib cage, not around the genitals, as some people think.
Ford tends to offer a little sage advice and commentary to the riders when it strikes him.
As Sammy dismounts, another cowboy down the way begins slapping himself on the face before he mounts his ride. It's sort of like telling oneself, "Wake up, turkey, and concentrate."
"You'd be stupid not to concentrate," Sammy says.
"I don't think that slapping and stuff does any good," Cunningham pipes in. "Just makes your face hurt."
Eventually, Ford comes over and tightens the flank strap. Sammy climbs on, and he and Cunningham immediately get busy tightening the rope.
"You want it tightened up at the last moment," Cunningham says as he pulls up on the cord, which is cutting hard now into the bull's matted hide.
"Pull it up...easy...slow...just a bit," Sammy commands before making a final adjustment of the wrap around his hand. With his free hand, he punches his grip a few times until it's set.
"OK, now ride this bull, Sammy," Cunningham says in the final seconds. Already breathing rapidly, Sammy squares himself to the bull and gives his signal to the rodeo clowns operating the gate: "Let's go, boys."
Faster than the eye can follow, Socks wheels into the open, heading up and out with enormous power. His back hoof catches the gate, propelling him even farther forward. "That's called hipping," Cunningham says. "If that were a real rank bull, it would throw a guy. You don't expect that."
But Sammy--red chaps flying, hand waving as a counter-balance--stays with him. The bull charges toward the concrete apron at the arena's edge, bucks three times to complete a circle, then heads out back into the arena. Twice Sammy slips off-center, but somehow rights himself, losing his hat along the way.
"Ride, Sammy, ride!" Cunningham yells as the seconds tick down. The eight-second buzzer--the sort one hears at a basketball game--blares, and Sammy dismounts, doing a tuck-and-roll in the dirt as the bull-baiting clowns go to work.
Socks pulls up then lowers his head at a number of human targets, including Sammy, who is scrambling for the chain-link fence at the arena's edge.
The bull stands menacingly just a foot or two from Sammy's hat, then turns the other way and trots out of the area, his performance complete. Not exactly wild beasts, riding bulls are chute-broken, meaning they don't protest much en route to the loading stalls or on the way back to the barn.
"He's tough," Cunningham says of his student. "He's strong enough to recover. I've been mostly working on his head, to get his confidence up."
Cunningham and Billy Ford have both seen signs of Sammy's losing his concentration during his riding. "He's quitting on it," Ford says after one abbreviated ride, maybe five seconds, in which Sammy fails to "cover."
Bull riders are always talking about "try"--something between fearlessness and mental toughness. With each second on the bull's back, the "try" gets harder to sustain.
"He got me into my rope," Sammy says, describing one of the many ways to get off-balance--getting too far forward. "Then I got on my side, and he could have slammed me against the wall."
A week earlier, Russell Doan's three-second bull-riding career ended near that same wall--the spot where he fell and where the "beginner bull" stepped on his knee.
As Russell lay in the dirt, Sammy and Cunningham kidded with a him a bit as they took back the chaps and spurs he'd borrowed and got ready for their own rides.
"I think we've just witnessed the world's shortest bull-riding career," Cunningham said.
Later, on the way home, Doan passed out in Cunningham's pickup, and they took him to the hospital--a story the men tell with characteristic nonchalance.