By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"He's OK now," Sammy reports. "Hurt some tendons. He has some ice packs and a bandage on it, but he can't walk on it yet."
There isn't much debate about bull-riding's dangers. In the first three and a half years of the Bull Riders Only tour, seven pros were killed.
"The worst I've seen is the guy right in front of me got killed," Cunningham says. "It was the North Side Coliseum in 1981. You knew it was bad. It took them 45 minutes to take him out of the arena. He was blue.
"My buddies wouldn't let me chicken out, so I rode," he recalls of that night. Using the bull-riding term for forfeiting, he adds, "Nobody turned out."
Cunningham himself has been kicked within a few inches of his life. In 1986, on a night when about 1,500 spectators packed the Kowbell, a crossbreed bull named Skunk landed on Cunningham's back, puncturing his lung and spleen and breaking two ribs. Airlifted from the arena, he spent five days in a Fort Worth ICU. Other injuries--a broken nose, a broken collarbone--average out to about one serious brush every 100 bulls. "Every time it makes me want to do it more," he says.
Cunningham had his PRCA card for three years in the early '80s, but never quite got to making a living at it. His best ride was an 84 in Tyler in 1978, when he was 18 years old. The guys with the Wrangler endorsements hit the 90s.
Today, he says, the riders and the bulls are better than ever, and there are more than a few shows of talent at the Kowbell.
One night, a top competitor on the Mexican circuit named Carlos Aguayo rides so fluidly that he appears to be floating above the bull. Another, Ronnie Washington, a 28-year-old former high school football star from Oklahoma, turns back again and again on Speck, a white Brahma crossbreed, bringing shouts of "Cowboy up!" from other riders as he makes the buzzer.
Both are trying to break into the PRCA.
It's a long way up.
There's one big, blunt reason bull-riding has taken over at the Kowbell: the bulls.
"We'd do more bronc riding, but we don't have the stock," says Jack Ratjen, from whom words pour out like a slow drip of Karo syrup. "Bulls. We raise a lot of 'em. It's not easy, and it's a long, drawn-out, expensive deal. But we do have a reputation for putting out some pretty good ones."
A man comfortable with silences, Ratjen bumps his old red F-350 pickup through a pasture west of Midlothian, sharing a few insights into the bucking-bull business. After a minute or two, cattle are trotting alongside the truck, doing kamikaze hits on the front and sides, so convinced are they that Ratjen's about to hand over some feed.
The lowing and mooing get so loud, it nearly drowns out the doo-wop and '50s hits coming from the dashboard radio. Ratjen was a hot rodeo cattle roper in the days when the Everly Brothers' "Bye, Bye Love" was on the charts.
"All of these have some Brahma in 'em," he says of the herd. Brahmas are the ones with the big humped backs. "They have to have a hump to have any looks about 'em. People go to the rodeo, they expect to see Brahmas or part-Brahmas."
As more and more so-called exotic breeds have been used to upgrade beef cattle--Limousin, Simmental, and others that lack either horns or tight skins--there have been fewer good rodeo-bull prospects at Texas cattle auctions, Ratjen says.
That's created more incentive for him to raise bulls specifically for rodeo, using the age-old technique of breeding the best ones and trying to realize improvements.
Still, there is no guarantee a bull will buck under a rider. "Some do, some don't," Ratjen says.
Ratjen and his two grown sons, Jackie and Jimmy, have stepped up their bull-breeding considerably in the past three or four years. Along Highway 287, they have a pasture a mile and a quarter long where dozens of 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds graze.
Passing on the hassles of state-of-the-art artificial insemination, Ratjen lets the cattle accomplish his ends the old-fashioned way: arranged dates between sires and heifers.
More than a decade ago, Ratjen acquired a tough black bull named J.R.--after both the family initials and the conniving TV oil baron. "We bucked him for five years, and he was ridden one time. He kind of broke a little bone in his ankle, and we had it operated on. He could still buck people off, but we started using him for a breeding bull," he says.
One of J.R.'s sons--J.R. 6--made it big as the renamed, promo-ready Skoal Diamond. He was killed a few years ago in a trailer accident. Another, J.R. 55, brought the top price of $13,000 at a big bucking-bull sale in Texarkana last year and was renamed Red Silhouette. The last of the J.R. offspring, 75, 76, and 77, are currently being cultivated at the Kowbell, where "we might buck them once or twice a month," Ratjen says.