By Paris Goodnight
Rick Wagner of Rockwell wasn’t going to let a little thing like a broken leg keep him from competing in the championships of his bull riding circuit this weekend.
No, the 28-year-old pro simply had a cast put on his right leg Thursday with a spur built in.
That’s the dedication in someone tuned in to the “bulls and blood and dust and mud” that Garth Brooks immortalized years ago ó “And they call the thing rodeo.”
The Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association championships will conclude tonight at the James B. Hunt Jr. Horse Complex in Raleigh.
Wagner earned $26,562 in 2007 events, which puts him ahead of his closest competitor, rookie Tommy Jones, by just over $6,000. They’re vying for a prize of $25,000 and a new truck.
Wagner will be riding with a leg that hasn’t fully healed from a severe fracture he got when a 2,000-pound bull stomped on it in October.
He showed up at NorthEast Orthopedics in Concord on Thursday in the same blue jeans emergency workers cut off him in October to fix his broken leg. This time, he decided to change into sweat pants that zipped off above the knee so he wouldn’t be stuck in the same jeans after technician Steve Williams built the new cast and then sliced openings on either side where the spur would fit. Wagner planned to wire the spur on with a notch cut into the bottom of the cast.
Williams told him, “You’re getting an extreme cast ó ain’t nothing like this.”
That wasn’t completely true, because Wagner had recommended NorthEast Orthopedics to another rider who came by earlier that day to be the guinea pig on getting a cast made with a spur. Wagner’s was the new and improved model. But it still took quite a bit of maneuvering to get the spur in just the right position and the cast formed to keep out the kinds of things (dirt and manure) you don’t want around a healing leg.
The cast also needed extra layering for stability, considering the nature of the force it might have to hold up against in a fall or quick dismount from a bucking bull.
Wagner got the original cast off Jan. 23 and started doing water therapy at the East and Salisbury YMCAs to try to complete the healing process on his injured leg. That’s only one of numerous injuries that have added to his scars over the years.
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Wagner said he’s lived on a farm and been around animals all his life. He knew he wanted to be part of the bull riding scene at an early age. He even snuck in a year earlier than regulations allow, fudging on his age when he was 17.
When you’re that age, things like injuries aren’t on your mind. But since then, Wagner has had to re-evaluate, especially after a life-threatening injury in 2004 in Macon, Ga. His face was jerked down into the back of a bull’s head, reducing many of his bones to gravel.
He still bears a scar across the top of his forehead, hidden by his cowboy hat, where doctors had to put a steel plate in and stitch him up.
“I guess Georgia’s not a good state for me,” he said.
He tried wearing a helmet with a face mask like some younger riders do for a couple of months, but he couldn’t see as well. And when a bull rammed a horn in the mask at his cheekbone, he said, it knocked him out for the first time. That’s when he decided to skip the safety feature and go back to riding with a cowboy hat. He shrugged when asked if that episode wouldn’t have been worse without the helmet.
Wagner said riders who start out with helmets get used to it, and he would recommend it for youngsters.
He has started wearing a mouthpiece in the past year after riding for 10 years without one ó but never losing any teeth.
This past year was something of a comeback for the 1998 East Rowan graduate ó until October’s broken leg almost put him out of this weekend’s finals.
It was the third time his right leg had been broken (fourth if you count once when he was a child). He had 14 screws and a steel plate put in to repair it in 2003. He’s broken his left leg only once.
There’s always a risk in bull riding, but if anything goes wrong while the new cast is on, he faces an even more serious injury to his leg.
“I want to win this more than anything,” Wagner told the folks running the league.
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Wagner said he also rides in Professional Bull Riders tour events, which you can see regularly on the cable network Versus. But his main association is SEBRA, which he has been involved with for a decade.
He’ll be going up against just a handful of competitors who call it a full-time job.
“Others are good riders, but they don’t stay consistent,” he said. “Or if you get hurt, the bills pick up.”
Wagner has gotten sponsorship help from Autostrada, at N.C. 152 and Old Concord Road (run by Joel Yates and Adam and Amber Wagner), and Rockwell Feed Mill (owned by Brad and Rick Moss and run by Jason “Rosco” Roberts and Chris Troutman).
That helps with travels that haven taken him to 42 states so far. His dog, Nikki, has been along for 38 of those. “And she bites,” he said, noting that if he could just teach her to drive the truck, traveling would be oh-so-much easier.
His wife, Nichole, and daughter, McKayla Cutshaw (a third-grader at Grace Christian Academy), travel to many events . They’ll be cheering him on tonight in Raleigh along with 15 to 20 other family members.
The one thing Wagner won’t leave home without is his equipment bag. It includes his personal rope (each rider carries his own), cowbells, a vest that protects the ribs when a bull is stomping on a tossed competitor, and chaps, which he said help protect legs in the box before the bull is released. Spurs ó which attach to the back of cowboy boots, unless you’ve got a specially made cast to hold yours ó help some, though Wagner said most of the grip comes from a rider’s upper body and his hold on the rope that wraps around the bull.
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After more than 225 events across 15 states, the top 40 money-earners made the finals for a chance to earn the biggest check of the year.
The best rides will trim competitors down for a short round tonight.
Besides Wagner, another of those is likely to be Blacksburg, S.C., native David Clinton, who has everything from wire mesh to 26 screws and metal plates in his face after his head was jerked down into the back of a bull in the fall. Clinton rides in a pink protective vest and chaps, earning the nickname “Pinky” for helping to raise awareness in the fight against breast cancer.
All 40 finalists were to wear pink shirts Friday night for the “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” promotion.
Wagner said he plans to take a couple of months off after the championships to let the leg heal. But he won’t be able to stay away for long.
“It’s something addictive,” he said, and he’ll miss taking on the bulls and his top riding competition. “A couple have heart. They want to go somewhere. That’s me.”
For more information about the Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association and this weekend’s championships, go to www.sebranow.com.
Contact Paris Goodnight at 704-797-4255 or pgoodnight@ salisburypost.com.