ANAHEIM – He has two metal plates and 18 screws helping hold himself together, which might sound extreme but really isn’t for someone who died 10 years ago.
"Well," Sean Willingham says, "they thought I was dead."
That hasty verdict was the result of the blood that appeared to be flowing out of his ear. Actually, the blood was coming from his temple, which can happen when a bull rams your skull with his horns.
So our question is why, why exactly would someone attempt to ride a raging animal that can weigh a ton — yes, literally — and has no interest in being ridden?
"Everybody in my hometown thinks, ‘You’re crazy,’" said Willingham, 28, who grew up in rural Georgia and is competing this weekend in the Professional Bull Riders event at Honda Center. "They look at me and say, ‘You’re an idiot. I can’t see how you do it.’
"But the truth is, I look at them and can’t understand how they do what they do. Get up early and work 10 hours a day? That’s crazy to me. I’m too lazy to work and too scared to steal, so I ride bulls."
The philosophy is pretty simple, not unlike this sport of boots, jeans and buckles.
People do crazy things every day, things that can cripple and kill. They do crazy things sometimes to make a living and sometimes because, when they’re finished, they have to go back to making a living.
Basically, it’s about figuring out what you do then doing it. That’s what life is.
Even if doing it means straddling an animal named Booger Butt — yes, that’s a real name — and attempting to stay on for 8 seconds, knowing all the while Booger Butt is capable of crushing you, your car and your home.
Specifically in that order, we might add.
So that’s what Willingham has done since figuring things out at age 15, when he rode his first bull, an experience he’ll never forget even if he can’t remember it. Willingham blacked out.
"I guess that happens to some people," he said. "I remember sitting on the bull in the chute. The next thing I knew I was on the ground."
That’s often where these guys end up, scrambling in the dirt to avoid being pummeled under hoof.
Willingham was in the chute, ready to ride, a few years ago when his fellow rider and buddy, Brendon Clark, was stomped on the stomach. The last thing Willingham saw before the gate opened was his friend vomiting blood.
"You know it can happen," he said. "You know you’re going to get hurt. It’s just a matter of when and how bad."
One plate and 12 screws are in Willingham’s wrist. The other plate and six screws are in his ankle.
"It’s a mental game," he said. "You gotta block it all out. If you let that bull get between your ears, you’re really messed up."
Willingham missed seven months the time his skull was fractured. To be more precise, the doctors told him his skull had been shoved in significantly, was almost touching his brain and would require staples in order to remain in a single piece.
"You have to set everything aside," Willingham said. "When you’re in the chute, it’s just you and the bull for 8 seconds. That’s it."
People have died doing this, yes, but people die having plastic surgery, too. Remember, you figure out what you do then you do it.
In the mid-90s, a cowboy named Tuff Hedeman was head-butted by Bodacious, who once was the Mike Tyson of bulls.
"I got up and I didn’t have a nose," Hedeman said a few years later. "When I bit down, my teeth weren’t touching."
One of his cheekbones was broken into five pieces and the other was broken into six. He also had a busted jaw and some missing teeth. Doctors needed two operations and nearly 13 hours to rebuild his face, their work including six titanium plates and dozens of screws.
About a month later, Hedeman was riding again. When your real name is Richard, there has to be a reason they call you Tuff.
"Your adrenaline takes over the fear," Willingham says. "You don’t really feel fear when you’re doing this. You can’t be scared of bulls or you won’t get on them."
Riders wear bulletproof vests and mouthpieces. Some, like Willingham, wear helmets. Not one of them, however, despite having all that evil bucking between their legs, wears an athletic cup. Just too uncomfortable.
So our last question is what, what exactly would someone like Sean Willingham prefer not to ride if he’s willing to ride one of these spine crunchers?
"I don’t like horses," the cowboy said, quite seriously. "I don’t trust them. They’re supposed to be calm, gentle animals and a lot of them are. But then they can flip a switch and go off for no reason. At least with a bull, I know what the outcome will be."
And so does the bull, who, after all, is only doing what he does, too.
Ummm…. No Thanks!!!