Monday, November 29, 2010



He May Look Soft, but He Rides Hard

   LAS VEGAS — There are lots of places I would not want to be. The three-yard line of the Chicago Bears, for example, with the ball, one minute to play, trailing by four points. In the ring with Mike Tyson when your mouthpiece has fallen out. On the track at Indy with your brakes out and the steering gone. On an ice floe with a polar bear or a pond with an alligator. Facing a charging lion when you're out of ammo.
   And, high among these also would be on the back of an enraged 2,000-pound brindle bull with only a hat, gloves, a hunk of plaited rope and the Lord's Prayer.
   I don't know why guys climb 25,000-foot mountains, jump cars in motorcycles, balloon the Atlantic solo or swim channels. But, riding bulls with horns like daggers, hooves that can chop trees and a temper of a drill sergeant whose shoes are too small, ranks right up there with all the other life-shortening hobbies you can conjure up.
   You would think you had a mental picture of a guy who would ride a bull in a rodeo. A wild-eyed, wild-haired, hare-brained young kid with the leather skin and chapped lips of a guy who never slept in a bed in his life or drank coffee out of anything but a can. A hundred years ago he would have been holding up stagecoaches or drawing down on frontier marshals and he would have the life expectancy of a sick coyote.
   Then, you meet Wacey Cathey and you think somebody's putting you on.
   If someone saw Wacey in a lawyer's office on Park Avenue, he would take him for a junior partner of the firm. If they told him he rode Brahma bulls for a living, he would edge away from them. Wacey doesn't look as if he could get onto anything more ferocious than a BMW.
   First of all, there are the glasses. Wire-rimmed, owlish, they make him look like something out of Bush's cabinet. He isn't even sunburned. He would look OK under a Homburg hat and wearing a briefcase and bench-made shoes. He puts his cowboy hat on and you figure he's going to a square dance, not a bull session.
   Yet, he's the oldest and certifiably the best bull-rider in the National Finals Rodeo, the Super Bowl of the cowboys-and-Indians set, up here at the Thomas & Mack Arena this week. The best 15 bull-riders in the world qualify for this event on the basis of money won and Wacey has won more than any of them — $70,413 to date in 150 rodeos this year.
   You wouldn't think to look at him that he spends his life on bull-back. As a matter of fact, you know these mechanical bulls they have in those campy Texas gin mills and elsewhere today? Well, my life's ambition is to get Wacey in one with me one night and have him order his sarsparilla and push his glasses up on his nose — and then go around and offer to bet any of the hotshot bar-stool cowboys in the joint that this tenderfoot can outride them.
   I'd do a land-office business, I'd make more money than a guy on a river boat with his own deck. Because Wacey, frankly, looks as if he'd have trouble staying on an exercycle. They'd just figure him for a bookworm who'd read too much Louis L'Amour or seen too many John Wayne movies.
   Wacey wouldn't be cocky about it because he's not the type to be cocky about anything.
   Those mechanical bulls can be jacked up electronically to make a boozy rider think he has been caught in a crashing plane or in a barrel going over Niagara. But, Wacey points out, they have one flaw.
   "They can be hyped up. But they can't do one thing a real bull can
do — which is to suddenly jump from here to that wall without warning. And to take off on you just when you think you're settling in," Wacey reminds you.
   Also, they can't try to stomp or gore you to death when you get bucked off. One of the real ones did that only this year — opened up an artery in the neck of a rider in Nevada till he bled to death. Another one chopped the ear off a veteran bullrider, Charlie Sampson, in a spill earlier in the season.
   Have you ever seen a Brahma bull up close? When their hind hooves are high in the air and you can seen their entire underbelly trembling with uncontrolled rage, their tiny demented eyes rolling malevolently in their massive heads, their mouths flecked with rabid foam, it's like looking into one of the inner circles of hell. Eight seconds can seem like a year in an interrogation cell in the Lubyanka.
   Bulls and riders get to know each other. They are like a canny old pitcher and a home run slugger who face each other scores of times over the years. It's Lefty Grove against The Babe, Koufax against Henry Aaron.
   The bull is the heavy hitter, the rider tries to guess which way he will spin, when he will jump, on which leg he will come down and tries to gauge his ride accordingly. It's like trying to guess which paw a grizzly will swat you with.
   On opening night of the rodeo, Wacey drew a knife-backed serial killer so anti-social he's known only by the number E-2 in the program but called Death Row in the pen area, and E-2 wasted no time in throwing Wacey over the horns.
   In some other events, no time or no score on a ride would be fatal in a go-round. Not in the bullriding. "Nobody has ever gone though all 10 nights without getting bucked," Wacey advises.
   The second night, he drew a horned nightmare named Cobra. Cobra's trick is to spin you into a wall where he has a chance to flip you into the seats or just down into dropkick position on the arena floor. Cathey not only managed to stay aboard but racked up a respectable 72 in the process.
   Cathey, going on 36, is the oldest cowboy in the bullpen. This is not so much because bullriders don't get a chance to grow old — the patriarch of the breed, the late Freckles Brown, always used to go around looking like something they found in a tomb on the Nile — as that most cowboys give up the bulls after a few years as soon as they realize putting out oil well fires is an easier way to make a living.
  Wacey's secret is not hard to guess: The bulls take one look at him and they figure this is one of those midnight cowboys who thinks this is just a video arcade game. They figure they'll throw him up in the lights. The next thing they know, the horn has sounded and he's sitting there like a guy on a bus reading the financial pages. He rides the bull like a commuter. Even to the bull, he looks like one.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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