Cowboy Up

This bullrider's dream of a million bucks was gone in 1.8 seconds.

If some of the cowboys wanted him bucked off, they kept it under their Resistols. If there was envy, you didn't see it.

Fact is, in the hours leading up to something called "The Bud Light Million-Dollar Bounty (presented by Ford Trucks)" -- aka "The Richest Eight Seconds in Sporting History" -- the other cowboys had nothing but heartfelt good things to say about Chris Shivers. "When he's right, ain't a bull in the world can throw him," said J.W. Hart, the Iron Man of the Professional Bull Riders tour. "I think he'll do it," said Jim "The Razor" Sharp, a twenty-year veteran of the bucking wars who's apparently held together with baling wire. "I hope Chris wins the million," his good friend Mike White said, "and I win the 'world.' You bet against Shivers, you're gonna lose."

Not necessarily. Late Saturday afternoon, at the end of a regular PBR tour event inside the World Arena in Colorado Springs, the 24-year-old bullrider from Jonesville, Louisiana, carefully slid his lithe, 145-pound frame over the back of Little Yellow Jacket, who, by vote of all 45 riders on the tour, had been elected PBR Bull of the Year. The chute men cinched the flat-weave rope tight over Shivers's gloved left hand, fastening him to the bull's mud-colored hide. Then the five-foot-five-inch cowboy gently lowered his back pockets toward imminent danger and waggled his legs over the animal's huge flanks, feeling for something like comfort, some myth of permanence in the fit. Eight seconds. That's all he would need.

The buckin' stops here: Bullrider Chris Shivers tries 
hard to hang on.
The buckin' stops here: Bullrider Chris Shivers tries hard to hang on.

As usual, Little Yellow Jacket disapproved of the seating arrangement.

When Shivers nodded his head and the gate swung open, 1,700 pounds of yellow-eyed, mud-faced fury burst out onto the arena floor with this little red-shirted, black-hatted annoyance of a rag doll pinned to its back. Cheers erupted, but in the tense instant before most fans could click their shutters, the raging bull bucked straight ahead twice, then ducked his head and swerved sharply to the left, like a middle linebacker plugging a hole. Wide-eyed Chris Shivers bounced shoulder blades first into the dirt. He had lost the million. Little Yellow Jacket had won the consolation prize for his owners: $50,000. The place fell silent, as though everybody had lost.

"I got a little emotional in the chute," Shivers admitted later. "A little pumped up. I was anxious and tried to do more than I should've."

An instant after the crash landing, a cowboy-hatted boy high in the packed rafters lowered his placard. SPUR THE HAIR OFF HIM, CHRIS, it had said. Then the arena clock flashed blood-red digits. They were sad ones, at least for the cause of Homo sapiens. Man had remained aboard Beast for a mere 1.8 seconds. Today, Nature was the winner. So was that old enemy of drama, Anti-Climax. The toughest, rankest bull on tour had prevailed. For his part, Shivers crumpled down to his haunches at the arena fence and, for just a couple of post-ride seconds, threw his face into his hands. Enough. He jumped up, grabbed his hat and waved it gamely to the crowd. Then he strode off toward the pens in the gimpy, bone-weary gait common to men who shatter their ankles as often as the rest of us eat lunch, who crack ribs like we crack jokes and rip ligaments in their riding hands, then promptly come back for more. Concussions are so prevalent on the rodeo and bullriding circuits, one veteran cowboy says, "It's a wonder we can remember our wives' names -- or our own."

It's a good bet that not many people outside the rough-and-tumble of the PBR tour -- don't call it rodeo, pardner, this here's its own sport -- will remember Chris Shivers's name after this week. The PBR has been slowly building its audience since it broke away from the mainstream rodeo circuit ten years ago, and some of the 29 tour stops that make up a season previously knew cowboys only from John Wayne movies -- places such as Philadelphia, Anaheim, Baltimore and Worcester, Massachusetts. But bullriding still does its bucking in the margins, and it could be a long time before it gets another chance for big-time publicity like it got Saturday in Colorado Springs.

To hear him tell it, Chris Shivers took his shot at Wealth in the Afternoon (our apologies to Mr. Hemingway) not just for himself, his wife and his three-month-old son, but for all the other cowboys in the brotherhood of pain, past and present. "Sure, I feel a lot of pressure," he said two days before the event. "I'd love to win a million dollars, but this is also for my sport. There's gonna be a big live audience and a big TV audience, and I just wanna do well."

A shy, quiet boy who grew up on a 170-acre Louisiana ranch, Shivers rode his first bull in a kiddie rodeo at age fourteen, despite his father's skepticism, and signed on with the PBR the day he turned eighteen -- the same day he became eligible. The only thing he's ever wanted to do, he says, is climb aboard a slavering, giant beast with dung stains on its rump and evil in its eye and, as the boy in the rafters implored, spur the hair off him. From the start of his career, Shivers was a standout. In his third season, 1998, he took home more than $300,000. In his fifth year, he won the PBR World Championship. Already the tour's youngest millionaire -- his earnings over eight years now total $1.5 million -- he got Saturday's million-dollar try aboard Little Yellow Jacket because he's the PBR's leading point-scorer again this year. Little matter that Shivers was already 0-for-4 on this ferocious bull, on rides dating back to 2001, or that the animal had a career record of 46 wins and just eight losses against the riders who drew him.

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