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Cowboy Up

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

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.

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.

"It's something I love to do," Shivers had said before his ride. "I guess it's in my blood. Live a cowboy, die a cowboy. For me, that's all there is."

Well, except for what he had to go through before his reunion with Little Yellow Jacket. There was the trip to L.A. to appear on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. A dozen radio interviews. Then off to New York to do Live With Regis and Kelly, whereupon the cowboy who would rather be anywhere else had to sit there and smile while they propped giggling host Regis Philbin up on a mechanical bull "bucking" at the rate of a backyard hammock. More radio and newspaper interviews. A press conference in the Springs on Thursday afternoon and, Thursday night, a long autograph session at Denver's Grizzly Rose. No wonder Shivers was grabbing cat naps in the car and wondering when the riding would begin. He had the option of skipping his regular mounts in the Colorado Springs Invitational to get ready for the million-dollar thing, but he declined, just as he had declined advice from fellow riders who'd been on Little Yellow Jacket.

Translation: Cowboy pride. Work hard, play hurt, always ride for the championship buckle. "That's why we do it," he explained. "That buckle means everything, and I'm not done winning 'em yet."

On Saturday, Shivers dragged himself out of bed for an appearance on the Today show at 5:30 in the morning. Little Yellow Jacket showed up, too, looking fit and rested. The bull, someone pointed out, had spent the night at the Broadmoor, while Shivers had bunked with the other cowboys at the Doubletree.

Was the deck stacked, then, for the 1,700-pound bull against the 145-pound cowboy? Maybe, but after the ride, Shivers gave credit where it was due. "Bulls are smarter'n you give 'em credit for," he explained. "...I think he knew that I was getting on him for a million and that he was going to get fifty thousand."

Whatever he knew, Little Yellow Jacket had been, in Shivers's estimation, "sure 'nough rank." Then he narrowed his eyes and said he looked forward to the next encounter with his nemesis, even though the million dollars was history.

Before that, though -- before spurring the hair off him next time around -- Chris Shivers will have to resume the ups and downs of a pro cowboy's life, including the non-cowboy stuff. There will be no Regis this week, no Today. But he is scheduled to appear Saturday at D&B Supply in Caldwell, Idaho, and the week after that, he'll be signing autographs at Red Gate Liquors, in Alexander, Arkansas.


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