The Life of a Rodeo Cowboy: Glory, Thrills and Career-Threatening Concussions

Clint Cannon, a bareback rider from Waller, Texas, estimates he’s been knocked out ten times throughout the course of his career.
Clint Cannon, a bareback rider from Waller, Texas, estimates he’s been knocked out ten times throughout the course of his career.
Daniel Kramer

Somehow, Clint Cannon was still wearing his cowboy hat.

The bareback rider from Waller, Texas, had just been bucked off a horse named Wilson Sanchez at the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Just as he was approaching that eight-second mark, his head whacked against the horse’s backside, knocking him out instantly and sending him flying backward into the dirt. The crowd let out a collective gasp. Cannon’s wife, Lindsey, let out a scream.

Clint, where are you? the rodeo medical staff asked him. Clint, what day is it?

It was day six of the National Finals Rodeo — “the Super Bowl of rodeo,” as Cannon describes it. For ten nights straight, the best of the best compete for roughly $30,000 a night riding on the backs of the “rankest buckin’ horses and bulls in the world,” 38-year-old Cannon says. The crowd goes nuts as the bulls and broncs jerk the cowboys around like chew toys, spitting them out onto the dirt every now and then, stripping them of a few ounces of cowboy bravado for only a few moments — until they stand back up and brush themselves off, as though their falls were no worse than a paper cut.

That was Cannon’s plan, anyway. After about a minute of lying motionless, he came to, feeling a pounding pain in his head and a sharp pain in his shin — Wilson Sanchez had kicked him on the way down. Cannon wouldn’t be walking out on his own. Dr. Tandy Freeman, an orthopedic surgeon who is the head doctor for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, told Cannon he had likely sustained a concussion and would need to undergo a concussion evaluation, consisting of various memory-recall exercises and motor-skills tests.

“Tandy had said, ‘I’m gonna give you this test, but even if you do okay on this test, sit out,’” Cannon remembered. “He was like, ‘Do you want long-term brain injuries?’”

The next morning, Cannon failed — badly. He was faced with one of the toughest decisions of his career: He could either get back on the horse and tough it out, or he could take the doc’s advice and take it easy — losing out on the possibility of all that prize money and the opportunity to be named a world champion.

It’s the decision that all rodeo cowboys will face at one point, if not a dozen times, in their careers. In rodeo, there are very few protocols barring injured cowboys and cowgirls from competing. There is no governing body overseeing all professional rodeo athletes as in the NFL and NHL — instead, the athletes operate more like independent contractors. Only doctors at Professional Bull Riders-sanctioned events, making up just a tiny fraction of rodeos, have the authority to make severely concussed riders sit out, and the NFR is the only Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned rodeo where Freeman could have forced riders like Cannon to take the bench if he didn’t make the choice himself.

Still, over the past few years, more and more riders have been making that choice on their own as attitudes toward concussions in rodeo have begun changing — even more so over the past couple of months.

In January, the death of star bull rider Ty Pozzobon shook the rodeo world. At the height of his career, Pozzobon committed suicide, slowly unraveling after having endured more than a dozen serious concussions, by some of his friends’ and family’s estimates. His wife, Jayd, said a neurologist had told him in early 2015 that it was time to hang up his hat, but Pozzobon couldn’t seem to let go. “It was always his decision that prevailed, because passion is irrational, you know?” Jayd said. “By the end of his career, it would come down to near begging, asking him to stop, but he wasn’t going to. He loved it so much. And he was so good at it.”

A year after Cannon’s head injury at the NFR, he is grappling with the same decision — to quit or to ride. Though it was difficult, he sat out for ten months after the injury, at the advice of doctors like Freeman and the urging of his wife. He thinks this is his last year in the rodeo. He says this year’s RodeoHouston will be his last time competing at the NRG Stadium classic. Still, hearing Cannon talk about the thrill of the ride, about waiting for the chutes to open while sitting on the back of a 2,000-pound beast, it’s easy to see that he could change his mind.

Problem is, every time he’s back at the rodeo, he finds himself itching for that adrenaline rush again. When he sat out at the NFR after failing the concussion test, he lasted only two days watching from the bench. Growing restless, he asked Freeman if he could retake the test. He passed it.

Then he got back on the horse.

***
Cannon with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children, one-year-old Carson and three-year-old Kaitlyn, who won a buckle in the muttonchops contest last year.
Cannon with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children, one-year-old Carson and three-year-old Kaitlyn, who won a buckle in the muttonchops contest last year.
Daniel Kramer

His friends used to call him “Coconut.”

As a kid, Cannon was known for being hard-headed in the most literal of ways: falling off the backs of trucks and landing on his head, seeing stars as a running back in football while gearing up for the second half.

The youngest of five boys, Cannon says his brothers taught him how to take a blow and brush it off. His family grew up poor in Waller in the 1980s, all of them packed into a tiny one-bedroom, one-bathroom house, where Cannon shared a bed with his dad until the seventh grade. With his father working at a machine shop in Houston all day and late into the evenings, Cannon and his brothers usually drifted from neighbor to neighbor for lunches and dinners, spending most of their time playing football and staining their blue jeans when they weren’t at school.

His parents had been divorced since Cannon was just a baby. It was right around the time his father quit professional rodeo as a bareback rider in order to raise the boys, one of whom he adopted. Yet despite his father’s longtime rodeo lifestyle, it was never part of Cannon’s childhood. His dad never talked about it. They didn’t go to rodeos, didn’t watch them on television. Cannon began to love horses only when visiting with his mom, who had some of her own. Too poor to afford saddles, he was riding bareback then too.

By his senior year of high school, Cannon had his sights set on either the military or college football — and he ended up with the latter. A highly recruited player, he landed a full-ride athletic scholarship at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he played fullback. But as his last season drew to a close, uncertainty about his future began to consume him. He realized he hadn’t thought a day beyond his life as a college football player, and knew shooting for the big leagues was unrealistic. He grew depressed, unsure what he would do next. “I was known as a big bad football player all around,” Cannon said, “and now I’m just gonna be a guy working in an office or something.”

The idea came to him seemingly out of nowhere. He was up late watching TV, flipping through the channels, when he got pulled into a rodeo on TNT — and then it hit him like a linebacker. “I thought, son of a bitch. That’s what I wanna do,” Cannon said.

By the next weekend, he was on the back of a bull. He got bucked off within one or two seconds — but it was just long enough to convince Cannon that he had found what he was looking for.

Following his dad, he ended up sticking with bareback riding; he was better at it. People thought he was nuts — and Cannon agreed. They asked him all the time: How did the thrill and the pain of riding compare to playing football? To Cannon it wasn’t even a question. Football was full of adrenaline, sure — but bareback riding, Cannon said, was like walking along the edge of a cliff and looking down.“To give you the best realistic picture of it,” he said, “bareback riding is like somebody tying your arm to a truck, taking off and slamming on the brakes while somebody hits you in the back with a baseball bat. That’s what it feels like.”

Throughout the early years of Cannon’s career, he was perpetually poor and injured. If he ever dislocated a shoulder, sometimes he taped it in place; other times he walked into a hospital to get it fixed, then paid with however many dollars he had in his wallet. When debt collectors came after him, he offered up 20 bucks here and 50 bucks there until they eventually lost interest.

Head injuries, however, were more invisible. Coupled with the financial need to compete and the rough-and-tough cowboy culture, usually, the concussions went untreated.

There was the time Cannon’s traveling partner threw up in the backseat of the car all night on a trip from Wyoming to the next day’s rodeo in Oregon after getting bucked earlier and landing on his head. He rode the next day at 1 p.m. There was the time Cannon’s good friend got knocked out at RodeoHouston and didn’t know where he was. Sidestepping the medical team, Cannon and other riders called their friend’s dad to ask what they should do with him — and the old cowboy told his son to get back on the horse and go win some money.

“It’s hard, because you’re riding to feed your families,” Cannon said, “and these kids, these younger kids, are riding for their future: for their house, for whatever’s gonna set them up for life, because this is their job. So it’s tough to make that decision to not do it. I don’t know how you can ever govern that in rodeo.”
Before the NFR in 2015, Cannon’s biggest scare came a couple of years earlier at a rodeo in Lexington, Kentucky. The horse he was riding came rocketing out of the chutes, rearing up and kicking madly — and then lost its footing. It stumbled as Cannon hung on, but in order to get back up, it flung Cannon off its back and into the wall. Cannon’s head nailed the arena floor on the way down, but he walked away seemingly unscathed.

An hour later, Lindsey, watching the rodeo from Cannon’s dad’s house, got a phone call from his friends. The first thing they told her: Cannon thought he was in Texas. He didn’t know if he had rented a car or if he had a hotel room. He was confused about why all guys from Kentucky were down in his neck of the woods.

“I had to sit on the phone with him and say, ‘Okay, do you remember last night the cows got out? Then first thing in the morning, I drove you to the airport?’” Lindsey said. “It took a while for the connections to finally start going through again. I told him, ‘You need to come home. We need to make an appointment with a neurologist.’ ”

They met with Dr. Kenneth Podell, a neuropsychologist and director of the Houston Methodist Concussion Center. One thing he wanted to know, Lindsey said, was why wasn’t Cannon wearing a helmet?


***

For decades, things like “safety” and “sports medicine” were sort of an oxymoron in the rough-stock rodeo sports.

Lagging behind just about every other professional sport, the rodeo didn’t even have a sports medicine program until 1980. Called the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, it was founded by Dr. Don Andrews and Dr. J. Pat Evans, who at the time was the Dallas Cowboys’ athletic trainer. They were welcomed into the sport with skepticism and resistance from the rodeo athletes, who at first didn’t seem to give a damn about their advice.

“When Justin Sportsmedicine started out,” said Tandy Freeman, who is also the current medical director of Justin Sportsmedicine, “the joke was that sports medicine back in the ’80s in rodeo amounted to a bottle of aspirin and a six-pack of beer. And if that didn’t take care of the problem, you doubled up on the beer.”

Back then, little was known about the long-term effects of concussions or even the proper way to gauge their severity — in any sport, really. Freeman said that evaluations were often unscientific in the ’80s and early ’90s, using criteria now considered unreliable, such as how long the athlete was unconscious or whether he had any amnesia, to decide how long he might need to take the bench. The NFL didn’t even formally acknowledge the danger of concussions until 1994.

But, unlike in the NFL, the doctors and athletic trainers in rodeo had no leverage over the athletes — a problem that largely still exists today. Andrews, now retired, said it took several years before the cowboys began trusting their advice, sometimes only after getting more injured after ignoring his or another doc’s recommendation that they sit out. “The peer pressure [among athletes] was tremendous,” Andrews said. “The attitude was, ‘Well, if you don’t wanna get hurt, don’t do that. Go play this other game.’ We had to face this pushback as well.”

Shortly after getting started, in 1981, Andrews and Evans commissioned a 25-year study documenting all injuries at nearly 2,000 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos. They found that injuries to the head and face accounted for 15 percent of all injuries (the most of any body part) — but of the 1,650 injuries considered major, concussions made up 50 percent of them. Not long after these results were released, a study in 2007 found that, in general, the injury rate in bull riding is ten times greater than in football and 13 times greater than in ice hockey.

Yet despite the obvious risks, rodeo regulations have evolved at a staggeringly slow pace compared with those in other sports — mostly because of that independent-contractor relationship. It wasn’t until 2012 that PBR began administering concussion evaluations at all of its rodeos, and not until 2013 that it began requiring all bull riders born after October 15, 1994, to wear helmets at all PBR-sanctioned rodeos — much like the way the NHL grandfathered in the use of helmets in 1979. Still, the veteran cowboys, set in their ways, remain immune to the new helmet rules.

“The resistance to helmets is largely one of athlete perception,” Freeman said. “They either perceive the helmet as not fitting their swagger or their cowboy image, or they perceive the helmet as something that interferes with their ability to ride. Guys will say, ‘It interferes with my vision,’ or ‘it’s heavy — It interferes with my balance.’ There are a lot of excuses guys have. But the reality of it is that most guys don’t wear a helmet because they didn’t have to wear a helmet when they were coming up.”

As it turns out, the thing about helmets in rodeo is that they do very little to prevent concussions — especially in bareback riding. University of Texas Medical Branch studies at RodeoHouston have found the G-force bareback riders experience to be far more intense than in bull riding. It’s the main reason most bareback riders, including Cannon, don’t wear helmets.

Podell said helmets in rodeo are mostly intended to protect against skull fractures or brain bleeding, which are often possible if riders get stomped on. But to sustain a concussion, riders don’t need to hit their heads at all. Concussions, he said, are caused when the brain sloshes up against the skull — and whether a person is wearing a helmet or not, that’s nearly impossible to prevent when that person is riding on the back of a raging bull or a bucking bronco.

Even one of the best bull riders in the world, Ty Pozzobon, who chose to wear a helmet, could not escape the corrosive effects of repeated concussions. Even at the young age of 25.

***
Ty Pozzobon hangs onto a bucking bull at RodeoHouston.
Ty Pozzobon hangs onto a bucking bull at RodeoHouston.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

In the weeks before his death, Ty Pozzobon was fretting about the cattle.

He and his dad, Luke, had spent the last five years growing the herd from mother cows on acreage in Merritt, British Columbia, where Pozzobon lived part of the year and where he was living during his last month. When he wasn’t in Canada, he lived in Texas with his wife, Jayd.

He was coming off one of his most successful years yet: In 2016, he was the Professional Bull Riders Canada champion and finished fourth in the PBR World Finals, his fourth time as a world finalist. In that competition, he rode with a broken wrist. He appeared to be at the peak of his career, but those who knew him closely could see that something was wrong.

For his parents, it started with the cows. During that last month, he became inexplicably anxious about them, calling around and trying to sell the whole herd. And his future. He started worrying nonstop about his future, asking his parents and his best friend Chad Besplug on a near-constant basis,  but what am I gonna do after bull riding?

He stopped eating and he stopped sleeping, consumed by the question. He had been doing commercials for Ford and had offers to do stunts in movies, but started turning them down. “He would say, ‘I’m not really into it right now.’ Then in the next breath: ‘What am I gonna do after bull riding?’ ” his mother, Leanne, remembered. “It was like a black hole he was in, and he felt there was no way of getting out of it. His stomach was churning all the time.”

About a week before he committed suicide in his home, Jayd said, he called from the grocery store. He was so anxious he had to leave.

For Jayd, Pozzobon’s parents and his closest friends, the source of Pozzobon’s sudden change in behavior, his bouts of depression and crippling anxiety, appeared obvious: It was the concussions.

His family and friends estimate he sustained 10 to 15 severe concussions throughout his eight-year pro rodeo career, but Luke and Leanne fear there were others Pozzobon kept silent about. Reviewing medical records since high school, they were aghast at how many concussions he sustained in just one year, some they never knew about. “[The doctor’s notes] would be like, ‘He got bucked off and can’t see out of his right eye,’ ” Leanne said. “The next visit was, ‘Two concussions since the last visit.’ ”

Jayd said the turning point came in November 2014, when Pozzobon sustained the most severe concussion of his career at a rodeo in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Riding on the back of Bootstrap Bill, he was knocked out before he even hit the ground. When he did, the bull stomped on his head, shattering his helmet to pieces. He was unconscious for 24 minutes.

Jayd flew up from their home in Gonzales, Texas, to be with her husband while he recovered at his friend Tanner Byrne’s house for the next two weeks — Byrne lived near Saskatoon. This one seemed worse than the others, or perhaps it was simply the buildup of head injuries reaching a breaking point, friends and family said. Pozzobon’s speech was slurred. The light hurt his eyes. He was constantly dizzy, medicating pounding headaches. He had short-term memory loss. One night after supper at Byrne’s in-laws’ house, Pozzobon got lost on the way home. The in-laws lived next door.

Pozzobon ultimately recovered from the headaches and the haze, but friends say he seemed to lose a little piece of himself, never fully returning to the ever-social Ty Pozzobon they knew best.

“He became a lot more distant,” Byrne said. “He knew something was wrong, but bull riding was his life. That’s how he made his living and that’s the job that he did, and all we’ve ever done is ride bulls. So there was never really a question that we were going to quit or we were gonna stop. We hadn’t thought about anything past bull riding.”

Last month, as the news of Pozzobon’s death continued to ripple through the rodeo circuit, friends and family launched the Ty Pozzobon Foundation. In what appears to be a first-of-its-kind initiative in rodeo, the foundation is seeking to raise awareness about the gravity of concussions and the stigma of mental health in rodeo. Pozzobon’s family and friends hope to raise enough donations and support so that the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team can be present at every professional rodeo event in Canada. And they want the rodeo athletes to have someone to turn to when they fall into depression or anxiety — something Byrne says is far more common in rodeo than most realize.

“We all deal with some sort of anxiety — probably four out five people are on this same page,” Byrne said. “We’re the toughest athletes that people see on TV, and I feel like if they can see me ride a 2,000-pound bull and show how tough I am, then I can show them that I’m willing to talk about the stigma of mental health.”

Bull rider Ted Stovin, another of Pozzobon’s 15 groomsmen and best friends, said he wrote an essay shortly after Pozzobon’s death, detailing the first time he had an anxiety attack at a rodeo and how he didn’t know how to speak out about it. That day, he received several phone calls from riders struggling with the same thing. “I thought I was alone,” Stovin said. “They were my friends already, and I didn’t even know.”

Pozzobon’s brain is now at the University of Washington School of Medicine — he had agreed to donate it for research before he died. Luke and Leanne believe their son may have suffered from a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which researchers have tied to repeated concussions. But it can only be diagnosed postmortem. It’s something researchers are only beginning to understand.

***

Until a discomforting breakthrough in 2002, chronic traumatic encephalopathy was thought to affect only a small number of boxers, in very rare cases.

The literature about the disease begins in 1928, when it was colloquially known as “punch-drunk,” plaguing the slugging boxers known to suffer repeated blows to the head. Yet for the next 75 years, few resources were devoted to understanding or treating the disease, and public interest remained stagnant as medical researchers believed it was limited and contained.

Then came the discovery in 2002. At the age of 50, former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster died of a heart attack. He had lost the handle on himself toward the end, living out of a truck with a garbage bag covering a broken window. He was often dazed, ingesting a cocktail of medications to ward off depression and anxiety. He frequently forgot to eat. He often stunned himself unconscious with a Taser gun just to get some sleep.

Searching for what went wrong, after his death, neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu was assigned to study Webster’s brain. And what he discovered has since been called the autopsy that changed football, revolutionizing doctors’ understanding of repeated concussions in contact sports.

Omalu found CTE eating Mike Webster’s brain. It was the first time the neurodegenerative disease had ever been found in anyone other than a boxer, and suddenly Omalu feared the disease could be silently affecting an untold number of other athletes sustaining blows to the head on a regular basis. So in spite of the NFL’s willful incredulity, Omalu kept searching. Within a few years, he found CTE in the brains of former Steelers guard Terry Long, who drank himself to death with a gallon of antifreeze at 45; former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, who shot himself at 44; and former Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who died in an explosive car accident at 36. Hearing voices, Strzelczyk, at 90 miles an hour, was frantically fleeing people he called the evil ones.

“Until recently, there wasn’t a really tremendous motivation or devotion of resources to study this,” said Dr. C. Dirk Keene, associate professor of pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and leader of UW’s Neuropathology and Targeted Molecular Testing Core. “But when it was described in football players, that brought it into more mainstream sports, and now the question is, what is the involvement [of CTE] in all these other activities?”

CTE has since been discovered in military vets, hockey players, wrestlers, victims of domestic abuse and even clowns repeatedly shot out of cannons. But the rate or prevalence of CTE across the board is still unknown, and there is still no surefire way to diagnose someone with CTE during life. Like Alzheimer’s disease, once the person appears to be showing symptoms, it may be too late to reverse. That’s why, Keene said, brain donations like Pozzobon’s are so necessary. “These gifts are just truly tremendous from each of these people,” Keene said. “It’s moving every time you get a brain to examine.”

Through neuro-imaging and neuropathology, Keene and his colleague, Dr. Christine MacDonald, associate professor of neurosurgery, will delve into Ty Pozzobon’s brain tissue, comparing what they find postmortem with other brain images recorded while he was alive. The goal is that, through enough brain donations, researchers will ultimately understand how concussions or trauma may have changed the brain over time, revealing signs and markers of CTE that may be identifiable in living people’s brains.

Podell at the Houston Methodist Concussion Center is also among a handful of researchers across the country studying how a buildup of tau protein in the brain may be one of those markers that lead to a diagnosis. In fact, Clint Cannon said he signed up to be a part of the study. He thought that maybe if his brain showed that tau protein buildup, that would be his sign to quit. Let someone else make the decision for him, he thought — let it be an objective brain analysis.

But the thing about brain studies, particularly the ones examining long-term effects of concussions, is that they do not conclude for years, Podell said, and meanwhile Cannon keeps getting older.
He says thinking about the future scares him sometimes. He’s afraid to end up like Mike Webster or the others, battling his own brain, losing his grip. Sometimes he catches himself slurring a word, or forgetting something his wife just told him to do minutes ago. He worries it means something.

***

Within moments of barreling out of the chutes Sunday night during his last ride at RodeoHouston, Clint Cannon’s cowboy hat was doing circles in the air.

His lime-green chaps flapped around like a flag on a windy day as he dug his spurs into the horse’s sides, kicking upward and outward as the horse leapt through the arena like an Olympic hurdler. His left arm jerked around wildly, until the eight-second buzzer sounded, and Cannon was back on his feet.
“He’s given us a phenomenal decade of buckin’ horse riding,” the announcer said, noting Cannon’s looming retirement. “His commitment to being a rodeo athlete over the last 15 years has been painful at times… He’ll be fine.”

Cannon, scoring middle-of-the-pack all three nights, would not be advancing to the finals—perhaps an anticlimactic finish for the two-time RodeoHouston champ. But as he walked back toward the chutes he was smiling. He stopped just before exiting the arena, turning to wave to the thousands of spectators, soaking up his last time under the NRG Stadium lights. Yet the moment seemed to transpire before it had really begun. The announcer had already moved on to introduce the next rider, and the crowd had turned its attention to a rodeo trivia question up on the big-screen. Cannon had hoped the moment could have lasted longer, he said later.

But that’s the thing about rodeo, Cannon said: The sport moves so fast, with no shortage of young, eager thrill seekers waiting their turn behind the chutes, that there is no time for sentimentalities.

He fears once he leaves for good that most in professional rodeo will forget his name, that his old buddies from the touring circuit will stop calling. He’s got his landscaping business he’s been running on the side; he’s got his wife and kids to look out for. But for Cannon—like for most rodeo cowboys—giving up his identity has been easier said than done.

“It’s like that time during my life when I was done playing football,” Cannon said, “watching TV late at night, wondering, what am I gonna do next?”


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