The Last Gladiators: Bronco Riders Earn Their Money the Hard Way, 8 Seconds at a Time

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The cowboy climbs atop the bronco and slips his glove-clad hand into the rigging. On his cue, the gate fires open. In the blink of an eye, the bronco transforms into a hurricane with hooves. Man versus beast has begun, and man is armed with nothing.

Due in large part to repeated jabs to its torso from the spurs on the cowboy's boots, the incensed 1,200-pound beast tries to toss the cowboy from its bare back as quickly and violently as possible, using a series of one-second kicks and thrusts each of which jolts the cowboy's skeletal system in ways normally reserved for a crash-test dummy.

If the cowboy is lucky, he will last for eight seconds up there. If the cowboy is lucky, he will come away with just a few bruises and a wildly sore back. If the cowboy is lucky, he will be able to cover his expenses and entry costs with his prize money.

Either way, whatever happens, we are all entertained.

In about a week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will begin, and for the next three subsequent weeks, we will see that scene play out literally dozens of times -- cowboy climbs on beast, cowboy rides beast, beast jettisons cowboy onto his head. And our natural "sports fan detachment" gene will make us wonder less about what just happened to the disposed cowboy and more about "Who's next?"

It's not right or wrong, it doesn't make us evil, it's just how we're wired.

However, perhaps more than with any other sport, it's the part we don't see that defines the sport of professional rodeo, the untold physical and mental toll the competitors are willing to endure because they love what they do. In those eight seconds, from "Go!" to "Splat!" exactly what price did we just witness paid by that competitor?

"Physically, in that one ride, you see the same amount of pain inflicted on a cowboy as a football player endures in a whole game," says Clint Cannon, a Waller native, two-time Rodeo Houston bareback bronco-riding champion (2009 and 2011), and longtime stalwart on the professional rodeo circuit. "It's the most dangerous sport in the world. More dangerous than the NFL, more dangerous than the UFC. It's part football game, part fistfight, but your opponent is a 1,200-pound beast."

Of all the cowboys on the rodeo circuit, Cannon is the one probably best qualified to make comparisons to the sport of football, having played fullback at Stephen F. Austin back in the early 2000s. Cannon loved football but was drawn to rodeo, and after dropping 50 pounds ("A one-year diet of cereal and chicken tenders, because it's all I could afford," he says), he started on the professional rodeo circuit in 2003.

Since that time, Cannon has continually adapted preparation methods normally reserved for football into his rodeo routine. "I work out like I'm a running back," Cannon reveals. "I have trainers that prepare crazy workouts for me, workouts designed for agility and fast reaction."

Channeling his inner Peyton Manning, Cannon also studies ungodly amounts of video of his rides, trying frame by frame to work and improve at his craft. "I watch every ride I've ever been on, over and over. I study every little movement to get any edge I can," Cannon says.

It's one thing to try to get an edge studying the tendencies of a middle linebacker at Sam Houston State, but it's entirely another thing to study film when the opponent is a to-be-determined angry, half-ton bucking bronco. Humans are predictable; horses are crazy.

"Animals are there to fight," Cannon contends. "They're literally trying to survive, and in rodeo there are no timeouts. If you stop or you quit, that beast can kill you."

Beyond the blunt-force punishment of those eight seconds, though, there is a greater price many of these competitors pay. For a number of cowboys, the acute danger of actually riding is endured under a latent cloud of stress caused by "the life."

Rodeo is the ultimate "sing for your supper" sport. If you don't ride, you don't get paid. (Hell, sometimes when you do ride, you don't get paid.) In turn, this means cowboys are on the road for several months out of the year, sometimes for several weeks consecutively with no return home.

That combination of variable income and absence from loved ones can be combustible, according to Cannon. "It's really stressful on whoever you're with, your significant other," says Cannon, who is married with a young daughter. "I tell young guys all the time, don't get married until you're established on the circuit. I've seen guys call home because they didn't win enough to cover their entry fees. That's not fun, man."

Certainly, calls home to share negative news about finances are unpleasant. However, the calls home that inflict the most pain on a cowboy's relationship are the ones that don't come from him. They're the ones that come from a friend or a doctor telling a wife or girlfriend about the serious injury her loved one just sustained. Cannon knows this all too well.

"There was a rodeo in Lexington a few years ago, and I got dumped on my head by the horse," Cannon recalls. "I was knocked out so badly, the other guys had to call Lindsey to find out if I flew there or drove, because I couldn't remember."

In the grand scheme of rodeo earnings, most cowboys don't make enough for rodeoing to be their sole source of income. Clint Cannon is actually one of the lucky ones. He's been a Top 10 finisher multiple times and is approaching $1,000,000 in career earnings. He also has a successful commercial landscaping business on the side that he runs with his family.

Still, whenever the time comes for him to hang up the spurs, Cannon can't just retire. "I'm still gonna have to work," he says. "And that's what's tough. A lot of guys retire and then get pulled back in because they think they can get a quick hit of cash with one more ride."

So if you're destroying your body, you're on the road for months at a time and you're struggling to earn a living, why do this? Why rodeo?

"It's the adrenaline rush, man," Cannon gleams. "I've seen guys pop shoulders back in to get back up on that horse. I can't tell you the rush that goes through your body during those eight seconds."

Those eight seconds. For all the hard work, sacrifice, broken bones and relationship carnage that go into being a rodeo cowboy, ultimately, it's those eight seconds that, in our eyes, define them. "Rodeo is a fistfight, and you don't get paid unless you win," Cannon says calmly.

"We are the last gladiators."

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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