Canada

Faceoff with death

DALE EISLER July 21 1997
Canada

Faceoff with death

DALE EISLER July 21 1997

Faceoff with death

CALGARY

Two hours before coming face-to-face with his first enraged bull of the afternoon, Ryan Byrne is already preparing himself for the confrontation. Sitting in a small windowless room, deep beneath the grandstand at the Calgary Stampede Rodeo, Byrne surveys a hockey bag stuffed with the tools of his trade: high-top Reebok football cleats, a plastic cast for an ankle he broke in May, two knee braces that extend from mid-calf to mid-thigh, baggy cutoff jeans and suspenders, a flak jacket, a cowboy hat—and face paint. Outside, 11,000 spectators are eagerly awaiting one of the most popular events at what is billed as the greatest outdoor show on earth—the annual nine-day celebration of western heritage that ended July 13. “Every time you go out ifs an adrenaline rush,” says Byrne, 33, who is considered one of the world’s best rodeo bullfighters. ‘You never know what’s going to happen. I love it.”

Who’s to argue with someone who fights bulls for a living? To many casual rodeo observers, bullfighters seem somewhere between comedians and madmen. But the truth has little to do with the aura of buffoonery that goes with their garish outfits and painted faces. The task of rodeo bullfighters is simple and dangerous: to save rid-

ers from serious injury, even death. To do it, they put themselves in harm’s way by getting the bull’s attention so that a fallen rider can escape, or be carried, to safety. To survive the horns and hooves of snorting, groaning animals weighing 900 kg apiece, Byrne depends on his wits, speed, courage —and a wry sense of humor. Asked if he says a prayer before going one-on-one with the bulls, Byrne says no. But, he adds, “I’ll say a real quick one that instant when I see the horn coming. You know, HOLY....” Sometimes, it is not enough. Nine years ago, at a rodeo in Morris, Man., Byrne moved in to save a rider knocked unconscious after being thrown by a bull. The spinning animal’s hind legs crashed into Byrne, hurling him onto the bull’s horn. It struck him with a sickening thud between the eyes. Rushed to a Winnipeg hospital, he underwent two hours of surgery to extricate a piece of horn embedded in the sinus cavity above the bridge of his nose. He was back in the rodeo ring six weeks later. “I suppose it makes you think about your family,” reflects Byrne, who lives with his wife and three sons on a farm just east of Prince Albert, Sask. “But I figure this is what I was born to do, so you just climb back on the bike and get after it.”

Growing up on the Saskatchewan farm, Byrne dreamed of being a rodeo cowboy.

But his hefty size—he is sixfeet, two-inches tall and weighs 220 lb.—was against him. Riding bulls or wild broncs is a skill better suited to smallerframed cowboys. So Byrne did the next best thing: when he was a teenager, he turned to bullfighting, apprenticing for two years under Baton Rouge, La., native Kelly LaCoste, considered by many as the greatest bullfighter of all time. Byrne joined the elite of rodeo bullfighters in 1987, when he was chosen to work the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, an event cowboys say is the rodeo equivalent of the Super Bowl and World Series rolled into one. “Ryan is the top bullfighter, period—there’s no doubt about it,” says Cody Snyder, 34, of High River, Alta., who won the world bull riding championship in Las Vegas in 1983.

Snyder should know. Before a chronic wrist problem caused by an old injury ended his career in 1993, Synder climbed onto about 2,000 bulls intent on doing him serious harm. “The fact that I was able to last as long as I did I owe to bullfighters,” Snyder says. ‘They saved me many, many times, and when Ryan was out there I always felt a little more confident.” The accolades are well-deserved. Standing on the sidelines in his street clothes at the National Finals Rodeo in 1993, where he was working as an alternate, Byrne leapt into the ring to save a rider being dragged by a bull that had already trampled two bullfighters.

It can be a deadly occupation. Five years ago at the National Finals Rodeo, Texas rider Brent Thurman was killed when he was crushed by a bull’s hooves, and more recently, Lane Frost, a rider from Oklahoma, died at a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyo., when a bull’s horn severed a major artery. Acutely aware of the danger, Byrne seems to thrive on it rather than worry about what might happen. In fact, he talks about the bulls as if they were opponents—some better and more challenging than others—that need to be studied, understood and respected.

The most fearsome bull he has ever stared down, he says, was called Crooked Nose, a hostile, 1,000-kg animal with only one horn. “He was the most athletic bull I ever faced, as fast and nimble as a bull half his size—and twice as mean,” recalls Byrne. There is no mistaking the respect in his voice as he laces up his cleats, puts on his clown face and heads out the door. “Wish me luck,” he says. He’ll need it.

DALE EISLER