Why you should care
Because an old sport is getting new legs.
Swaggering, kicking up dirt with their spurs, 40 strapping men emerge onto the dusty arena floor through a wall of flames shaped into three letters — U-S-A — while pyrotechnics blast furiously from all around them. The crowd, a thousands-strong blur of plaid and cowboy hats, hoots and hollers as the men line up below the pixelated American flag bearing down from multiple screens. A mash-up of electronic dance music and country blares from the speakers while the faint smell of farm life wafts through the air. This is PBR –– Professional Bull Riders — and the dramatic, patriotic opening ritual precedes 50 bouts of brutal, visceral, bone-shattering duels between bull and man.
Although it can trace its history back to Mexican charreada proto-rodeos of the 1600s, bull riding came to the U.S. in the 1930s. Since then, it has simmered to the right of mainstream attention, stuck between a curious exhibition of American cowboy tradition and the bright lights and big money of modern sporting enterprise. Even with the emergence of the Professional Bull Riders league as a formidable touring machine beaming into millions of households on cable, the sport has recently lacked heroes that appeal to younger generations — and threatened to wither into history unless someone bucked life into the scene.
As if on cue, in 2016, the sport met two young upstarts: Jess Lockwood, 19, and Derek Kolbaba, 20. Baby-faced and lithe, neither would look out of place in a boy band, but their grit, toughness and precocious talent have the rodeo world standing at attention as they’ve racked up accolades and victories in quick succession.
Kolbaba emerged first at the tail end of 2015, a bellwether of the impending youth revolt. Square-jawed, mousy-haired and southpaw, the Walla Walla, Washington, native is the son of a bull rider. He began riding soon after he learned to walk, trained by his father on sheep, then calves, then steers and finally bulls, as is rodeo tradition. His big moment came in April 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. After making short work of a muscular, tweed-colored beast named Kookaburra, he was almost gored by the bull, but took home his first PBR crown for his troubles instead. It capped off a six-month rocket ride that saw the rookie’s ranking soar from 66th to seventh in the world.
You can die [from whiplash] every time you nod your head.
Lockwood was a total unknown prior to winning his debut PBR event in front of a hometown crowd in Montana this past April, the same month of Kolbaba’s ascent. At 5-foot-5 and barely over 125 pounds, he strapped in atop Modified Clyde, an all-black behemoth 12 times his weight. It was a near perfect ride, earning 90 points out of a possible 100, at the end of which Lockwood was launched from his perch and landed more than 10 feet away, hard, on his backside –– he’s still getting the hang of dismounts. Luckily, bull riders aren’t judged on those, and Lockwood went on to win PBR’s Rookie of the Year award for 2016.
Lockwood and Kolbaba’s generation has traded the less savory aspects of the cowboy way –– hard drinking, womanizing, living fast –– with sports-science-influenced preparation and a family-first mentality. Both wear helmets, which was considered unfashionable until recently, but is mandatory for riders born after 1994. And both cite their family and small-town upbringing often as part of their identities — they’re humble country kids. Lockwood even went home to his tiny hometown of Volborg, Montana, population 141, in June to compete in the high school state finals, while Kolbaba stopped by home in Washington in July to compete in the provincial Chief Joseph Days Rodeo, an event founded by his grandfather.
The young men’s careers may be full of promise, but equally assured is a lifetime of pain. “It’s not a matter of if you’re gonna get hurt,” says Lockwood. “It’s a matter of when.” Between them, Kolbaba and Lockwood have broken legs, ribs and wrists; suffered concussions; been stomped on by bulls and are thrown hard to the ground with some regularity. “You can die [from whiplash] every time you nod your head,” affirms Kolbaba. It’s not uncommon to see elder riders, bowlegged and hobbling, clutching their ribs to and from every ride –– and those are the lucky ones. “If you have time to think, you’re doing it wrong. That’s when you get hurt,” says Lockwood.
“It must be the worst sport to watch for their moms,” says Leah Garcia, who has seen Lockwood’s and Kolbaba’s worst falls up close and personal as PBR’s in-ring correspondent. But both men’s mothers were equestrian barrel riders themselves — an activity in which two horseback racers compete at breakneck pace on a figure-eight track around two barrels — so they’re no strangers to danger themselves.
Despite their early successes, both Lockwood and Kolbaba have a long way to go. At the World Finals in Las Vegas in November, with all eyes on them, both failed to register a ride in six attempts each. They were miles behind eventual winner Cooper Davis, a 22-year-old from Texas. Some would consider that a disappointment, but in bull riding, the margin between triumph and finding your face in the dirt is so thin that “you just gotta get up and do it again,” says Kolbaba. As he has found, sometimes you can triumph and still find your face in the dirt!
The new PBR season kicks off in January, and, having taken a couple of months to heal their wounds and steel their mettle, both Derek Kolbaba and Jess Lockwood are itching to ride again.