You Can’t Buck with Sean Willingham

Sean Willingham knows his way around an x-ray machine. For the last 16 years, he has been a star on the Professional Bull Riders tour, and he has the scars to prove it. As he enters his 17th, and possibly final season on tour (“I’m taking it one ride at a time,” he says.”), Willingham visited us in New York City to talk about living life eight seconds at a time. 

How did you get started in bull riding?
I grew up in a small town in Georgia (Summerville). The rodeo is the biggest thing that happens there all year. I’m 14 years old, and we’re running wild and not really paying attention to what’s going on until the bull riding started. When they started getting ready for the bull riding, the guys running the show were like, “Hey, everybody get your kids away from the fence. You need to back up. Bull riding is about to start.” Well, you tell a kid to back up, we just ran right up to the fence! And nobody could stay on the bull for eight seconds that day.  So like any other kid, I said, “It don’t look that hard. I can do this! I want to try.” My dad knew the guy that put on that Rodeo, so we hounded him all the time. “Hey, we want to get on the bull! Can we try the bull?” Two months later, he finally had enough, and he took us to get on one. After that first time, and I was terrible at it, I was hooked.

Do they give you a tamer bull to get you started?
The size isn’t really different. It’s still a big bull—gigantic in my eyes at the time. The bull didn’t do anything crazy. It just ran around the ring, and I still couldn’t ride him. But my competitive side just came out. I was determined to ride one of these things for eight seconds. I just kept trying and trying until I finally did it. And once I did stay on, I wanted to do it again. I did some high school rodeos in Georgia. I made the nationals all four years in high school. I got a full scholarship to college, and after that, I started doing Professional Bull Riders (PBR) events.

How does riding a mechanical bull compare to riding a real bull?
Ten percent? Maybe five percent? It’s not very similar at all.

Sean Willingham, Fire, Pyro, in the opening during the third round of the Billings PBR 25th Anniversary Unleash the Beast. Photo by Andy Watson

It sounds like your parents were very supportive.
They didn’t really understand why I was trying to be a bull rider (laughs). I guess nobody’s parents ever think that their son would do something like that, especially my mom. She supported me. She was nervous, like all moms would be. She knew the dangers were pretty bad. But I never really broke anything during those first four years. I had maybe one concussion, the bull hit me in the head. But I was fortunate. I didn’t really have a major injury until I broke my ankle when I was 18 and just getting started on the pro tour.

Are injuries at that age just the luck of the draw?
It’s just a matter of when and how bad. If you ride bulls long enough, you are going to get hurt. It’s not only riding the bulls. Then you have to get away from them, and that’s where the danger comes in. It’s not necessarily when you are on top of the bull. It’s when you get thrown from the bull, or even when you have to dismount it after the eight seconds. If you dismount wrong, the bull can step on you, and something’s got to give. You’ve got 1,800 pounds coming down on you from six or seven feet up. It’s going to hurt. Something’s going to break.

It sounds like you have to be incredibly disciplined at all times. If you lapse for a half-second, you are in trouble.
It can happen any second, especially when we are in the chute with them. We’re caged in a steel-plated chute with the bull, so if they start to get crazy, you’re stuck in there. That’s where a lot of injuries happen. Those are the ones you don’t expect, because you are trying to prepare for the battle out in the arena, and then when something happens inside the chute, that metal sure does hurt when they are acting wild.

When you were 14, you probably didn’t start out thinking that you would do this for a living. There are very few guys that ride at the elite level that you do. What did you originally think you were going to do for a living?
I really don’t know. I never thought it would last this long—22 years later. It’s almost unheard of to ride this long, Guys get injuries, or maybe they start losing focus, or they lose the urge to ride. I was just enjoying it. It was a challenge every time. And twentysomething-years later, it’s still a challenge. It doesn’t get any easier. I know a lot more now about bull riding and what I need to do to get better.

Sean Willingham during Round 1 of PBR Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour event in Bangor, ME . Photo by Andre Silva

So when did you feel you could be a pro?
Probably when I was 17. You can’t be a pro until your 18. By the time I turned 17, I was winning almost every event I was going to. I would go to these amateur rodeos, and I was beating out guys who had been doing it for years. My goal was always to be in the PBR, because it had just started in 1994. It was very new when I first started coming around. The PBR was where my heroes were. They were the best in the world. They separated and started the tour, so that’s where I wanted to be.

How long would you say a quality rider’s career last?
Maybe eight years. They might get into the sport at 18 and last until they are around 26. Maybe 30 at the max.

Are you the elder statesman on the tour at age 37?
No (laughs), there are a few guys older than me still on the tour. I could probably ride until I’m 45 at lower levels of competition, because the bulls aren’t as tough and the competition isn’t as good. To be at this elite level, most guys don’t make it more than 10 years.

How steep is the learning curve in bull riding?
Man, I’m still learning! It’s all dialed into those eight seconds, and there are so many different things that we can do differently to help us stay on. Sometimes, you’ll see a guy get tilted to the side by the bull, and they pop themselves back into the middle. It’s all about shifting your weight. There’s no way you can overpower an 1,800-pound bull. It just isn’t going to happen. Every time I just try to clamp up and hang on, that’s when you’re done. Sure, some guys might do it when they are at six seconds and you see them clamping onto the side of the bull. But once you start getting moved around at two or three seconds, if you’re not shifting your weight, you’re in trouble.

How did they come up with eight seconds as the time?
I have no idea! Why not seven, right? I’ve had so many rides at seven seconds, whoever came up with eight, I just want to punch him in the mouth (laughs)!

What was it like when you really had that first injury?
I was a senior in high school. The bull stepped on my ankle and smashed it. I had to have a steel plate and screws put in there. I still have the steel plate in there today. It was rough, because I was on the verge of making it to the PBR even at that age. Back then, if you were in the top 45 in the world, you could qualify, and I had done that when I was 17. I had the week off and went to an amateur show near my house. It was just a freak accident. I was out for six months. But I was young and so determined to make it to PBR, that the only setback was having to wait the time.

What are some of the other injuries you’ve had?
Broken wrists twice. Broke my ankle. Cracked skull. Dislocated hip. Two knee surgeries—one on each meniscus. Broken ribs. Broke my collarbone. Broke my finger and had it casted up. Separated my shoulder a few times. I broke my neck in 2003. The bull threw me off. I didn’t land on my head, but I caught the top of my head on the dirt, because I was flying through the air inverted and I didn’t rotate around. I caught my forehead on the dirt, and it bent my head back. I didn’t even think it was broken. The doctor checked me out and said, “You’ve got to get an x-ray and a CT scan. I can’t let you ride unless we know for sure that nothing’s wrong.” Sure enough, my neck was broken. I walked into the hospital with nothing, I walked out with a neck brace that I had to wear for twelve weeks. I had a torn groin once, and that was pretty bad. I needed to have surgery and that kept me out a year.

What’s the worst injury to compete with?
Probably a pulled groin. I tore my groin once and needed to have surgery. It kept me out for a year. That’s how you hold on to the bull. I’ve tried to compete with an injured groin before; it’s just impossible.

And through all of this, you’re just trying to get back on the bull.
I once had meniscus surgery on a Tuesday, and I was riding bulls on a Thursday. My knee was sore and stiff, but I knew the damage had been fixed. If anything, I think the bull loosened up the scar tissue. I competed during the whole world finals this year with a pulled hamstring. It was weak and sore, but I was still able to go out there and compete. At one time, I had done 228 consecutive events. That’s the second best streak ever. It’s rare now. You’ll rarely see a guy go a whole year now without missing an event. There are 28 events a year on the PBR Tour. You don’t see guys competing in all 28 events anymore.

Sean Willingham attempts to ride Humpz and Hornz/Sis ‘N’ Stan Bucking Bulls’s Yo Mamma during the first round of the Las Vegas, Last Cowboy Standing, PBR 25th Anniversary Unleash the Beast. Photo by Andy Watson

I assume that if you don’t compete, you don’t get paid.
That’s correct. That’s another incentive to heal up as quick as possible, because you are losing income. Some of us are lucky enough to have sponsors, so that when you do get injured, at least they are still paying you throughout that time. The sponsor has the option to opt out, but they usually are good about it, unless you have a really serious injury where you are going to be out the whole year. That’s when they might be likely to renegotiate with you or ask you to do other stuff beside the bull riding. But not everyone is fortunate enough to have the sponsors to help them.

Is that why some guys leave the tour? If you don’t have sponsors and you get injured, money can get tight pretty quickly.
Sure, you can go broke. Or some guys are barely breaking even, or maybe even losing $1,500 a weekend, because they’re not riding any bulls and making any money. There’s a lot of travel. You’ve got plane tickets, hotel rooms for three or four nights. We go to almost every major city, and the hotels aren’t cheap.

So you’ve probably seen a guys that were incredibly talented and were just unlucky with injuries.
All the time. They get here, and they’re the hottest thing they every saw. Sponsors are jumping all over them. And then two years later, you are like, “Whatever happened to that guy?” I don’t know if they weren’t dedicated enough to stick with it. Or they couldn’t make it past the injuries. Mostly, they are just tired of being broke, so they get jobs where they can make some steady income.

With all the injuries that you’ve had, do you feel it in your body when you wake up?
No, I don’t wake up hurting. The cold weather doesn’t bother me. That’s the problem with this retirement thing. I feel like I’m in my twenties. In my mind, I can ride bulls until I’m 50. Obviously, my body is not going to allow that to happen. Maybe I’ll ride on some of the smaller tours. Bull riding is bull riding. The bulls may not be as tough, but the danger is always going to be there.

Sean Willingham and the Professional Bull Riders tour kick off their new season with the 2019 Buck Off at Madison Square Garden on January 6th


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