Fear and adrenaline affect people in different ways. Some turn tail and run, others choose to stand planted and fight and a chosen few climb atop 2,000-pound bulls hoping to last eight seconds.
For Fletcher Jowers III and his father Fletcher Bo Jowers, who have been riding since the ages 5 and 11 years old, there may have been no better use of their time or youth.
"There's nothing like it. The rush you get and the adrenaline that gets into your veins. There's a haze at first but when it clears, it's just you against the fear," said Fletcher, a 16-year old homeschooled student on the outskirts of Waxahachie.
Fletcher, the brother of Waxahachie High School Cheerleader Lacy Jowers and Ally Jowers and a former Howard Junior High Warrior, has attended homeschool with his friend and fellow rider Maverick Potter since the seventh grade.
A sport that pits man against an animal more than 10 times his size, bull riding is largely considered one of the most dangerous sports invented. Dale Butterwick of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology has been compiling a Catastrophic Injury Registry since 2007 and found bull riding is more than just the riskiest sport in rodeo.
“Comparison of bull riding injury rates with other contact sports confirms bull riding is the most dangerous organized sport in the world,” the study said.
Lane Frost became the sport's most well-known hero after scoring an 85-point ride on "Takin' Care Of Business," a legendary bull never conquered before, after eight seconds. He died on July 30, 1989 after another Brahma bull struck him and broke several ribs that led to an artery in his heart.
The University of Calgary's registry reported 49 catastrophic rodeo injuries between 1989 and 2009, including 21 fatalities — more than any other professional sport. Most of the incidents were the result of bull riding, junior bull riding, steer riding, saddle bronco riding and bareback riding rough stock events.
Bull riding evolved from the traditions brought from Spain in the 16th century, where the first charreadas (a competitive event similar to rodeo and developed from animal husbandry practices) were ranch work competitions between haciendas. The modern Charreada developed after the Mexican Revolution when charro traditions were disappearing. The competing charros often came from families with a tradition of Charreria and teams today are often made up of extended families who have been performing for up to five generations.
As a boy, daredevils in Fletcher Bo's neighborhood were plentiful and would routinely chide each other to ride. Fear, seemingly, was not a factor.
"I grew up around cowboy rodeo stuff all my life," Fletcher Bo said. "As far back as I remember, when I was 4 or 5 years old, my old man roped calves and bronc's and he'd let me ride the calves. When I was 14, I started going to a rodeo school out in East Texas near Carthage. I tried it once, lasted two or three jumps and thought to myself, 'That was fun, let's do it again.' The adrenaline had gotten me. It's the most awesome natural high you can ever have when you conquer something that weighs between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds. Bull riders are a different breed, a mixture of fear and cockiness."
The protection — or lack thereof — was an afterthought. Both Fletcher and Fletcher Bo said while there are state regulations in place to protect the children of the mutton-busting, junior steer, miniature bull and full bore bull riding disciplines, the animals are a class above what they were before the turn of the century.
"I could remember shaking my head and calling for the gate to open, thinking, "Man, what did I get myself into. Am I tough enough to do this?," Fletcher Bo said. "The first 20 to 25 animals you get on it's just a foggy memory. The more you get on the more the haze fades away and the more you remember bits and pieces."
The bulls he faced and the one's his son ride are a different breed, though.
Fletcher Bo said modern bulls are bred in the same way human athletes are prepared weekly for professional competitions. They aren't only given regular exercise and supplements, either. Each bull is registered with the American Bucking Bull Association and bred with the best mates.
To both the son and father, though, danger was never an option or an issue before, during or after mounting the bull for the first time. Fletcher said it was seamless and natural, as if things weren't the way they were supposed to be.
For Fletcher Bo, the son of singer and songwriter Fletcher Jowles, it was almost a natural transition in the rough-and-tumble days of the 90s. In those days, the only protection riders had was jeans, a button-up shirt and a 10-gallon cowboy hat.
Nowadays, riders under the age of 18 follow Texas state law and wear kevlar vests and helmets to protect from injuries. Fletcher Bo remarked he thought Frost may have survived the injury if riders had the same technological advances back then as they do now.
Even with the advances in protection, the danger still lurks in the shadows.
The call of the ring was even enough to court the youngest male Jowers away from the baseball diamond and convert him from infielder to junior steer rider.
Even if the bull riding life wasn't something Fletcher Bo envisioned for his son.
"He used to play everywhere with the Waxahachie Chiefs," the father mused. "We'd go out to the Cowboy Church and every Thursday they'd have a "buck out." He kept after me and kept after me to ride a steer. I told him to wait until baseball season ended — trying to put him off — but he kept at it. I finally gave in and decided to let him try it once so he could get it out of his system."
After falling off a couple times, Fletcher's response was nearly a mirror-image of his father's almost three decades prior.
"Dad, that was fun. Let's do it again," the wiry, 11-year-old boy said to his father.
And with that, as well as the discovery of Head Coach Lonnie Austin and chance encounters with ChrisShivers, a Professional Bull Riding World Champion, "Fletch" was born.
A Frost-like injury, though, threatened to remove him from the sport before it could hit its stride. In 2012, Fletcher was critically hurt after being thrown from a bull.
"I had been riding for about six or seven months and I went out to practice for a finals competition. That's when it happened. I got thrown and landed on my back right here," Fletcher said, lifting his arm and pointing to the space between his left hip and underarm. "It was about a 700-pounder. It bucked me off and broke some ribs and totally collapsed a lung and had to have a tube put in my side so I can breathe. I've had bumps and bruises, but that's the worst injury I've ever had."
REBOUNDING FROM COLLAPSE
Rather than fold under the pressure of failure, he returned to the ring to face the fear — possibly bigger and more imposing given the nature of the life-threatening injury.
Instead, Fletcher made his name in the Miniature Bull Riding (MBR) and high school competition circuits. At 12 years old on Oct. 31, 2013, he earned a nine-second ride at the MBR World Finals. On Apr. 10, 2013, five months earlier, he held on for a 14-second mini-bull ride at a PBR event in Waco.
He finished second at the National High School State Finals on June 23 to qualify for the Nationals Tournament in Gillett, Wyoming Jul 15-22.
On July 9 through the 14, Fletcher will participate in the world’s richest youth rodeo — with a purse of $250,000 in prize money and championship saddles and buckles. He will make the trek to the annual International Finals Youth Rodeo held at the Heart of Oklahoma Exposition Center, in Shawnee.
THE BRIGHT FUTURE
Despite the injury and the inherent danger of the sport, Fletcher's love for a passion passed from his father has never waned. The sport's led him all over the nation, from Chicago, Illinois to nearly every corner of the Lonestar State.
Some would question why a 16-year-old boy who could spend his time flirting with girls, playing video games or playing baseball as an infielder on Tracy Wood's Indian squad. Fletcher, though, shrugged it off and replied with an answer as humble as a boy with over 100 championship buckles and a custom Chris Shivers' Championship saddle can.
"My dad used to ride. He gave that to me. Ever since that first ride, I was hooked," he said. "That's what I love to do. I love the haze, the fear, the anticipation of the draw, the exhilaration and the adrenaline. Like I said, there's nothing like it. I'm only 16, but this is my career and the PBR, when I turn 18, is my future."