This time of year, it may be tough for competitors on the Professional Bull Riders tour to subdue a smirk at the notion of a quarterback facing down a cat-quick 300-pound defensive lineman.
Elite PBR riders face, on a weekly basis, bulls that average 1,500 pounds, but move with the agility of animals much smaller in stature. And said bulls do not take kindly to riders trying to stay on their backs, even for eight seconds.
The 2018 PBR tour – dubbed “Release the Beast” – makes 26 United States stops from January through November, and includes the top riders from not just the U.S. but Canada, Brazil, Australia and Mexico.
Stop number 21 on the 25th anniversary tour will be in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall starting 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, and resuming 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, when the initial field of 35 riders is whittled down to 15. Tickets start at $10.
The PBR includes roughly 600 professional riders worldwide, and the ultimate goal of all of them is to be among the top-35 qualifiers for the PBR World Championships Nov. 7-11 in Las Vegas. The overall PBR World Champion will receive a $1 million bonus and a gold belt buckle at the tour’s end. The winning rider at the A.C. event will receive a $30,000 payout, with lesser payouts going to other top finishers based on a graded scoring system.
Reigning PBR World Champion Jess Lockwood is slated to compete in A.C., and last year became the youngest rider in tour history to be crowned PBR champion at age 20. The A.C. roster also features four other returning world champions, including three-time winner Silvano Alves (2011, 2012, 2014), two-time winner J.B. Mauney (2013, 2015), Cooper Davis (2016) and Guilherme Marchi (2008).
Cities such as Dallas, Texas; Billings, Montana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Omaha, Nebraska have been regular tour stops nearly since the PBR’s founding 25 years ago, when a group of 20 professional bull riders successfully sequestered the sport as its own entity, and not merely one component of a traditional rodeo. Towns where bull riding is less ingrained in the landscape are sprinkled into the tour mix from time to time, and such is the case with Atlantic City, which last hosted an elite bull-riding event at Boardwalk Hall in 2003.
“To be honest with you, there is a little bit of that all-towns-look-the-same mentality when you’re traveling from Little Rock to Billings to Omaha to Des Moines,” says spokesman Ryan Seddon of the Pueblo, Colorado-based PBR. “A lot of our guys are basically young kids living their version of the rock-star lifestyle – riding bulls and making some big paychecks – but they enjoy seeing new places that allow them to pursue a lot of their outside-of-the-arena interests, for lack of a better term.
“Atlantic City, being a sort of Las Vegas of the East, really fits that mold well for these guys, especially with all of the excitement the town has been generating lately,” Seddon adds. “This is one event that got circled on the calendars of a lot of these riders.”
Elder statesman returns
One of the PBR’s fan favorites on this year’s tour, and one of a handful of contestants who was even around as a pro competitor back in 2003 – never mind being among Atlantic City’s scant few PBR returnees – is Sean Willingham.
Willingham has had a passion for the sport since he was 15 years old, and rattled off a streak of 10 straight years of qualifying for the PBR World Championships that ended in 2012. He qualified again in 2013, but two years later sustained the most serious in a string of ride-related injuries – a broken neck – that kept him off the tour until returning this year.
Currently ranked No. 29 with five tour events left after A.C., Willingham is poised to qualify for his 12th PBR World Championships in November, where the top 35 riders in the world make the grade.
Many may wonder what a 37-year-old father of two – who is among the top-30 career money winners in the PBR’s 25-year history – is still doing subjecting himself to the physical punishment of a sport such as bull riding. The same question was likely asked several times of NFL great Brett Favre.
“Riding bulls is pretty much all I’ve ever done since I was 15,” says Willingham, who vows to make 2018 his swan song on the tour. “It’s been a great career and I feel fortunate to be able to keep doing it for as long as I have.
“Most guys don’t make it this long, but I also realize that the older I get the harder it is to keep going and stay on the top level,” he adds. “I love the competition side of it so much, and I’m in it to win it each time. My goal is to stay on that bull for the full eight seconds every time I get on. It doesn’t always happen but that’s the mentality I try to maintain, no matter who’s in the competition or what bull I draw.”
Preparing mentally is just as important as staying physically fit, he says.
“I train every day. I either go to the gym or go for a run, or just train my mind on staying focused, because that’s a big part of it – training your brain to deal with the beast,” he says. “But I’m also aware that 37 is kind of old to still be competing in this sport.”
Willingham’s first time qualifying for the PBR World Championships was 2003, the same year the tour was last in Atlantic City.
“If I make it (to Las Vegas), it’ll be kind of interesting that Atlantic City was part of the beginning and the end of my run of championship qualifiers,” Willingham says. “And I’ll still be around the sport no matter what. There’s no way I’m walking away from it for good. I’m promoting my own event, the Sean Willingham Invitational (on Oct. 6 in Chattanooga, Tennessee), and I may do some TV commentating and publicity as well.
“Promoting and publicity is a whole different side of the sport than I’m used to, but I believe my experience as a rider will help me make the transition.”