Longevity is a rare thing for bull riders and bullfighters, but Australian bullfighter Darrell Diefenbach has been voted to work 12 consecutive Wrangler National Finals Rodeos, including this year. He was unable to fill the role in 2006 and 2008 due to injury, so he’s even more appreciative of his chance to fight bulls this year.
The 2008 PRCA Bullfighter of the Year is enjoying his time in Las Vegas as he helps save bull riders from impending peril along with Dusty Tuckness and Kelly Jennings. Diefenbach got his PRCA card in 1998 and has fought bulls at rodeos across the country, from Wyoming and Utah to Arizona and Texas.
I caught up with the 38-year-old before the sixth performance to find out what the key to his staying power was and talk about how he’s survived some vicious wrecks – one in particular – and lived to fight another day.
Q: Is it hard to believe you’ve been voted to work a dozen Wrangler NFRs?
DD: It is hard to believe, and the 12 years have gone by so fast. You never want to take it for granted, because you never know what year’s going to be your last year. When I had six NFRs under my belt, there was a hope that there was a lot more to come, but when you have 12 NFRs, you know there’s not a hell of a lot more to come. It means as much to me today as it did 12 years ago.
Q: How have you seen the sport change in those 12 years?
DD: I’ve seen the bullfighters get a lot more recognition nowadays than they used to, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same. The bulls still buck hard, and the guys are still trying to ride them.
Q: What’s it like being out in the Thomas & Mack Center arena in front of more than 17,000 people?
DD: I don’t worry too much about the crowd. This rodeo is like any other rodeo – you take care of the guys just as well here as you do at any other rodeo. That’s what gets you here, that the guys trust you enough to be one of the three guys to come here and protect them. I just go out there and try to do the best job I can, be the best bullfighter I can and keep the guys safe. You can jump the moon all year long, but you’re judged on these 10 days. So, if you’re ever going to have a good 10 days, you definitely want your best 10 days to be here.
Q: What’s it feel like to make a good save to help a guy avoid a bull?
DD: Oh, it’s awesome, and I guess (doing it) here does pump you up a little extra. I remember one of the coolest things that sticks out in my NFR career is when Fred Boettcher got a re-ride here one year. He got on a bull called Blue Velvet, I think it was, and he rides it and gets off away from us. I remember thinking to myself, ‘How the hell am I ever going to make this?’ I ended up jumping through, and that bull threw me up in the air. I got a standing ovation, and that definitely gave me goose bumps.
Any time you can put yourself between a bull and a bull rider, take a shot for that bull rider and they can get up and walk away without being touched, it’s a cool feeling. We’d be lying to you if we didn’t tell you we didn’t want to get run over at this rodeo. If you wanted to get run over at one, this would be it, because everyone’s judged on these 10 days.
Q: Do you have to be crazy to be a bullfighter?
DD: No, I just think it comes down to loving what you do. I quite often have people telling me, ‘Oh man, you’re crazy for doing what you do.’ For me, I’m no different than someone who plays basketball or football. It’s just something I enjoy doing. I think if you enjoy something and want to do it bad enough, you put in the time and effort it takes to become good at it. I’m not saying it was easy for me, and I didn’t have as much natural ability as some of the guys. I damn sure had to work hard at it, and it means a lot.
Q: What makes a good bullfighter?
DD: In my opinion, what makes a good bullfighter is being able to anticipate where that bull rider is going to land. I think that’s 80 percent of fighting bulls. By reading that bull rider’s body language and being able to anticipate where he’s going to hit the ground, you can be there rather than being like, ‘OK, there he is and that’s where I’ve got to be,’ and being too late. You can already be moving in that direction, so that when he does hit the ground, you’re in position and can take that bull away. I think the other 20 percent is just having enough heart to do it.
Q: Have you had some injuries that have made you question what you’re doing for a living?
DD: Honestly, whenever I get hurt, I look at it like a test. I think, if it was easy, everyone would want to do it. No one likes pain or being hurt – and I’ve had my share – I always use that as a time to reassure myself that I do love fighting bulls and how much I enjoy it. I think when we’re in pain, that’s when we’re at our weakest. So, if we can reassure ourselves that, ‘Hey, this is what I love doing, and I’m going to keep doing it,’ it makes me stronger.
Q: What are some of the injuries you’ve suffered?
DD: Oh, I’ve had knee surgery, broken ankles, broken legs, a broken back, broken neck, broken fingers and ribs, and I’ve had a face reconstruction twice, actually. About three years ago, I had a bull throw me in the air in Augusta, Ga., and I landed flat on my back on the ground. He came down with a hind leg and jumped on my face and pretty much crushed the right side of my face. They cut me from ear to ear, pulled my forehead down, and that bull had jumped so hard on my face that the doctors said there was an imprint of the bull’s hoof in my skull. I had a hole about three-quarters of an inch going straight into my head.
I’m onto my third eye socket. They put an eye socket in, and it collapsed, so they finally got a metal eye socket in there. Luckily, I still have all my vision, and really the only thing that got permanently damaged was my pupil. It stays dilated, so I’m real sensitive to sunlight.
I think that, of all the injuries of my career, that’s the one that has stuck with me the most. I still have a lot of nerve damage. When they took me to surgery, they said there was a good chance I was going to lose my eye. When he stepped off my face, he ran a claw right through my eye and ripped everything out. So, just being able to wake up after surgery and still have my eye and my vision, I was just thankful.
But that’s what makes rodeo and fighting bulls, in my opinion, so attractive is the danger element. I heard Jim Shoulders say years ago, ‘No one wants to see a wreck, but if there is one, no one wants to miss it.’
Q: So, you still appreciate being here at the Wrangler NFR just as much as you did the first time?
DD: Oh, absolutely. It’s everyone’s goal who has a PRCA card to make the NFR. To make it once is awesome, but to make it 12 times is special. The hardest part is having to share a dressing room with the guys you have to have here. It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.