No man should ever have to ask another if his eye is still in place in its socket.
But that was the situation bull rider Ardie Maier found himself in last year in Omaha, Neb., after a bull hit him square with the force of a locomotive and rearranged his face. It may go without saying, but Maier wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time.
He is now.
“That bull hit me so hard in Omaha and there was so much blood, immediately when I got out of there, my eye was looking kitty-corner and up in the air,” said Maier, who is competing in his second Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this year. “I just tried to put it back up in my head. I asked the bullfighter Quirt (Hunt), I said, ‘Quirt, is my eye still in my head?’
“I’ve broken my back in Cheyenne and things like that, but that moment was the scariest thing that’s happened to me.”
Because of that injury, instead of gunning for a Wrangler NFR qualification, Maier was just fighting to see correctly again.
“If I had a helmet, and I would have had two more bulls to make the NFR because I’d made the eight-round (in Omaha), but that took me out for four to five months,” he said. “Even after surgery, it took me six months to get to where I could see and have depth perception.”
Wearing a helmet in 2012 has been an asset for Maier on more than one occasion, including as recent as the Wrangler NFR.
“In the second round (of the NFR this year), if I hadn’t had that helmet on, I might not be riding today,” Maier said. “He hit me so hard, it bent my face guard. I’ve worn it all year, and there’s been four or five times it’s saved me. If it can keep me riding – especially this week in Vegas – I can stay in the game and have a shot.”
Seth Glause was one of three bull riders at this year’s Finals who wasn’t wearing a helmet when Round 1 began. Then, he had his bell rung and nose broken after a fourth-place ride in Round 2.
Glause went to a helmet for Round 3 and climbed into the world title picture by placing in three of the next seven rounds. He told me after a fourth-place finish in Round 3 that he was going to take it day by day, but hadn’t decided if he was going to make the switch to a helmet a permanent move.
I, for one, hope he does.
After Glause’s switch, 13 of the 15 bull riders at the Finals were wearing helmets, a record for the Wrangler NFR. That’s a great trend that most people in the industry hope will continue, despite any backlash from traditionalists who knock it as being less manly or traditional.
“I’m a huge proponent of the helmet, and I don’t think it takes anything away,” said Wrangler NFR barrelman J.J. Harrison, who has witnessed too many scary injuries in the bull riding in his time. “The wrecks I’ve seen that are head-related are season-ending or career-ending injuries. That Western heritage is a living thing, but safety is our No. 1 job and goal.”
The PRCA hasn’t – and likely won’t – mandate the use of helmets, but the trend is growing in the sport from the ground up. Most young bull riders of today begin their careers wearing helmets in high school and amateur rodeos before they ascend to the pro ranks, but it’s a cowboy’s personal choice in ProRodeo.
“I don’t think it should be mandatory, but I prefer to wear them,” Maier said.
Unfortunately, most bull riders who gravitate to wearing helmets are forced to learn the hard way.
“Generally, by the time they decide they’re going to wear a helmet, they’ve gone through a couple of concussions, or worse,” Harrison said. “As a barrelman sitting in the arena, the last thing I want to see is a cowboy getting hurt and laying there. It’s almost 90 percent helmet-wearers at the high school level, and I think that’s crucial.
“You wouldn’t see a football player going out there with a leather helmet, because we’ve changed the technology a little bit.”
I asked the great Dr. Tandy Freeman of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team for his opinion on the issue. There’s no doubt he’s a big proponent of bull riders wearing “brain buckets.”
“The thing about helmets is, they have a very specific and limited protective element to them,” Freeman said. “What they protect against – if they’re the right kind of helmet – are skull fractures and major injuries to the brain that occur with the kind of forces that can create skull fractures. With the right kind of facemask on them, they can also reduce the numbers of facial fractures we have to deal with.”
But he was quick to point out that they aren’t a failsafe against everything.
“What helmets don’t do – which a lot of people don’t understand – is they don’t have any effect on concussions, because what happens in concussions happens inside the skull,” he said. “As one of the speakers at our sports medicine conference put it, ‘Until they can build a car you can run into a brick wall and not have the crash-test dummies move, you won’t have a helmet that prevents concussions.’”
While he was encouraged by the growing numbers of helmet-wearers, Freeman was cautious about a blanket endorsement of helmets of varying types and quality.
“If they’re the right kind of helmet, they can really protect against the catastrophic injuries like the Brent Thurman-type injuries,” said Freeman, alluding to the death of 25-year-old bull rider Thurman, who was killed in the arena in Round 10 of the 1994 NFR. “The problem is, unfortunately in spite of the fact that guys are wearing helmets, some of the helmets they’re wearing really don’t meet the right standards. A lot of helmets they wear are modified hockey helmets, and those are built to meet a standard that applies to hockey.
“That standard, when you take that helmet and test them in an environment that’s akin to a summer rodeo with warm temperatures, doesn’t then provide the same kind of protection the helmets do in a cold environment and are not as effective.”
The development of high-quality helmets is an ongoing trial-and-error process, one that will evolve over time.
“While it’s encouraging that they’re wearing them, the fact of the matter is what would be better is if they were wearing better equipment and equipment that was designed for what they’re doing,” Freeman said. “Right now, there’s one helmet that’s been certified that does that, but out of the guys who are riding here (in Las Vegas), I’m not sure any of them are wearing that helmet. But, it’s a start.”
Why then, won’t the PRCA or a sponsor take the lead in developing a state-of-the-art helmet available to bull riders for free? It’s a slippery slope.
“The problem with something like that is, unfortunately, we live in a very litigious society,” Freeman said. “As soon as somebody starts providing that type of equipment – even if it’s quality equipment and it’s gratis – there’s that potential for somebody to come back who’s been catastrophically injured to come back and say, ‘Well, what you gave me wasn’t good enough.’ Once corporate lawyers start getting involved, that’s the kind of risk people are averse to.
“The PR for helping take care of a guy who’s been hurt badly, from a corporate standpoint, is probably as beneficial as the PR for setting up a program like that, and you don’t have the liability.”
For now, a mix-match of a varying style of helmets is the norm, but at least the contestants are taking more precautions with their melons than in the past.
“As some of the technology improves, the better technology becomes more reasonably priced for these guys and we’re able to educate them more, maybe we’ll see a shift more and more toward the better stuff,” Freeman said. “Right now, it’s just encouraging that they are wearing helmets that do have facemasks on them. Hopefully, we’ll see over time that they’re all wearing them and they’re all wearing quality equipment.”
Change is often slow-moving in rodeo and has been likened to trying to stop a cruise ship that’s running full bore. But, these baby steps are a sign of a move in the right direction.
I’ve heard and read about the gruesome wrecks of bull riders like Hall of Famer Charles Sampson, who lost an ear, Kanin Asay, who had to have part of his right ear reattached, and Tag Elliott, who underwent 20 surgeries and missed two years after having the right side of his face crushed. Those guys, and many more, have unfortunately gone through the unimaginable, and I can’t begin to understand what that kind of pain is like.
In a puzzling change, three-time World Champion J.W. Harris – who won all three of his gold buckles (2008-10) while wearing a helmet after suffering five concussions in 2008 – has gone away from the practice this year.
I sure wish he’d reconsider, because I’m tired of reading those horror stories.