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December 18, 2017

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Tough customer: A head-to-toe look at a bull rider’s many injuries


Leila Navidi

J.W. Harris, center, a bullrider with a broken foot, comes into the Justin Sportsmedicine Team room after landing on his already broken foot while riding at the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Friday, December 9, 2011.

See J.W. Harris in action

J.W. Harris doesn’t remember the name of the bull that smashed his face four years ago at a rodeo in San Antonio, Texas.

But Harris, a professional rider who'll compete in the 2012 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, carries a permanent reminder of the damage the animal inflicted — a strip of scar tissue below his left eye. It marks the spot where the bull’s hoof landed on Harris as he lay on the ground after being bucked off of the animal. A day later, he underwent surgery in which his shattered facial bones had to be pieced back together with screws and pins.

“After that is when I started riding with a helmet,” he said.

Harris, 26, hasn’t suffered a serious facial injury since then, but that doesn’t mean his life as a bull rider has been easy. Far from it.

How hazardous is it to make a living riding animals that are as heavy as five NFL linemen and can spin and kick while jumping high enough to get all four feet off the ground?

Here are few of the ways bull riding has taken a toll on Harris.

    • Head

      The facial injury was the most gruesome of Harris’ career, but it wasn’t his only head injury. The three-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association champion estimated he had five or six concussions in one season alone.

      “It’s part of our sport, and you know the risks going into it,” he said of head injuries.

    • Hand

      In 2009, Harris suffered a broken right hand during an early round at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Even though his right hand is the one he uses to hang on to the rope, he kept competing. He received a shot of painkilling medication and went back into the chute.

    • Knees

      Harris has suffered two ACL tears and one MCL tear. The MCL injury happened during the same competition in which he suffered a broken foot, yet he continued competing.

      “I couldn’t move once I hit the ground,” he said. “I’d just have to kind of roll out of the damn way.”

    • Foot

      Last year at the NFR, Harris suffered a broken foot when he landed wrong after dismounting a bull. Foot and ankle injuries are a constant threat for riders due to the uneven surface of the dirt in a rodeo ring, which gets churned up by hooves and boots.

      “Sometimes, you can step in a hole and twist your foot coming down,” Harris said.

    • Overall

      Waking up after competing is never much fun, Harris said.

      “You’re sore all over,” he said. “Add a broken bone or a torn ligament, and you just can’t move.”

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