Buck Around and Find Out — Professional Bull Riders Bring Thrills to Chicago Area, 8 Seconds at a Time

(Courtesy of Bull Stock Media)(Courtesy of Bull Stock Media)

“It’s an absolute adrenaline rush. On your best rides you won’t remember any of it. If you’re thinking, you’re too slow.”

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WTTW News spoke with a bull rider and a contractor who was at Madison Square Garden for a contest billed as “Buck Off at the Garden.”

“By the time I was in diapers I was riding sheep,” said Eli Vastbinder of North Carolina, one of 40+ riders on the Professional Bull Riders tour. “Eventually I went to calves, steers, junior bulls, open rodeos, and then to the pro level. Everybody in my family — my cousins and brothers — they all did it.”

Justin Cornwell of Lima, Ohio, is a retired rider. At age 49, he’s a stock contractor, providing bulls for events around the country. This weekend he’ll join the stampede into the Allstate Arena in Rosemont for a two-day event.

“It’s a rock-and-roll atmosphere,” Cornwell said. “These are the elite, top-notch riders from all over the world — Brazil, Australia, Mexico, Canada, not just the U.S. If you’re a top bull rider, the PBR is where you want to be.”

PBR refers to Professional Bull Riders, not the cheap lager. The PBR was established in 1992. It’s a professional sports league based on the most popular event at rodeos: bull riding, the man-versus-beast contest in which a cowboy rides a bull in search of eight seconds of glory and a slice of prize money. Riders compete as individuals early in the season and play for teams later in the year.

The riders are only half of an athletic duo. The other half are the bulls, which weigh between 1,200 pounds and an even ton. They have names like Undertaker, Knuckle Head, and this reporter’s favorite, Reinstate Hank.

“They’re fed special diets like thoroughbreds,” Cornwell said. “They’re athletes, so we don’t feed them like you would a steer that you want some fat on. We want them lean and hard. They’re genetically bred to do this. I can’t just go buy a bull and make him a bucking bull. They have to want to do it.”

Most bulls bucking at this level are between 4 and 8 years old. Their lifespan is around 20 years, and their golden years provide new opportunities.

“If they’re good enough to compete, then they’re good enough to go and breed cows for the next generation of bucking bulls,” Cornwell said. “We keep track of DNA and lineage, and there’s a registry for them. We try to add some size or breed to a certain bull to put the pieces of the puzzle together to make the best animal athletes.”

Eli Vastbinder of North Carolina rides a bull. (Courtesy of Bull Stock Media)Eli Vastbinder of North Carolina rides a bull. (Courtesy of Bull Stock Media)

The human athletes must contend with both the bulls and their own shelf life — a rider’s career is often short-lived. This bruising endeavor is popularly called the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.

“By the time guys are 30 years old, they’re either gonna be broke up and hurt or they’ve got families,” Vastbinder said. “Ten years ago, I’d be getting on a lot of bulls, practicing at home. I’m about to be 33 years old, and my body can’t take that many bulls anymore.”

But Vastbinder won’t put himself out to pasture in retirement.

“I’ll stay in the sport somehow, stay in rodeo, stay in the bull business, stay in the cowboy lifestyle,” Vastbinder said. “It’s kind of like the lifestyle of a rock star.”

So do bull riders, like rock stars, have groupies?

“Yeah, we call them buckle-bunnies,” Vastbinder said with a laugh. “We probably ought to end this conversation.”

Fair enough. Final thoughts on his choice of career?

“It dang sure beats a real job,” Vastbinder said.

Professional Bull Riders (PBR) will compete at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont on Friday and Saturday. Tickets start at $20 with the best seats going for $125.

The top 15 riders each day will be seen on tape delay on CBS; check local listings. PBR also has the OTT channel RidePass on PlutoTV.

For more on rules, regulations and animal welfare, visit pbr.com/pbr-101.

(Courtesy of Bull Stock Media)(Courtesy of Bull Stock Media)

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