HOLY COWBOY

IN THE WIDE-OPEN WORLD OF BULL RIDING, CODY CUSTER WALKS THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW.

For Cody, bull riding is not complicated. He endeavors to apply the same basic principles each time: Keep the arm in the bull rope cocked to absorb the whip and control the torque; keep his free arm in front of the brim of his hat; stay off the seat of his pants, with his shoulders over the bull's shoulders; dismount to the left whenever possible to reduce the chances of getting his left hand hung up in the bull rope. Pray.

"I try to get into my little bull-riding mode or zone," he says. "You've got to try to block out the distractions. If a friend rides ahead of you and he gets hurt, you've got to just block that out and take care of business. If you don't, that's when you get hurt."
Pain is an occupational hazard. While a bull's horns can be lethal, hooves inflict most injuries. So do the fences the bulls ram riders into.

"I don't know how many calls I've gotten over the years at three in the morning from some cowboy somewhere on the road," Evans says. "They say, 'Doc, I've had two six-packs and it still hurts.' So they call me."
Cody's had surgery to repair a damaged ligament in his right knee and to repair a shoulder prone to dislocating. He's had numerous concussions. When he gets knocked out, he generally thinks he's in Oklahoma City when he comes to. That's where he had his first bad concussion.

The wrist bones of rough-stock riders actually increase in size; nerve problems develop. They often have arthritic elbows that can't be straightened out. Carpal tunnel syndrome, the scourge of computer jockeys, is not uncommon in bull riders.

Cody lives with it. "Bull riding is a second-nature deal for me. It's a high-risk occupation and things can happen. I understand the risks."

His powers of concentration crystallize on the back of a bull. "When I get bucked off, 90 percent of the time I know the exact reason why."

And when he does, he has learned to put it behind him and look forward to another ride. But there are also times, especially for new pro cowboys, when the pressure weighs heavily. Sometimes, a rider has to win to finance travel and entry fees for the next rodeo. The alternative is to go home and fix fence.

"I've written hot checks to pay my entry fees before," Cody says. "I think we all have."
@rule:
@body:Cody Custer's face clouds up when he talks about the financial side of bull riding. He ponders the dangers, compensation and wealth of his sport compared with other professional sports. And he seethes.

Good Christians don't like to rock the boat, but when it comes to bull riders' rights--or some of the more rapacious promoters--Cody will admit he has a chip on his shoulder. He doesn't see any inconsistency being a religious man and fighting for his safety, or his pocketbook.

Bull riding's popularity is growing so rapidly, it's beginning to exceed the bounds of traditional PRCA rodeo.

Mr. Lucky's, the cowboy saloon on Grand Avenue, built an arena for bull-riding competitions Friday and Saturday nights. Business is booming.

And more substantial promoters are organizing events for professional cowboys that feature bull riding only. They are attracting the demographer's dream animal--the yuppie. A bull-riding event at America West Arena last Saturday drew 18,000 people--a sellout.

Cody and other top competitors, cognizant that their careers are finite, have formed a union, Professional Bull Riders, Inc. Cody sits on the board of directors.

Some of their demands have to do with safety. They want qualified bullfighters to protect them and approved stock that know how to buck, are "chute-broke" and whose horns have been tipped.

Some of their demands have to do with pay.
Although gross prize winnings of some cowboys look impressive, expenses are staggering. "I can count on it costing me $1,000 a week when I'm on the road," Cody says.

"Everybody's trying to get on the bandwagon where bull-riding events are concerned, and unless we stick together, the promoters are going to make the high dollar and we'll be prostituted like we have been the past ten years," he says.

Professional Bull Riders has also set up a profit-sharing plan and hired Pro Serve--a sports consulting company that represents the likes of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and Boomer Esiason--to inject some corporate dollars into its sport.

"We're trying to get this sport into the 20th century, marketingwise," explains Jeff Slack, a Pro Serve representative. "These guys are generally marketable, but nobody's tried to make personalities and stars out of these guys."
Not surprisingly, rodeo's old-timers are uneasy.
"I don't like unions. I'm sorry," says Cotton Rosser, a California stock contractor who sits on the PRCA board. He adds ominously, "There's a lot of bull riders in the country. I don't think we'll ever run out of bull riders."
And Evans, the doctor who's seen professional sports from all angles, warns, "I think it's got to be handled very diplomatically, so it doesn't go the way of baseball, football and hockey, where the players' salary demands get out of hand. I think that would harm the sport."

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