LivAbility Magazine

Edition 16 | Spring 2019

One man’s lifelong love of rodeo

Story by Aitana Yvette Mallari
Photos by Loren Worthington, Estefanía Cavazos and courtesy of K.J. Jones

My Saturday night starts in the parking lot of the Hitching Post Saloon, my car the lone hatchback in a sea of Ford F-150s, steeped in the dark of Apache Junction, Arizona. I read over a text that Kerry Jones, a bull-riding judge, sent me the day before:

“Make sure you dress warm, as it’s outside and will be cold.”

I counted my layers (three, to be exact) and shrugged. I was here for a rodeo, not a hike. How cold could it be?

In classic Phoenician fashion, I underestimated.

Jones, who goes by K.J., meets me at the front gate as he’s transitioning from his truck to a manual wheelchair. He has granite-colored eyes and a voice that feels familiar, like a long-lost grandfather.

K.J. Jones

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Jones moved to Arizona at six years old and grew up hunting, fishing and camping with his brother, sister and dad. Thanks to a couple of friends in Paradise Valley and an affinity for adrenaline, Jones started to rodeo when he was nine, getting on anything that bucked just to see if he could stay on. Even after a rodeo accident caused him to start using a wheelchair at 18, his love for the sport remained, leading to him to become a bull-riding judge.

But at the moment, he scrutinizes my attempt at layering.

“You read my text? It’s gonna be cold.”

When I affirm, he just smirks, “Mmhm,” and leads me through the gate.

The rodeo arena, a circular expanse of dirt ringed by metal fencing, was still getting set up. Livestock milled nearby, shielding themselves from the blinding white floodlights above.

“There’s a few hundred every weekend,” Jones says, weaving through the crowd, stopping once in a while to shake a hand or say hi to someone. “There’ll be more next week–there’s gonna be a memorial deal for a bullfighter friend of mine who died a couple [of] weeks ago.”

“Did he die during a rodeo?” I ask.

Jones shook his head.

A deep voice announced the rodeo was starting.

At a vantage point between the arena and the crowd, Jones opens a stopwatch on his iPhone and rests it beside a score sheet. Spectators break into whoops and cheers behind us.

rodeo crowd

Competitions of the night spanned from toddlers to teens, and the rides were one after another. Pint-sized cowboys and cowgirls riding sheep turned to pre-teens on steers.

In the thick of it were two bullfighters, Scott Hawkins and E.J. Pinkerton, tasked with keeping the riders safe (and entertaining the audience in between rides).

“Alright, so all the bloodthirsty fans that are out there, we know what you want. Who’s ready for a little bull riding?” the announcer goads.

Jones gives me a crash course on competitive bull riding: two judges can award a total of 50 points each, 25 points for the rider and 25 points for the bull. The two are paired up at random; bulls’ names are put on poker chips and drawn out of a hat before the rodeo starts. After the ride, the judges add up the scores. A perfect ride of 100 points, he says, is “a bull that’s got a lot of kick or a lot of spin or a combination of both, and the rider matching the bull’s moves with countermoves to keep him in perfect position.”

The ride is done one-handed, and for only eight seconds, to ensure it qualifies.

A couple of bull riders stretch a few feet away from us. They were boys at the cusp of adulthood, sporting plaid, trucker hats and scrawls of facial hair.

They ready themselves in the chutes on bulls with names like “Casino”, “GoPro”, “Red Velvet” and my personal favorite, “Baby Shark.”

A person readies themself on a bull before the gates open.

With a nod, the gates swing open, and bulls shoot into the arena, kicking their hind legs like they’re trying to knock the moon out of the sky.

Jones writes his marks and compares them with the other judge immediately after every ride. Their scores are almost always the same—the mark of a good team.

At one point he motions to baseball-size divots in the ground in front of us, courtesy of a previous bull, hinting at the danger we weren’t immune to.

Jones told stories of times he was judging and a horn gored him through the fence, so when a bull came too close for comfort, I flinched. Jones laughed.

 “Gets your adrenaline pumping, doesn’t it?”

Riders cheered for their fellow competitors and reserved the harshest curses under their breath for themselves. There was an unmistakable rhythm, the rise and fall and return to the chutes.

Then a 16-year-old rider, clad in royal purple, mounted a bull named Ferdinand.

Eight seconds.

The first half starts fine. Tense concentration, a hand flared to the sky. The bull slams against the gate and the rider falters. He’s thrown underneath the bull and stomped on. The audience gasps as the bull’s led out of the arena.

People rush into the arena. Both bullfighters kneel in prayer.

“Are you ever reminded of what happened to you?” I ask.

“Every now and then, yeah. I’ve seen some accidents every now and then that…” Jones trails off.

“I won’t say that there are flashbacks, but yeah. You think about it,” Jones says. “We all know that those possibilities are there. But a lot of times it reminds me of my accident.”

March 7, 1982.

In Scottsdale, thousands packed into an arena for a high school rodeo. Jones, 18 at the time, was among the young men who zigzagged across the state, hungry for competition but above all for mastery, rarely leaving home without their boots and gear bag in the truck, just in case. You were always ready to ride, whether that was bulls or horses (bareback).

A person prepares to ride bareback

Bareback horses don’t move the same as bulls do. They don’t spin so much as buck straight up and down. Falling from a bucking horse was like falling from a roof if the roof could also kick you while you’re down.

Jones was preparing to ride bareback. The weekend had been rife with accidents, which was unusual.

Photo of a person riding a bull

Just that morning his friend, Troy Martell, had been whipped underneath a bull, which then stepped on his head and neck.

When Jones came to the arena to see Martell, he knew it was bad. Blood darkened the dirt around him. Martell was taken to the hospital nearby.

By the time it was Jones’ turn, his friend’s blood had been raked over, indistinguishable from dirt.

By that point, Jones had been bucked off animals more times than he could count. He’d dislocated ribs punctured lungs and broken fingers. There were only a few times he finished a ride and something didn’t hurt.

But this ride was different.

In front of thousands of people, Jones’ legs tangled with his horse’s, driving him straight to the ground.

A bareback rider gets bucked off his horse

Dirt filled his mouth. But when he tried to move his right arm, it stopped.

“I knew something was wrong because everything was kind of tingly, like when your foot falls asleep and you go to move it—that’s the way it was,” Jones says.

Jones had broken C6 in his neck, dislocated C7 and pinched his spinal cord. He later learned that Martell, only 15, had lost his life.

That was 37 years ago.

As red and blue lights flood the arena, I ask, “How do you deal with that?”

“I know it’s part of the sport and accidents can still happen no matter what. You’re dealing with an animal that you have no control over,” Jones says with a sigh. “I never wanna see any of these guys get hurt ever. And it bothers me when they do, because I know they’re giving 100 percent to something they love to do, just like I did.”

The stretcher disappears into the ambulance.

“But I also know that in accidents like this, they’ll be back in a couple weeks or however long it takes to heal up,” Jones says. “They’ll be back.”

The cry of the siren fades into the distance.

After the remaining riders compete, winners are announced inside the saloon.

The honky-tonk bar is bursting with twanged music and dancing bodies silhouetted in neon lights.

Jones stays outside. I join with others. They share their stories of injuries. There are echoes of C6, C7, a wrong move at a wrong time. Some managed to walk away. Some didn’t. Every precaution and safety measure in the world couldn’t erase the risk.

It was a lot for eight seconds of glory. But the love of rodeo, with all its dirt, sweat, blood and tears, remained constant. Even after his injury, Jones watched rodeo VHS tapes and kept close to the rodeo scene. If life is always fragile, you might as well be passionate about it.

When the conversation turned toward the upcoming memorial, Jones turns to me.

“You asked if he died in a rodeo accident,” he says. “It was a car accident.”

Jones pulls out his iPhone. He shows me drawings of memorials he’s made for bull riders, all done with a mechanical pencil and .5 lead. Making art takes him longer than it used to, but it’s a labor of love. They’ll be celebrating.

“It’ll be packed next week,” Jones says.

He takes another look at his work before putting his phone away, smiling.

“I’m almost done.”

Aitana Yvette Mallari

Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online media journalist who runs on caffeine and WiFi. She’s lived in the Middle East, Asia, and both coasts of the US and writes about health, tech, and amazing people doing amazing things. She is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and probably has a deadline to get to.

Read more by Aitana Yvette Mallari.