Tough Cookie

If he had simply followed doctors' orders, PRCA bullfighter Rob Smets would have found different employment after suffering three fractured vertebrae in Monroe, La., in March 1992.

Certainly the second time, a fracture of the C-1 vertebra in Memphis, Tenn., in 1996 — the same injury that paralyzed the late actor Christopher Reeve — would dissuade the native Californian, now living in Merkel, Texas, from the sport of bullfighting.


Despite a third fracture of a bone in his cervical column — he suffered a break in the C7 vertebra in Reno, Nev., earlier this year — he still mulls a return to the arena, even after announcing his retirement in January.

That's Rob Smets.

"A little bump along the way, like a broken vertebrae to save a bull rider's butt, wasn't going to stop him," said Charles Sampson, the 1982 world bull riding champion. "He saved more bull riders than anyone, but he paid the price several times to do so."

The doctors told him to walk away while he still could.

That would have been OK for most people. Smets, as has been discovered during his 28-year career, isn't most people. And because he didn't adhere to the medical advice, he instead found a way to indelibly put his mark on ProRodeo.

He's a ProRodeo Hall of Famer now.

"We had a chance to travel from Texas to California when we were both starting out, and he talked about how many rodeos he wanted to fight bulls at and how much he loved it," Sampson said. "It was amazing to see him blossom into the bullfighter he turned out to be. He was just phenomenal. He never feared any bull. He was always right there to protect us and never put a rider in a predicament that was his fault."

His decorated history as a world champion bullfighter with a hard-nosed resolve to save cowboys no matter the cost is legendary. Smets claimed Wrangler Bullfight Tour world titles in 1983, from 1985-86 and again in 1994. He also shared the title in 1988. He fought bulls in the National Finals Rodeo six times, served as the alternate five other times and was selected to work the PBR World Finals seven times.

And in typical Smets fashion, he didn't get there by traditional means.

His upbringing was decidedly non-rodeo after his birth in Palo Alto, Calif. His father worked for a construction company that took the family overseas. Smets spent his childhood in Thailand, Singapore and Australia before returning to the Bay Area prior to entering high school. It wasn't until then that he was introduced to rodeo. Then he got hooked.

By 19, Smets was a card-carrying member of the PRCA. Five years later, he not only earned his first Wrangler NFR selection for cowboy protection, he won the first of his five Wrangler Bullfight Tour titles.

The rest, as they say, is history. The way he got there, is nothing short of amazing.

"The doctors tell me that guys who break their neck three times usually aren't here to get a speech about what we're doing," said Smets, who is also known as the Kamikaze Kid. "To walk away from that three times, that's being blessed. I'm way past just being lucky."

While recovering from his latest injury, Smets unexpectedly saw his options increase. He recently served as a television analyst for a PBR event in Providence, R.I.

"That would be a nice continuation of my career," Smets said. "I've received so much in this sport. It would be great to have the opportunity to give back a little."

In the past 10 years, Smets has experienced the very best and worst his profession has to offer. Upon hearing his prognosis following the 1996 surgery to fuse his top three cervical vertebrae, he at first denied that he'd be unable to complete his quest for a sixth bullfighting title.

Then, he had to make a difficult phone call.

"I had to call the PRCA (Headquarters) and admit I couldn't play," Smets said. "That was the worst call of my life. I went there and watched and was completely miserable, and I made everyone around me miserable, too."

Misery turned to joy as the tables turned, so to speak, when Smets received a call from the PRCA Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., informing him of his selection into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.

"I'm excited, not just for me, but who I'm going in with," Smets said. "I'm going in with some powerful people. This is a dream come true."

It's a dream that had just a few twists and turns along the way. But that's par for the course for Smets, who's used to anything but a smooth ride.