Ryan Dirteater was riding high before he and his season were quickly grounded.
When Dirteater arrived in Tacoma, Wash., in March for the 15th Built Ford Tough Series event of the 2009 season, he was in the top five of the Professional Bull Riders world standings and had recently notched his first event win in Dallas. He was riding like the future world champion many predicted he would become.
Apparently no one told that to Brown Sugar, his first-round bull at the event.
"I don't know where he came from, but he wasn't near as sweet as I thought he'd be," Dirteater said.
As the bull came out of the gate, he stumbled and fell, rolling over onto the young rider. The bull's knee thrust into Dirteater's thigh as the animal tried to right himself.
The result was a femur bone completely snapped in Dirteater's right leg, which required immediate surgery to insert a rod in the bone. It would sideline the Oklahoma cowboy for the next four months — right in the middle of the best season of his young career.
"I tried to get up and I couldn't," Dirteater said. "I knew I broke my leg, but I didn't know what else was wrong. The first thing that went through my mind was 'How long am I going to be out?'
"It was a heartbreaker. But that's bull riding, things are going to happen. The question is when and how bad. You just go, and you ride, and you hope for the best."
As quickly as Dirteater had been on top of the world, crisscrossing the country from one PBR event to another, the 20-year old was back home on the couch at his parents' house in Hulbert, Okla., with anywhere from four to six months of rehab ahead of him.
"He's not one to complain about pain much, but he was in pain when he got home a little bit," his mother, Melithia, said. "I had to help him get around. He just wanted to hurry up and get well and get back out there."
Dirteater's first order of business was simple: he picked up a calendar and looked ahead four months. One date immediately caught his eye: July 17-19, U.S. Border Invitational, Tulsa, Okla. — only an hour from his house. He set that as his return date.
Over the next 16 weeks Dirteater spent his days being tended to by his mother ("I fed him three times a day, any time he was hungry," she says), helping his father farm the fields ("That made me appreciate bull riding a lot more — I better stay on or I'll be doing that,") and doing physical therapy on his own after only one visit with a therapist.
"I did just as good as they would have done, so I saved some time and did it on my own at the house," Dirteater said. "I knew what my leg could take and what it couldn't. I just worked at it every day and in less than four months I was back riding."
The lack of regular visits to a physical therapist is not out of the norm for bull riders, according to Dr. Tandy Freeman, a Dallas orthopedic surgeon who serves as the director of medical services for the PBR's sports medicine team.
"One of the things about bull riders is the vast majority of 'em pretty much live to ride," Freeman said. "And when they're out because of injury, most of the time they're pretty focused on getting back. And typically — not 100 percent of the time, but typically — getting them to do the things they need to do to get back is not terribly difficult."
But Dirteater's injury required not just tending to the physical aspects of his recovery, but also the mental. In golf and baseball, they call it the yips. It is an almost indefinable loss of ability to perform a certain action. A golfer who suddenly finds himself unable to sink putts, or a second baseman who abruptly can't make a throw to first base — or, more importantly, a bull rider who returns from an injury only to find he can't make the eight-second whistle.
"Guys don't ride bulls well if they're focused on things other than riding," said Freeman, who has seen some of the greatest cowboys in the sport come through his doors. "If they're worried about getting hurt, or if they're not sure that they're physically capable of riding a bull, they're less likely to ride it.
"Having the capacity from a psychological standpoint to deal with the injury and not be afraid when you get back on is a huge part of it."
Six weeks after the surgery, Dirteater was walking. A month and a half after that he was running, and from there he began riding horses and roping. He also watched the PBR events on television every weekend.
"I was jumping around on my couch," he said with a laugh.
But more importantly, he says he did some praying and thinking — about his family, about the fans who sent him supportive letters and about his goals for the rest of the season.
"My goal for this season was to finish in the top 10 of the world. I'm not that far behind but we'll just see how it goes," said Dirteater, who is ranked 19th in the BFTS following the Tulsa event. "I've just got to stay on my bulls and let the rest take care of itself.
"I love riding bulls, and if they want to write me a big check for it, let 'em."
Dirteater did indeed make his return at the Tulsa event, but failed to post any qualifying rides during the three-day competition. The closest he came was on his first-round bull, Restless Heart, who he made the whistle on but chose to take a re-ride option after posting a score of only 65.5. He was bucked off the next three bulls and failed to make the championship round.
Luckily for the young rider, he has eight more regular-season events before the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas Oct. 31-Nov. 8. According to Freeman, that should be plenty of time to get his form back and let the healing continue.
"In bull riding terms … he ought to be pretty close to 100 percent in terms of his ability to ride," Freeman said. "You've got to get back into what they call riding shape, which just means you get on enough times and beaten up enough that you don't feel more sore when you got off than when you got on."
As for Dirteater, he says he is still experiencing some pain in the leg, potentially from calcification near his hip where the rod was inserted, an issue Freeman said they'll "be looking at."
"It kind of bothers me sometimes, the pain's there, but it'll eventually stop I think," Dirteater said. "Bull riding, you know — if it was easy, everybody would do it. You just go at it and have fun. Without pain it wouldn't be fun."