How a scary rodeo incident turned the Vigil brothers into NFL linebackers

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Nick Vigil was just 10 years old when his parents handed down a verdict to him and his older brother, Zach: Their days of riding bulls were over.

The Vigil brothers, now both in the NFL, grew up on the rodeo circuit in Utah “mutton busting,” or riding sheep, before graduating to bulls. But one day, Zach suffered a potentially scary injury when he was thrown off a bull. Despite Nick’s protests, their bull-riding careers ended that day.

“We both thought we were going to be professional bull riders. That’s what we wanted to be,” Zach said. “Then my dad said, ‘You guys are done with rodeo and you’re just going to play football instead.’ That was the end of that. Nick always blames me for ruining his rodeo career.”

Added Nick: “We thought he broke his neck until they got to the hospital. I remember I looked at my parents and I said, ‘I’m not quitting, I’m going to keep doing it,’ and they said, ‘No you’re not.’

“I ended up quitting,” he said sheepishly.

Had it not been for that day, the brothers’ football careers might never have taken off.

“We were pretty devastated,” Zach, 26, said. “We used to miss football practice to go to rodeo. We were primarily rodeo guys before football. And then after that, the tides kind of changed. ... We missed it for sure, but now, looking back, we’re way too big to be bull riders anyway. It was probably a blessing in disguise.”

Riding bulls might be out, but the lessons learned from rodeo have stuck with the Vigil brothers. A large part of rodeo involves dealing with fear and failure, a lesson particularly applicable to the NFL.

Zach made the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and played in every game as a rookie, but an injury kept him off the field for half of the 2016 season. He was waived in December and picked up by the Washington Redskins, where he is trying to make the 53-man roster.

Nick, who turns 24 later this month, spent most of his rookie season with the Bengals playing special teams, but he’s poised to become their starting strongside linebacker this season.

“Rodeo made the boys tough, they got banged around, bucked off and hurt pretty bad sometimes, but they always got back on and rode even the toughest steers,” father Jamie Vigil said. “Horses teach you respect and patience and toughness.”

That’s the other part of rodeo: the horses. Nick and Zach can’t remember a time when horses weren’t a part of their lives.

When they were small children, their parents used to put them in backpacks and take them for short trail rides. By the time Zach was 5, he could drag a stool over and saddle his horse himself.

Their parents’ love of the outdoors was passed on to their five children, with Nick and Zach taking a particular interest in it.

“I remember when I was 8, they’d hand me my baby sister and I'd ride around with her in the pasture,” Zach said. “That was just kind of normal.”

Horses remain a passion for Nick and Zach. Their careers keep them far from home for most of the year, but Utah always calls them back.

“I think if the NFL didn’t play out, they want to own some land, and they want a ranch, and run cattle and horses and breed horses and fish and hunt and maybe take tour guides out,” their mother, Kayla Vigil, said.

“I think that’s what they want to do, and they want me and their dad to get involved in all of that.”

Both men spend a lot of time in Utah in the offseason, with Zach getting married on the family’s five acres over the summer.

Nick even recently purchased three horses from his father, although he keeps them with his parents. A one-bedroom apartment in Cincinnati and a busy schedule leaves little time to ride during the season.

“It’s like the only thing I really wish I could have [here], the horses,” Nick said.

He added later: “You just miss it. So when I go back, we get to do it a lot. That’s fun. Then I come back to work."

And when their NFL careers are over, the horses will still be there waiting.

Zach and Nick both have an interest in taking up roping as a hobby after their careers, with Nick looking into possibly doing some team roping.

“Even now we mess around and go to our friend’s house and rope some steers, but you can’t be good at it unless you’re pursuing it,” Zach said. “When we retire from playing, I’m sure that’ll be similar to playing golf, a good hobby to have.

“We’ll probably live somewhere out West, that’s where I see myself. I won’t speak for Nick, but he loves to hunt, he loves his horses, he loves all that stuff also. Being out West somewhere, raising horses, training horses, I’d like to have a small ranch one day and hunt and fish and do the outdoorsy things.”

He added, laughing: “Live the dream!”