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New Yorkers like to amuse themselves with irony, as in, “Let’s dress up like rednecks and watch them get bucked by an 1,800-pound bull.”
Their chance came last weekend when the Professional Bull Riders opened its 2011 Built Ford Tough Series with a three-day invitational at Madison Square Garden. Forty of the world’s top bull riders went head-to-head with 40 of the world’s most buck-wild bulls, ideally for at least eight seconds. Otherwise, kiss the potential $46,000 payday goodbye.
Believe it or not, New York is the PBR’s bestseller on the 28-city circuit — bigger than Arlington, Tex.; Wichita, Kan., and even Las Vegas. That’s due in part to the fact that MSG is the tour’s largest, most high-profile venue. But also because, as Dockery Clark, chief marketing officer of PBR (not to be confused with Pabst Blue Ribbon, though they’re of the same world) put it: “We like to think there’s a little bit of cowboy in all of us. New Yorkers like to put on the jeans and the boots and do something they don’t get to do all the time.”
On Friday night, the Garden was stocked with grown men and little boys in full-on hoedown getups. Joe Macri, 30, and John Monahan, 28, were part of a group of 20 who decided to “get into character,” as Macri, from Queens, called it. They wore flannel shirts, jean jackets and cowboy hats, which, conveniently, Monahan already owned from his last trip to a rodeo. A devout sports fan, Monahan “doesn’t stray from the big four” unless it’s free, which it was, in this case. Monahan and Macri, who work in advertising, were hosted by a client who covered their tickets and unlimited Jack Daniels and Budweiser. The feeling of superiority that goes with being a city boy among country folk was a bonus.
“It was definitely more like a novelty event,” said Monahan. “I’m not going to pay attention to how they were scored or why they did well. It’s more just to see people riding bulls.”
Admittedly, the idea of mocking bumpkins on bulls was part of the editorial agenda on my part, too, at first.
But up close, those bulls are bigger and badder than one would think. Ramsay Moreland, 30, equated it to NASCAR. “You could never describe how fast it is until you’ve seen it in person.”
Then there was the cute bumpkin Shane Proctor, who was ranked 13th in the PBR going into Sunday’s finals, and is the PBR’s go-to cowboy for p.r. Prior to our meeting, all I knew of him was the result of a cursory Google Images search, which produced photos from ESPN The Magazine’s 2009 Body Issue, for which Proctor was shot in nothing but his god-given chaps. He’s also appeared in the PBR Hunks calendar two years in a row.
A bit of a wide-eyed pretty boy, yes, but a tough one. Proctor sees himself in the context of any other professional athlete — the only difference is that, to him, bull riding is an extreme sport. “One out of every 15 rides statistically ends up in a new injury,” he says. “You get stuff like broken jaws, broken ribs, cracked shoulder blades, dislocated collarbones, torn ACLs, MCLs, meniscus. I think the most common injury is concussions. Happens quite a bit.”
So what’s considered a lightning rod health concern in the NFL is simply a dime-a-dozen headache here.
Proctor, 25, does it for the adrenaline. And the cash. At the end of the season, the top rider stands to collect $1 million, and when Proctor won the Madison Square Garden invitational last year, he took home close to $50,000, which goes a long way in Mooresville, N.C., where he lives with his wife. This time, he didn’t fare so well, failing to qualify for the final round, but he had a good ride in another sense. PBR brought him up to New York a few days early to promote the event. He sat third row at the Knicks game behind Joe Frazier and took pictures with Clyde Frazier and Pauly D from “Jersey Shore.” Then it was on to the Rangers, some of whom returned the favor by coming to the PBR.
Throughout the trip, Proctor was never caught in anything less than the full Southern monty, even if it invites stares. “They call me the best-dressed cowboy,” he said. “Gotta look your best in New York.” As soon as he got here, he ran off to buy a Calvin Klein shirt. He favors Big Star, Seven and Diesel jeans — boot cut, always with a creased leg — a Greeley hat and Rios of Mercedes stingray cowboy boots. But really, “it’s all about the buckle,” he said with good reason. The buckle Proctor wanted to wear to New York is in the shop after being stepped on by a bull — while he was wearing it. “But thank God,” he said. “Otherwise it would have been my gut.”