SPACEY? DISTRACTED? BORED? It's 7:30 on a Saturday night inside Madison Square Garden, and I'm finding it difficult to gauge the mood of the world's best rodeo clowns.
We're half an hour away from the rough-stock madness that is the second round of Professional Bull Riders' Built Ford Tough Series. It's the third-biggest show on the 32-stop tour, and a nearly sold-out crowd is already shuffling around with beers and nachos in hand.
Soon, chute gates will pop open, bull riders will tumble off, and the courageous clowns seven-year PBR veteran Frank Newsom, eight-year man Shorty Gorham, and recent addition Darrell Diefenbach will present their minimally cushioned asses to some very sharp horns. They'll shimmy and holler and slap bovine hides in hopes of drawing the bulls away from the fallen riders. This might work, or it might result in a primitive colonoscopy. Rodeo clowning is a madcap game of tag.
The clowns, however, look about as worried as sunbathers. Slouched in opposite corners of a bland dressing room, they answer my questions with brief, laconic statements.
"I've been injured more times than I can remember," Darrell offers. I point to random body parts. Back? Twisted, four pins, two plates. Forearms? Broken, about five times. Face? Scarred, from kissing a horn. And while these guys are physically fit, I can see that they're held together with combinations of scars and skin grafts, mechanical knee braces and inflatable ankle cuffs.
A passerby can't believe that tonight's event, like all contests at the Garden, takes place on the fifth floor.
"Yeah," agrees Shorty. "Who ever rode an elevator to the dirt?"
I keep an eye out for red foam noses but see none. Having ascended from the podunk minors to the exalted ranks of the PBR, Frank, Shorty, and Darrell traded in their clown costumes long ago. They don't have to get knocked around in a barrel or pull the old exploding-pants gag. Their colleague Flint Rasmussen, an "entertainer" clown who wears a mike and makeup, handles all the comedy, so it's customary among PBR fans to give these clowns a more serious title: "bullfighters."
Whatever. The focus of their job remains the same. As Darrell puts it, "Our main objective is to be a better target= than the rider."
Fifteen minutes before the house lights cut out, the guys are suited up: plastic chest protectors, padded shorts, baseball cleats for traction, and black cowboy hats.
"You wear a cup?" I ask Shorty.
"I tried a hard hat," he deadpans, "but it was just too small."
And that's when it hits me: The mood here is calm. These three are about to engage in a full-contact sport that pits bone and soft tissue against big, horned, uncastrated beasts, and they are genuinely relaxed.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, their composure wouldn't have astounded me. But that was before I went to clown school and got stared down, chased, and very nearly impaled by slobbering-mad bulls.
At the time, Lyle Sankey's rodeo school seemed like a powerful remedy for the creeping sissification of middle age. No experience was necessary, and the three-day program was the largest (35 clowning/bullfighting courses annually) and oldest (founded in 1975) of the handful of schools scattered across cowboy country. Giddyup!
Or not. My enthusiasm began to wane as soon as I arrived at Sankey's "campus." Located in the dusty prison town of Penrose, Colorado, it occupied a dilapidated arena on the back forty of some guy's lot, beside a jigsaw of pens filled with emus and peacocks and other sad-looking exotica.
At the check-in, a picnic table, I presented the required emergency contacts, proof of medical insurance, and a notarized (notarized!) liability release. A dozen teenagers in chaps all guys except for one shy girl had signed up for the bull-riding class, but my only classmate was a big-boned 32-year-old firefighter from Phoenix named Judd.
Without ceremony, our wiry and battered instructor, a 44-year-old part-time pro named Bennie Bob, started running us through the clowning basics. One of his first lessons concerned style, and his opinions were unequivocal. "For eyeliner, you want quality," he said. "Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen is the best. Buy it at Walmart."
Protecting the cowboys is a two-step process, Bennie Bob explained. First, you get the bull's attention. Shout. Grab a horn. Wave your arms. (Bulls respond to motion, not color.) Second, flee at an angle. In a straight line, bulls are faster than Usain Bolt, but they're not especially nimble, so when you run away, try to veer off to the side.
And that was it. Seriously. Protect the rider by endangering yourself.
We practiced for an hour in the gravel parking lot. Bennie Bob charged, pushing a wheelbarrow with horns; Judd and I ran away. That part seemed simple enough, but then we got a glimpse of our living, breathing foes as they were offloaded into the corral.
The biggest bulls had horns as wide as my arm span. The fact that their lances were "tipped" to blunt points the size of silver dollars brought little comfort. They thrashed around like water dropped on a hot frying pan, and I knew things would only get worse.
We stepped into the ring while the stock manager lashed a strap around the first bull's flanks (not its balls, thank God). After the bull, a runt whose back came no higher than my chest, galloped out of the chute carrying a 'tweener cowboy, I cowered near the fence, repeating my new Buddhist mantra: "Stand your ground, don't poop your pants, stand your ground, don't..."
By the afternoon of day two, we had moved up to the big boys. When Bodybag, a schizo, 1,500-pound riderless bull, was 15 feet away, he stutter-stepped. I assumed this meant he was planning to sprint to the left, as I'd seen him do before, so I ran to the right. But instead he pounced like a cat! with his front legs extended, diving at my shins. I backpedaled, one hand low on his forehead. It felt oddly warm. I looked left: horn. Right: horn. He pounced again. And again, steering me in an S as I swerved and stumbled backwards. Then he knocked me on my ass.
By all rights, he should have skewered me like a kebab, but for some reason he lost interest. I scampered away in a cloud of dust.
That was enough for me. With another day and a half to go, I quit. Who the hell wants to face that? Lyle's answer: "Wingnuts."
AC/DC'S "THUNDERSTRUCK" blares over the loudspeakers. Fireworks boom and fog the air. Beside me in the press pit, a woman from The Huffington Post gasps "Oh, my God" as the uncommonly handsome bull riders stride into the spotlight.
"Welcome to the toughest sport on dirt!" the announcer bellows. And so begins the second round.
The first bull vaults out of the gate, the rider clenching the rope with one gloved hand, throwing the other defiantly in the air. He flings himself off before going the full eight seconds required to earn a score, and the bull trots out the exit gate with a minimum of coaxing.
Over the course of the three-hour event, Frank, Shorty, and Darrell "pick up" bulls and "pass" them to each other but mostly stand around, knowing they'll be paid roughly $150,000 this year for looking like studs.
Which, of course, they are. Virtually every bull rider will tell you that clowns have it tougher, in part because they spend three hours a night in front of the horns, not just a handful of seconds. What, then, compels a man to do this?
Darrell is a typical example of the breed, not counting the fact that he grew up in Queensland, Australia. Introduced to rodeo by his rancher dad, he rode bulls at first but switched to clowning, drawn to its selflessness and daring. He briefly attended a clown school, as most clowns do, and trained as much as possible at practice pens, in unsanctioned local bull rides, on a neighbor's ranch.
Along the way, he developed his own trademark shtick. In addition to protecting the cowboys, clowns are expected to "sell the rodeo," i.e., leave the audience wowed. Darrell's thing was riding bulls backwards. For five years, at the close of each rodeo, he'd lie facedown on a bull's back, hook his legs under the horns, and hold on to the flank strap for dear life. According to Shorty, who was a consultant for the second Jackass movie, Johnny Knoxville wanted to try this but chickened out after seeing Darrell do it.
Not surprisingly, many clowns find strength in God or the bottle. But Darrell has always been a fan of temperance in both areas, and from 1998 to 2007 he worked his way up the ranks. He learned how to read a bull's smallest movements as little as a lean or a look and developed a maestro's sense of timing. Eventually, after jitterbugging with thousands of rank-ass bulls, he impressed enough riders and stock managers to be able to hang up his baggy jean shorts and earn his spurs on the PBR tour. That's a major achievement. At any given time, only about a dozen guys make their living as professional rodeo clowns, and Darrell, Frank, and Shorty are now at the top of the heap.
Darrell lives alone in Azle, Texas, outside Fort Worth. In his free time, he runs cattle on a small spread, follows the "as seen on TV" P90x extreme-fitness program, and, inevitably, convalesces. Last November, a bull shattered his tibia and fibula above his left ankle. This weekend, just three months later, marks his triumphant return.
ONLY A FEWRIDES into the finals, cussedness and bloodlust have spread like a virus from one animal to the next. Bulls are rushing the cartwheeling riders, and the clowns are getting sacked.
A bull named Mean Machine horn-scoops Darrell under the armpit and flings him, cleats over Stetson, onto Shorty. Two bulls later, Darrell is protecting a semiconscious rider named Cody Campbell when the bull Bad Medicine bats him to the ground with its neck and spins on top of Cody, trampling him for several seconds before Darrell can shoo him away. Flint tries to lighten the mood by shooting free T-shirts into the crowd, but the T-shirt gun misfires with a gasp, lobbing one into the dirt.
Next up is a cowboy named Clayton Foltyn. After he jumps off a ride named Evil Forces, the bull whirls around and swats him to the ground with the side of a horn. Darrell gets in the way before Evil can drive a stake into Clayton. Evil catches Darrell below the knee of his left leg, which is planted firmly on the ground. With a flick of his head, he sends Darrell flying like Superman in reverse.
Darrell's sprint back to Clayton turns into a hop; he grimaces in pain before limping out of the arena.
A few minutes later, I sneak through empty stock pens under the bleachers and find Darrell seated on a black padded table in the rear of the sports-medicine room.
"How are you?" I ask.
"Oh, I'm good, mate," he says evenly, but slower and quieter than normal.
"Did you rebreak them?" I ask, referring to his tibia and fibula.
"Naw, I think I just tore the old scar tissue loose," he says unconvincingly, shifting the ice on his lower leg.
Huddled around a small TV broadcasting the action are a dozen or so riders, most of them with "minor" injuries concussion, separated shoulder, strained hamstring. In the fluorescent light, they look even younger than their twenty-ish years, acne blooming across their foreheads, and they taunt each other like classmates on the playground.
"What, did I get off like shit or something?" a freshly wounded rider asks.
"Yeah, you got off like shit," the others jeer.
This, I suppose, is the less glorious reality of clowning in the PBR. Darrell's job is to protect these yahoo kids. And it can hurt. Evil Forces, it turns out, cuffed him exactly where his left leg was healing, just above the ankle. He will hobble around the house for five weeks before his rebroken tib-fib mends.
When I talk to him a few months later, though, he'll be as enthusiastic as ever, looking forward to a PBR event in New Mexico, then one in Idaho, then Montana. I still won't be able to tell if he's deranged or misunderstood, but his quiet courage is certainly flabbergasting. Thirty weekends a year, he keeps clowning, keeps loving it, even while knowing that, ultimately, he's doomed. The braver he gets, the more injuries he'll sustain. The bulls never really lose.
That night at the finals, I say goodbye and climb back over the pens to a concrete access ramp, what I think is a safe, out-of-the-way place to write a few notes. But before I've scribbled a page, a man with a cattle prod yells, "What the hell are you doing here?!"
He orders me to stand still beneath the lintel of a closed door. Seconds later, two bulls lumber and huff down the ramp, their horns sweeping toward me like the guns of a battleship. With my legs quaking, I quietly, almost inaudibly, repeat my mantra.