By Eric Newman / Cronkite News
NEW RIVER - Brady Turgeon, one of the nation's top miniature bull riders, has been on the backs of animals for as long as he can remember.
Unlike typical prodigy stories, like the young tennis player who picked up a racquet before he could walk, or the basketball player who could dribble between her legs before she could read "Wilson" on her favorite ball, Turgeon, 14, was riding on a live sheep by the time he was 3 years old. His parents bought him a mechanical bull for their house, but it initially took awhile for him to get on a live one.
"The first time I got on it, I didn't really like it that much," he said. "Then I got convinced by my dad and another one of my buddies, and I just kept getting on a couple more and started liking it."
Now Turgeon is ranked in the top 10 in the United States for his age group. He rides on miniature bulls multiple times a week, though "miniature" still means anywhere between 400-800 pounds or more in the Arizona Junior High Rodeo, among other competitions. With the goal of staying on eight or more seconds on top of a bucking animal, not knowing what could happen if the bull bashes its young rider to the ground, the sport certainly presents unparalleled danger not found in other sports.
Jeff Riggs, the boyfriend of Brady Turgeon's mother, is a former bull rider and the owner of Roadrunner Restaurant and Saloon, which hosts multiple bull riding events each week, has experienced his share of injuries, including a broken jaw that required him to have his mouth wired shut for nearly six months. Understanding the danger of the sport, there are extra precautions young riders take, such as protective vests and helmets with facemasks. However, he admitted there is no way to completely prevent injuries.
Despite the inherent risk that stepping onto the back of a live animal entails, Riggs said if Brady is willing to make that sacrifice, he will not do anything to stop him.
"If he were to die today, he'd want to die riding a bull. That right there tells you something. There ain't nothing else better than that," he said. "If I was going to die today I would want to die having fun, doing what I love doing. If riding bulls is it, then riding bulls is it."
Riggs said Brady has been "slammed pretty good" a few times and came up walking a bit crooked. He has been able to stave off any harm too serious to this point, though there have been scares.Miniature bulls stand about four feet tall and weigh between 400-800 pounds
That danger is exactly what drives the athletes to participate, feeling an adrenaline rush Riggs said could not be found anywhere else.
Luke Kaufman, a live event announcer for Professional Bull Riding's Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour, said miniature bull riding is growing in popularity, as a way for those under 18 to experience the sport without the immediate peril that full-size bulls threaten if riders are thrown off.
"To ride an un-ridable bull, an animal that outweighs you 10 to one and to be able to ride it for 8 seconds, even when you ride a bull that nobody else has ridden, you have that honor. It's like slaying a dragon," he said.
It is not a sport taken lightly though. And for those kids interested in riding bulls as an adult, it is of the utmost importance, he said, to get over the initial anxiety and start learning early.
Though just about anybody can sign up at a saloon like the Roadrunner to hop on the back of one of the animals, having experience on sheep and smaller bulls is particularly important, as well as learning proper form.
"You can't just turn 18, without any bull riding experience and just get on a bull and expect to be successful. It doesn't work out so good," he said.
As a young athlete, miniature bull riding provides a unique opportunity for publicity that is unmatched.
Comparing the bigger competitions to a youth soccer game, or a high school football contest, where there might be less than 100 people in the stands, Brady has competed at some of the biggest sports venues in the United States at a young age. He described his favorite ride of his young career at AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys play.
"It was in Arlington, Texas, at the Iron Cowboy, I got on a mini bull. His name was Festus. I think I covered him, 87.5 points (out of 100), in front of 100,000 people. That felt awesome," he said.
As Brady's coach, Riggs still said his main goal is to be calm and collected, as a rider needs to be before they get on a bull, but that seeing the boy succeeding in the same competitions he did as a young rider creates a special bond.
"They're all going crazy and the announcers are going crazy, and here's (Brady) riding everything they put underneath him and winning it. That's kind of a cool feeling. I don't really know how else to say it." he said.