One thing everyone wants to know about Chase Outlaw is whether his name is really Chase Outlaw. They also want to know whether he has a fake eye and how many bones he has broken in his face. People are interested in learning which parts of his body are real, and which parts have been replaced by smooth metal balls. They ask him to identify the bones that have shattered on impact, and the parts of his face held together by pins and titanium plates. They want to hear about the 2,000-pound bulls that have bucked him, trampled him, kicked him, sent him hurtling through the air. More than anything, they want Chase Outlaw to tell them what it felt like when he flew off a bull named War Cloud last year and landed on one of the bull’s horns, shattering 30 bones in his face. People ask Chase Outlaw what he remembers, and he tells them how the blood filled his sinuses, then ran into his eyes. He offers the number of screws the doctors inserted into his face, because people are interested in hearing about that too: The number is 68.
When Chase Outlaw (that’s really his name) goes into the bucking chute now, the announcers broadcast the story of his infamous comeback across the arena, and an X-ray of his mutilated face flashes on every screen, projecting an image of his eye socket looking like a chewed up piece of tobacco. Chase’s theme song, “Turn Down For What,” pulses through the speakers, and everyone always cheers. It’s been a little over a year since Chase Outlaw broke his face, and he is now the third best rider in the world. As he climbs on top of the bull, the announcers say things like, “He has come back with a vengeance” and “He is riding better right now than he ever has.” Then Chase Outlaw makes a gesture, the gate opens, and the bull goes hurtling into the ring.
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The time Chase Outlaw actually spends on a bull is hardly anything. At home he thinks about leaning forward and pushing down on a mechanical bucker he keeps in his workshop, but in the ring there isn’t time for that. He tries not to think a single thought as he flops up and down on the bull, one arm flapping in the air like a flag. If things go well, his mind is totally blank until someone calls that eight seconds have passed and he scrambles away from the bull before it can trample him to the ground. As he races to the other side of the ring, his face is soaked with sweat and his eyes are bloodshot and crazed, but his voice is always completely calm by the time reporters appear to ask him what he’s thinking. “I’m taking it one bull at a time.” “You just have to have faith in God.” That’s the sort of thing Chase Outlaw tells them, and the way he speaks into the microphone is so bland and uninflected you’d think he was explaining how to repair a motor.
It’s difficult for Chase to describe why he’s good at bull riding, or even why he loves it. Growing up, it wasn’t so much a dream as an inevitability. Every weekend he and his sister watched riders like Chris Shivers and Tuff Hedeman dominating bulls on TV, and Chase loved them for being “badasses,” by which he meant to say that they were the best in the world. At the time, he was 4 years old and riding small farm animals mostly. He got on his first sheep at a mutton busting in Beebe and won a bucket full of horse supplies and a small orange whistle. When he got home, he hung the whistle around his neck, and played it across the farm to announce his victory for anyone who cared to hear. “He blew that whistle for about a decade,” his sister said.
After that, riding was all Chase wanted to do. His father bought a small flock for him to practice on, and he asked his sister to round them up every day as soon as the school bus dropped them off at their farm in Hamburg. In those days, they had to replace their furniture all the time, because Chase rode the fabric off the arms of the chairs and sofas. If they didn’t prop every piece of furniture in the living room up with end tables, he rode them all to the ground and left the room looking like it had been ransacked or hit by a natural disaster.
At 8 years old, Chase wrote a letter to his second-grade teacher saying that when he grew up he was going to be a world champion bull rider, own cows and live in Texas. That’s exactly what his life is like now, except he lives a mile from his childhood home in Hamburg. He never imagined that it would turn out differently. He rides because it’s what he does, and because he prefers it to working construction sites, and because it has never occurred to him to do anything else. No one ever asked him if he had a backup plan, and he never thought to develop one.
Now Chase lives in a one-story house with “Outlaw” written in swirling letters at the entrance. His living room contains 21 belt buckles, four cowboy hats and a long cowhide rug. After Memorial Day each year, he switches from wearing a straw cowboy hat to a felt one that he adorns with peacock feathers sent to him by a hunter up the road. Until about a year ago, he wore a mustache as well, and one of the photos in his wedding album shows him and another bull rider grooming their facial hair in front of a bathroom mirror before the service. On another page, he and his wife, Nicole Outlaw, stand beneath a bull’s skull and a wedding arch made of cow bones. Chase Outlaw is wearing a crepe cowboy hat and pumping his fist in the air, and Nicole is smiling beside him, wearing a white lace wedding dress she bought three days before the ceremony.
Some of the bull-riding wives are barrel racers with careers of their own. They ride horses at rodeos and talk about where to buy ropes that pull right, and how to get the best inseams for riding gloves. Nicole doesn’t have that kind of vocabulary. When she met Chase Outlaw at a bull-riding competition six years ago, she was working as an assistant at a dental office and she didn’t know Justin McBride from Ty Murray. Even now she hasn’t picked up enough of the terminology to follow Chase’s conversations with the other bull riders. She has photographs of half a dozen different bulls hanging in her living room because that is what Chase loves most in the world, and she loves that he loves to ride bulls.
When Chase proposed to Nicole, he was one of the top 10 riders in the world and competing in rodeos most weekends. A little over a year after they got engaged, he called Nicole from a rodeo to say that Chad Berger was having his annual bull-riding party in a week, and they should get married there. Chad Berger was a rancher from North Dakota who had been named best stock trader in the business eight years, and he held his own rodeo each spring to show off his bulls. Nicole said yes, because she’s the kind of person who doesn’t mind planning a wedding a week in advance and because she couldn’t think of another way to work the wedding into Chase’s rodeo schedule. It turned out that another bull rider had recently officiated for a friend’s service and he agreed to read the vows for Chase and Nicole as well. The night before the wedding, Chase rode a bull named Modified Clyde, and he still remembers his final score: 90.5. He won the whole rodeo, and showed up at his wedding service with 10 stitches in his chin, courtesy of another bull named Siouxper Stinger. The Professional Bull Riders channel filmed the whole ceremony, and Chase’s battle song played as the couple came out for their first dance. Nicole had a few bridesmaids, but she didn’t know most of the faces in the crowd. Even now, people will come up to her and say, “I was at your wedding!” and she will think, “I have no idea who you are.”
The question everyone has for Nicole Outlaw is whether it scares her to see Chase Outlaw on top of a bull. They want to know what she’s thinking when she sees her husband flopping up and down on an animal that weighs a ton. For the first few weeks after Chase’s accident, no one asked Nicole questions, but now people want her to tell them what it felt like when she saw her husband get into the ambulance. They want to know if she was afraid. Last summer, a film crew from the Professional Bull Riders channel took Nicole to the hospital where Chase had 12 hours of reconstructive surgery on his face. It was exactly one year after the accident, and the moment they pulled into the parking lot outside the hospital, Nicole remembered everything. The PBR crew filmed her sitting in a hospital room and asked, as everyone asks, if the accident made her afraid. Nicole doesn’t like the question. When people ask her about Chase’s accident, she tells them she has never told him to quit. Some of the wives close their eyes when the gate swings open, but Nicole Outlaw never does. If she gets nervous now, it is because she wants Chase Outlaw to win.
The thing that makes Nicole Outlaw really afraid is watching her 4-year-old daughter run at every horse she sees on their ranch. Earlier this year Nicole and Chase went to see a boy who was paralyzed after he fell off the back of his pony, and now Nicole can’t stop thinking about all the things that might happen to her daughter every time she gets on top of her horse, Cupcake. Chloe Outlaw has blonde wispy hair, and if she had her way she would ride horses all the time. She prefers the Professional Bull Riders channel to cartoons, and every time she sees a horse she is reminded of the fact that she is not riding it and screams. When a film crew came to her ranch in October to film Chase Outlaw at home, Chloe’s most important question for them was whether they knew how to saddle a horse. She pointed to Cupcake again and again as the crew set up their equipment in Chase’s workshop. Finally someone asked her why she liked to ride horses, and she cooly replied, “Because it is what I like to do.”
The film crew had come from Ride TV, a channel dedicated to chronicling the many ways a human can momentarily dominate a massive animal, and they wanted to know what life was like for Chase Outlaw two weeks before the Professional Bull Riders World Championship in Las Vegas. They spent the day trailing Chase as he rode saddleback with his infant son in his lap and swayed up and down on the mechanical bucker in his workshop. In the evening, they followed him to a bull ring a few miles from his house, and asked him to walk into the range and gaze into the sunset. They wanted him to look deep into the camera and say, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”
As the crew filmed Chase Outlaw pondering death in the evening light, a 14-year-old named Jonah Richard waited by the ring. He usually came to ride on Thursdays and Sundays, but he was there on a Wednesday to show the cameras how Chase Outlaw would ride bulls if Chase Outlaw was riding bulls two weeks before the Professional Bull Riders World Championship. Jonah has fluffy hair and the quiet intensity of the lead singer in a boy band. He started riding bulls when he was 8 years old at a rodeo he went to with his father, Mike Richard. He thought rodeos were boring, so when someone asked him if he wanted to ride a bull, he said yes because he figured it would give him something to do. The first time he was bucked off right away, but the next day he rode until someone called for him to get off. Now riding bulls is all he wants to do.
About a year ago, Jonah went to a riding camp that Chase hosted in Hamburg, and he has been learning how to ride from Chase ever since. Jonah rides bulls like some teenagers play guitar, as if riding were his only claim on seriousness in this world. His family likes to make fun of the videos he has posted online of himself deadlifting to soft rap and riding bull after bull in one slow montage. “Those videos are so old,” Jonah tells them, but his family knows he made them last year, and no one leaves him alone about it.
As Jonah put on his equipment at the ring, a camera buzzed above him. His father prodded a bull into the pen, then told Jonah to get down with him and pray. Chase joined them, and they all kneeled together praying for Jonah’s safety. After a few seconds of silence, Mike and Chase said “Amen” and got up to finish preparing the bull, but Jonah stayed behind with his head sunk into the grass and his face clenched. He waited there for a long quiet minute, his whole body locked into whatever prayer he was saying, then he brought a silver cross hanging from a chain around his neck to his lips and shouted “Amen!”
By the time Jonah got to his feet, the bull was already in the bucking chute and Chase Outlaw was lounging on top with a cell phone to his ear, talking in the same tone another person might use to describe a trip to the grocery store. “I’m sitting on a bull now,” he said into the phone. “In the bucking chute, yeah.” His feet swayed casually. “I’ll let you know.” Chase hung up the phone and glanced at the bull, which was looking calm and impassive as a massive labradoodle. Jonah watched them both as he paced up and down a plank that ran alongside the pen, kicking his boots and rubbing his hands together, grunting at nothing in particular.
“Ready, cowboy?” Chase Outlaw said.
Jonah squatted like a frog and leaped onto the fence. He swung both legs over, then settled down on the bull while his father and Chase Outlaw yanked the rope around the bull’s abdomen tighter and tighter. “Pull,” Jonah said once, then again. His voice was quick and quiet each time, like the rope was going tighter around his stomach and not the bull’s with each crank.
Mike asked Jonah if he was ready. Jonah gave a small nod. Another farmer released the gate, and the bull shot out of the chute like soda out of a can. The animal curled its back and stamped his feet, and Jonah dug his knees into its massive abdomen. A few seconds went by, and then he flew off and landed on the ground, running to the fence before the bull could chase him down. A farmer raced after the bull to get it back in the barn. “He rode that time,” Mike said.
Jonah tried two more times that night, but he couldn’t ride again. The light drew dim and the camera crew disappeared into their van. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Jonah’s father reassured him, but Jonah didn’t see what Rome had to do with his situation.
“Huh?” he said.
They both turned from the ring to walk toward home. Jonah’s house was just across the field, and they arrived a few minutes later. Chase Outlaw was already sitting at the dining room table. He had driven ahead with Nicole in their pickup, and now his cowboy hat was lying on the table. He looked happy and goofy, completely unlike the person who had walked around the ring for the cameras, with his hat tilted low over his black sunglasses.
Jonah’s mother said that there was tortilla soup for everyone, but Jonah shrugged her off. He went to his room and shut the door and pulled out a box from under his bed. It was full of plastic fences and bulls. He had names for each of them — Bodacious, Bruiser, Pearl Harbor — the names of the bucking bulls he saw competing in rodeos on TV every weekend. Sometimes he bet on them with his friends, or just handled the hooves in his hands and thought about which one would turn out fiercest. As dinner wound down in the other room, the conversation moved from ropes to snakes to bucking bulls, and Chloe Outlaw appeared at Jonah’s door. She wanted to see the bulls, too, how they bucked and rode, and Jonah showed her. He put the miniature bodies in her waiting hands.
Two weeks later, Jonah turned on the TV to watch the Professional Bull Riding World Championship from his grandparents’ living room in Arkansas. The rest of his family had gone out to hunt deer, but Jonah stayed behind to see Chase ride. In the final round of the competition, Chase was lined up against Smooth Operator, one of Chad Berger’s stock, a 9-year-old white American Bucking Bull in the twilight of his career. In the years Jonah had watched the bull, he had only gotten fiercer and wilder. Smooth Operator had learned new tricks, and Jonah expected him to beat the other bulls for best in the world at the Las Vegas rodeo. He bucked his riders nine times out of 10, generally in just over three seconds. In the second round of the world championship, he bucked a rider named Dylan Smith in 6.99 seconds. In the final round, he bucked Chase Outlaw in 4.1.
The announcers screamed into the microphone as Chase tumbled off the bull’s back. It was Chase’s second buck of the competition, and his chances at the world title were shot. As Chase retreated back into the holding pen, the cameras turned from him to the bull bouncing around the ring. The animal’s back continued to curl up and down, like he was still trying to shake the cowboy. “Smooth Operator does not care who is on his back!” the announcers yelled. “Smooth Operator is the World Champion Bull!” “He’s taking a victory lap!” Smooth Operator bounded around the ring, evading a cowboy who was pursuing him on horseback with a lasso turning in the air. When the cowboy finally managed to loop the rope around Smooth Operator’s horn, the bull slowed to a trot and paraded around the stage gracefully, like a poodle just crowned best-in-show. “If I had to give one word to that bull, it would be rank,” Jonah said.
On the screen, the camera turned to Chad Berger as he threw up his hands in the stands. He was wearing a black felt cowboy hat with a feather painted like the American flag, and he took it off and waved it in the air. Chase climbed the fence surrounding the ring to shake his hand. They nodded at each other, and then Chase Outlaw tipped his hat and walked off the screen.
Three weeks later, Chase would learn that he needed shoulder surgery, his fourth, and that he wouldn’t return to the ring for another six months. He’d fallen off a bull named Twist of Barbwire in October, and elected to delay a full examination until after the world championships. The week before the surgery, a reporter called to ask how he was feeling, and he replied that he wasn’t concerned. He said it would be like the last time, when he broke his face and returned to the ring two months later and won. It would be like that time, and the time before that, and the time before that. He would come back, and ride Smooth Operator, and become the best bull rider in the world. His voice was steady and calm as he described the injury, the surgery, the victories to come. “You got to know you’re not out of the fight,” he said. “You just got to ride the ride.”