Protecting Lives in Rodeo's Most Dangerous Sport
By Cris Paravicini
At one time or another, we've all experienced a strong adrenaline rush
while in the face of danger, and then hollered, "Feet, don't fail me now!"
Indeed, whether confronting the neighbor's snarling dog, the block bully,
or your dad's favorite, cross-eyed mama cow, at some time during our lives,
many of us have turned a yellow tail and skeedaddled-cackling all the way.
There is, however, someone in our midst whose job is to ignore this primitive
instinct, and instead, pursue danger until IT runs away.
When I last visited with 23-year old Jess Griffin more
than three years ago, he had just stepped off the backs of rodeo bulls
and landed squarely in a pair of bullfighter's shoes-happily working Wyoming
high school rodeos and college shows. Since that time, Jess has been especially
busy pursuing his career and polishing his dream of becoming the best professional
bullfighter he can be. It is no wonder then that through a steadfast game
plan of hard work, Jess is now poised to pass through the next gate in
Looking back, much of Jess's natural ability was cultivated
when he was growing up on the family ranch in Riverton. Here, he was surrounded
by a strong heritage-in ranching, 4-H, amateur rodeos, riding milk cow
calves, and breaking colts to ride. His great-uncle George, and grandpa
Herschel Griffin of Riverton, jointly shared Wyoming's Ag Men of the Year
in 1996; Governor Jim Geringer presented that award, and Jess's dad and
mom, Bill and BJ Griffin, are managing Maggie Miller's Todd Place here
in Sublette County.
Jess found work during the summer of 1999 as a bullfighter-sometimes
referred to as "cowboy protection or cowboy lifesaver"-at the Cody Stampede
Nite Rodeos in Cody, Wyoming. His job entailed a split-shift routine of
feeding rodeo stock in the morning and protecting cowboys' lives during
the twilight hours of each day.
In December 1999, Jess attended the National Finals Rodeo
to seek out bullfighting contracts for the new millenium. "This is where
they book for the upcoming year," he explained, "and things have started
hittin' here and there," Jess added, regarding his upcoming opportunities.
This past summer, Jess's career gathered momentum as he
worked "hit and miss" at the Cody shows and followed PRCA rodeos throughout
the mountain states of Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana, and picking up even
more work in Arizona, California and Nebraska.
The young athlete explained that a rodeo bullfighter is
solely responsible for blazing his own path in the world of rodeo. He must
aggressively pursue contracts and not be too proud to work the amateur
shows. So, with road miles mounting, experience tallying up, and Jess continuing
to fine-tune his ability, the rise through the ranks of his field was fast
becoming a reality.
It's interesting to note that professional rodeo cowboys
simply purchase a PRCA membership card, which allows them to enter sanctioned
rodeos, nationwide. However, a prospective bullfighter seeking to work
PRCA rodeos must first be judged by a panel of qualified cowboys through
a series of rodeos, which then determines the applicant's ability to successfully
protect bull riders' lives.
Donna Larsen of the Broken Arrow Rodeo Company in Steamboat,
Colorado and Hank Franzen of the Powder River Rodeos noticed Jess's talents
and quickly hired him to work some of their summer shows. He also found
bulls waiting for him in the employment of top contractors like Ike Sankey,
the Honeycutts, and Cotton Rosser of the famed Flying U.
"I've had some real good breaks," Jess said, modestly
downplaying a series of good luck brought about by his own hard work.
If squaring off with bad bulls and protecting cowboys
isn't challenging enough, last summer Jess began dabbling in a slightly
different version of bull play-the sport of freestyle bullfighting. A Mexican
fighting bull is turned into an arena with a bullfighter and a thrilling
contest ensues, pitting the wit of man and the grit of beast. Much like
the difference between the sting of a honeybee and the bite of a hornet,
the difference between the mindset and physical agility of a regular rodeo
bull, and the Mexican breed, is as different as day and night. Mexican
bulls, Jess explained, move much, much faster and harbor an intense craving
to "hunt" the bullfighter.
"They come out of the chute and are immediately looking
for you," Jess grinned, remembering his extremely close association with
these toros. "When you throw fakes and moves at a Mexican bull, it's a
whole different deal," Jess said.
The goal in a freestyle bullfighting contest, Jess further
explained, is to make "catty" enough maneuvers within the bull's personal
space to fully control the bull's movements. And the more "hands on" techniques
applied, the higher the man's score; 1 - 50 possible points are awarded
to the bullfighter with 1 - 50 points going to the bull. You can well imagine
how the bull makes his "point." This season, Jess entered several freestyle
bullfighting events, either winning or placing in most.
While Jess was quite satisfied with how his career was
developing, a major career opportunity occurred at the end of October.
Jess was working a Billings, Montana rodeo when a call came through from
a bullfighter friend named Darrell Diefenbach. Darrell told Jess, "Get
your stuff packed and get out here!"
Darrell explained to Jess that one of the bullfighters
(most rodeos hire two bullfighters and one clown or barrel man) contracted
by the Grand National Rodeo and Stock Show had suffered a broken leg and
would be unable to work the show.
So, Jess grabbed up his black hat and kneepads, his leopard
skin shorts, Wrangler baggies, leather fringed gloves and war paint, and
headed for the famed Cow Palace in San Francisco, California.
"That accident was really a sad thing for him," said Jess,
acknowledging the other bullfighter's bad luck. Circumstantially, though,
and having proven himself worthy of the job, Jess had just been offered
a golden opportunity to fight bulls at one of the most prestigious rodeos
in the nation-a rodeo that is also the final leg in determining which 15
contestants will ultimately qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in December.
This experience, Jess shared, has turned out to be the
high point thus far in his career. During the ten-day show, he helped to
save at least five cowboys from potentially serious, if not fatal injuries;
Jess expressed how rewarding it is to have the confidence of these top
Equally exciting for Jess was his close, working association
with veteran announcer, Bob Talman, considered by many fans to be "The
Voice of Rodeo." Jess was hesitant to tell me exactly what Mr. Talman had
said about the talented country kid from Wyoming, but his big grin told
the story, anyhow.
"He was very friendly, very complimentary, and joked and
teased with me during the whole deal," Jess finally confessed. "He was
In this line of work, you're not doing your job unless
you've been hooked, tromped, kicked, and gored. "You just can't do your
job, unless you're focused and right in there with the action," Jess explains.
Though Jess insists on working right beside the bull, he's been lucky so
far, sustaining only bumps, bruises and infected fingers from bacteria-ridden,
Speaking from his folks' home on the Todd Place south
of Daniel, Jess says he'll be returning to Cody for yet another quick round
of bull fighting before heading to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas,
Nevada, where he'll line up his shows for the next bullfighting season.
Jess Griffin has certainly zigzagged his way across many
arenas, literally pulling tails, not strings, and butting heads, kicking
butts, and getting in the faces of the wild-eyed opposition. But it's apparent
that this job goes well beyond raw ability; there is also the element of
timing, instinct, finesse and an inherent sixth sense when protecting a
bull rider who either hangs up in his rope or lands in the path of a "man-eating"
Watch Jess's nail-biting action at the Cow Palace, November
26 on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m. (MST) and again, December 1 on ESPN2 at 11 a.m.
At a Meeteetse, Wyoming rodeo this past summer, Jess Griffin lends a
helping hand to a bull rider who is hung up in his rope.
Copyright credits: www.cowboyimages.net