With a star’s death, rodeo meets its NFL moment

How the death of rodeo star Ty Pozzobon has forced the sport to face its own concussion crisis
Cowboy Ty Pozzobon rides the bull Exotic Justin during the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Madison Square Garden Invitational in New York, January 7, 2012. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Cowboy Ty Pozzobon rides the bull Exotic Justin during the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Madison Square Garden Invitational in New York, January 7, 2012. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Cowboy Ty Pozzobon rides the bull Exotic Justin during the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Madison Square Garden Invitational in New York, January 7, 2012. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Days before he was found dead of suspected suicide, the Ty Pozzobon known and loved among rodeo people was, in a sense, already gone. The elfin charm and self-assurance had vanished, leaving behind a husk of a man given to brooding and irrational impulses. His mother, Leanne, recalls him announcing the day before he died that he planned to sell all of his cattle—a 120-strong herd he’d painstakingly built to sustain his family when his rodeo days were done. She’d hardly begun to protest when the 25-year-old changed his mind—then changed it back again in a pattern that continued for the rest of the day. “He’d have a thought and by the next sentence couldn’t remember what he’d just been thinking about,” she says from her home in Merritt, B.C. “He was making decisions that were just not like him.”

Pozzobon had suffered at least 12 concussions, according to friends and family who spoke to Maclean’s, a degree of head trauma known to leave profound post-injury effects. An inability to inhibit impulses is among the most common, says Dr. Charles Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon and Canada’s leading authority in the field, while “depression is a feature of almost 50 per cent of people suffering from post-concussion syndrome.”

Pozzobon confided to close friends in the weeks before his death that he felt stressed, but his parents knew that his problems ran deeper. With no prior history of depression, he had begun in the past 18 months to anguish over minor problems, says Leanne, and four days before his death on Jan. 9, he suffered a panic attack while shopping in a Merritt supermarket. She and Pozzobon’s father, Luke, have traced the shift in his personality back to a calamitous spill he’d taken in Saskatoon in November 2014, when he had been unconscious before he hit the dirt. The bull, a 680-kg behemoth named Boot Strap Bill, had then stepped on Pozzobon’s head, shattering the hockey helmet he wore for protection. “The look in his eyes changed after that,” says Leanne. “He used to have these dark, dark eyes that really shone. But for this past year and a half, they’d gone dull.”

The cause of Pozzobon’s death has not been officially declared—the B.C. coroner’s office said only that he was found “unresponsive” and that it did not consider his death suspicious. But family members say the circumstances clearly pointed to suicide, and the potential link to his head injuries has reverberated through a sport where competing concussed is an unacknowledged norm. Chad Besplug, a former champion bull rider who was close to Pozzobon, says riders and organizers alike have been slow to address the issue because, like football and hockey players, they consider toughness their brand. “We are the NFL in 1962,” he says. “None of us wants to change the nature of bull riding—these guys want to compete, and that’s what makes them beautiful. But it’s also what makes us a danger to ourselves.”

Pozzobon’s prominence in an emerging sport has added to the sense of reckoning. Blessed with screen-idol looks and swashbuckling audacity, he’d been a huge asset to the U.S.-based Professional Bull Riders (PBR), a slickly marketed circuit whose top events are televised on NBC and CBS. He was known to grin and mug at fellow riders even as he careened on the back of a heaving bovine; in five full seasons in PBR, he’d won US$532,000—including the circuit’s 2016 Canadian title—to go with five-figure annual winnings on other circuits. But when the crowd had gone home, say former competitors, Pozzobon could be found in the light of his smartphone, replying to every fan who’d reached out on Facebook. “The guy had, like, 20 best friends,” says Besplug.

Two weeks after his death, Pozzobon’s parents donated his brain to the University of Washington for research that could reveal whether he’d fallen victim to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition known to afflict athletes who play contact sports. The point, says his mother, is to get answers about his death while potentially wakening rodeo people to a danger they might tragically underestimate. “I would never run the sport of bull riding down,” she adds, “but this is something you can’t see. Nobody [in rodeo] knew Ty had so many concussions, and there’s no doubt in my mind they’re going to find something—some kind of damage to his brain. I just know it.”

Her certainty derives in part from videotape evidence. YouTube is strewn with clips of Pozzobon flying off bulls—sometimes making spectacular escapes, sometimes not. On Nov. 10, 2012, he was knocked out cold during the penultimate round of the Canadian Finals Rodeo when a bull named Seven & Seven jerked back his massive poll just as Pozzobon’s head pitched forward. The blow left him lying face-down on the floor of Edmonton’s Rexall Place, where Seven & Seven stepped on him before the bullfighters could rush in (they’re no longer referred to as clowns). Pozzobon was taken to hospital, but somehow got vertical the next day and returned to compete in the final round. He was easily bucked off.

Emerging from so-called “wrecks” can cement a cowboy’s reputation as surely as successful rides, and for Pozzobon, the Edmonton incident typified a hair-raising 12 months. The previous spring in Pueblo, Colo., a long-horned bull flipped him twice like a rag doll before he could scramble to the chutes. In October, at the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas, a 650-kg bull named Smokey White Devil outright fell on him (“Ty Pozzobon, thankfully, up and walking around!” marvelled the TV announcer). In April 2013, a notorious spinner named Carolina Kicker duplicated the blow delivered by Seven & Seven, leaving Pozzobon unconscious and akimbo on an arena floor in Louisville, Ky.

Whether doctors urged Pozzobon to stop competing at that point isn’t known. His father, Luke, says he went to hospital that night, only to be released the following morning, and fellow riders doubt he would have heeded their warnings. Like most rodeo cowboys, Pozzobon treated concussions like any other injury, getting back in the chutes the moment he thought he could endure it. That concussions can lead athletes to feel competition-ready when they’re not is something many bull riders are only now coming to grips with, says Tanner Byrne of Prince Albert, Sask., a close friend of Pozzobon’s. “You tear your knee out and you’re going to be out for six months,” says Byrne, currently the No. 14-ranked rider in PBR. “Your brain is way more important than your knee, but get a head injury and you might go the next day.”

Certainly to the untrained eye, Pozzobon showed miraculous powers of recovery. Two months after the Kentucky knockout, he rode brilliantly at the Calgary Stampede, logging a rare 90-point ride and reaching the final four. Through 2014, he pulled down US$125,000 on various tours in the U.S., Canada and Australia—including $58,900 from the elite Built Ford Tough Series—and finished second at the Canadian finals. That year, for the second time, he hosted his own PBR event in Merritt. Going into the league’s Canadian finals in Saskatoon, he was riding high.

What followed is the hardest of Pozzobon’s wrecks to watch. Video shows him hitting the dirt just after the eight-second buzzer signals a complete ride. As he tries to get up, the right rear hoof of the still-bucking Boot Strap Bill comes down with full force on his head. Pozzobon’s white helmet opens like a clamshell, and for a moment he lies dazed, propped on one arm. Then a front hoof catches him on the chin, snapping his head back. The bullfighters scramble to help, but the damage is done. Pozzobon is on his back, staring at nothing, and as an ambulance is summoned, veteran announcer Brett Gardiner solemnly tells the crowd: “I want everyone in the world to take a breath right now.”

Again, improbably, Pozzobon was released from hospital at 8:20 a.m. the next day. His mother had read about the incident on Twitter, and four hours later got him on the phone as he rode in a cab for the Saskatoon airport. He was slurring his words, she recalls, and seemed to think he was fit to travel to his next event. So she quickly enlisted Byrne’s father-in-law to intercept him at the terminal. For the next week, Pozzobon rested at Byrne’s house, shuttered under doctor’s orders in a darkened room without TV. Six days on, says Byrne, he still seemed scrambled. “I went to take him over to my in-laws’ place next door. It’s about 20 steps. He got lost in between—didn’t know where we were going. That’s when I knew things were bad.”

So bad, in fact, that Pozzobon spent much of the next year on the shelf, competing in just three PBR events in the U.S. and 10 in Canada. In September, he broke a femur and was on crutches the following month when he and his fiancée, Jayd Davis, got married in her hometown of Gonzales, Texas. Whether he suffered further brain trauma at the events he attended in 2015 isn’t clear. But even competing in rough-stock rodeo riding so soon after a severe concussion is, to say the least, not doctor-recommended. Numerous studies have linked repetitive brain trauma in athletes to memory problems, anxiety, depression and—ultimately—to CTE, the progressive form of brain disease that results in dementia. CTE is typically found in the brains of older athletes whose brain tissue was donated for research after they died, notes Tator, the Toronto-based neurosurgeon. But it has been seen in the brains of people still in their teens, and Tator’s team found it in brain tissue from Steve Montador, a concussion-plagued former NHL hockey player who was 35 when he died of undisclosed causes.

That connection, which underpins multiple lawsuits filed by former athletes against the NFL and NHL, now looms large over rodeo. In 2015, a retired athletic therapist from Texas named Don Andrews assembled a survey of injuries at nearly 2,000 rodeos sanctioned by the U.S. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) between 1981 and 2005. The 859 concussions Andrews identified made up 52 per cent of all major injuries. While he didn’t break down the data by event, he told the Associated Press that “anecdotally, the vast majority were bull riders.”

Ty Pozzobon.
Ty Pozzobon.

The rodeo world has not been oblivious to this information so much as confounded by it. The introduction of helmets—mandatory for PBR riders born after 1994—has done nothing to curb concussions because the injuries aren’t caused by direct contact with the skull. Rather, they result from the brain sloshing around when the head suddenly speeds up or slows down, and even on a flawless ride, the accelerative force on a bull rider’s head can be 26 times that of gravity. (Pozzobon, for the record, wore helmets because he feared having his skull crushed, which in light of his encounter with Boot Strap Bill seems a well-placed concern.)

PBR is the only major rodeo organization to introduce concussion protocols, and then only for the 35 or so men who ride in its Built Ford Tough Series. Before they can compete, those riders must take baseline tests that record levels of balance, vision and cognitive function. Riders who are concussed at Built Ford Tough events, or are known to have been concussed, can’t return to competition until they can replicate their baselines in a stress test involving vigorous exercise, says Dr. Tandy Freeman, the PBR medical director who put the protocol in place in 2012. In the meantime, they are counselled heavily on the risks of repeated concussions and climbing back on bulls too early.

But the tests are time-consuming and the computerized evaluation equipment expensive, which is why other associations haven’t followed suit. The PRCA, which sanctions 700 rodeos annually in the U.S. and Canada, has no such system. Nor does the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, the main sanctioning body in this country (officials with the organization did not return calls). The Calgary Stampede, an invitational that operates independently of the PRCA, does not admit riders who’ve been sidelined by their associations, says spokeswoman Kristina Barnes, and that includes PBR. During its own 10 days of competition, it keeps on hand a doctor, paramedics and a rodeo sports medicine team, while organizers aim to provide “the best possible medical care and advice to competitors,” she says. But like the major rodeo circuits, Stampede mostly depends on concussed cowboys to respect the advice of doctors who urge them not to compete.

It’s not much of a safety net. A rider in PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series could compete at a non-PBR rodeo during a down week, get concussed then return to the Ford series without disclosing his injury: “Unless somebody tells us they got hurt,” says Freeman, “we don’t even know that we’ve got to test them.” Nor can officials be sure a competitor like Pozzobon, who met his baselines when he returned to the Ford series in 2016, isn’t covering up post-concussion symptoms like anxiety and depression. Freeman says he and his medical team rely on their rapport with the riders, hoping those who are struggling will come to them. But with Pozzobon, that didn’t happen. “I knew him well enough to say hello to him on the street,” Freeman says ruefully, “but apparently not well enough to know what was going on in his head.”

The absence of a co-ordinated concussion strategy in rodeo is worrisome, because the financial incentive for cowboys to hide symptoms has never been greater. Prize purses in rodeo have ballooned in the past decade as the sport has attracted corporate sponsors and network-TV audiences. In 2006, the Calgary Stampede doubled payouts for its event winners to $100,000 and now boasts a total purse of $2 million. PBR, which was founded in 1992 by 21 riders who each chipped in $1,000, has seen its TV ratings climb by double digits annually and now offers $11 million in prize money each year.

The growth potential has glamorized bull riding, leading the Los Angeles-based sports-marketing juggernaut WME-IMG to buy PBR two years ago. At the same time, it has renewed the barnstorming, gold-rush spirit that has animated rodeo for more than a century. Like their forebears dating back to the 1920s, today’s bull riders live for the adrenalin rush and the next jackpot, and will risk everything for them. Pozzobon was a case in point. Having been hung up, flipped, trod upon and knocked out in the previous three years, he got back on the bulls in 2016 and had his best year in PBR, pulling down nearly $140,000. Two months before his death, he finished fourth at the Built Ford Tough world finals in Las Vegas, winning $97,500.

Given this dynamic, Pozzobon’s father, Luke, is reluctant to point an accusing finger, noting that concussions continue to plague pro hockey and football, despite their introduction of baseline testing and return-to-competition protocols. Luke, who rode in rodeos himself, has grown frustrated over the past two weeks with the conflicting information he’s heard, concluding that “all these protocols boil down to a human judgment call.” He points to Ty’s repeated unsupervised release from hospitals after concussions, wondering why there was no consensus on best practices to prevent him from competing again. “It’s crazy stupid,” he says, “just totally human error, and that’s what we’ve got to get away from.”

Still, Pozzobon’s death has been a moment of profound self-reflection among riders, who hit on a common theme when asked about potential fixes. “We can’t police ourselves,” says former rider Besplug, who now owns a company that markets bull riding to an urban demographic. “What made Ty great was that he wasn’t a rational person when it came to bull riding. Rational people don’t ride bulls. These guys get mad and lie about concussions and try to hide stuff. It’s something that has to be watched very closely.” That might, he says, mean allowing major rodeo associations to share riders’ concussion information to ensure they don’t put themselves at risk.

What no one—riders, rodeo doctors, organizers—wants to see is the event robbed of its essence through rule changes. “The only way I see of eliminating the risk of concussion from bull riding is to eliminate the sport,” says Freeman, “which I don’t see as a viable option.” And Pozzobon would surely have agreed. For years he told his mother that to be killed in a bull ride would be to “die a happy death.” To survive was to enjoy a life of blood, sweat and camaraderie he could recount to his grandkids, while nursing his old aches. That it could instead beget such crippling misery, so early in his life, became clear far too late.