If Andy Burelle had not had a pair of softball cleats in his car one night a few years ago, he might still have his front teeth.
“When I was 19 years old, I went to a rodeo with my girlfriend at Michigan State,” Burelle said. “And I thought, ‘This was the coolest thing ever. I need to try this.’ So I started riding bulls.”
He rode — and got bucked off — for about three years before he found his true calling as a bullfighter, the colorfully dressed cowboys who do whatever it takes to keep the bull riders from getting hurt.
“I was at a bull riding one night … and one of the bullfighters was out of town; the other one got hurt, so I volunteered because I had a pair of softball cleats in the car,” Burelle said. “I went out there and kinda had a knack for it. I knew when somebody was going to be in trouble because I had been in trouble on the back of a bull myself.”
So began an 18-year career with a full complement of teeth for Burelle, who has been working the past couple of weeks at the Fort Worth Stock Show’s rodeo events. On the evening of Jan. 21, during the high-octane Bulls Night Out competition, an angry bull popped Burelle in the face, taking out five of his front teeth.
“I think it was probably the horn. It might have been his head. Nobody knows because we didn’t get a good camera angle on it,” Burelle said.
“I think he just stuck his horn in my mouth.”
Burelle got up, dusted himself off and has not missed a single performance because of the cheap shot.
Like any other sport, this athlete knows that injuries are a part of the game.
“I’ve got two plates in my face, a plate and nine screws in my forearm, a plate and eight screws in my ankle, I blew out my knee in my rookie year …,” said Burelle, who wears a knee brace when he performs. “I can take the pounding. That has always been my style.”
Conditioning is important
Burelle has enjoyed success in two types of bullfighting: freestyle and cowboy protection.
“Freestyle bullfighting is a lot like the Spanish matador except there is no sword and no cape, so the advantage is entirely to the bull,” said Burelle, who has won two world championships in the sport, in which the bullfighters pay entry fees and compete for a purse just as a rodeo contestant would. “You want to make graceful moves and get as close as you can to that bull. It’s judged the same as bull riding: half for the aggressiveness of the bull and half for how in control you are.”
Although there are cowboy protection competitions, that term usually refers to what Burelle, his fellow bullfighter Dusty Tuckness and barrel clown Cory Wall do every night at the Stock Show’s rodeo — they practice the art of keeping cowboys from getting killed.
And, like any physically demanding sport, staying alive in the arena requires constant athletic conditioning.
“You’ve got to have a fitness regime. It depends on the rodeo and your age. When I’m on a five-performance rodeo, out the six days I am there, I will be at the gym four days.
“But at this long rodeo, because I am 37 years old, my joints and my knees can’t handle the working out and two or three performances a day. I would wear out,” said Burelle, whose wife Robyn is, fortunately, a nurse.
The Stock Show’s rodeo continues daily through Feb. 8 at Will Rogers Memorial Center Coliseum.
He said Tuckness, his bullfighter partner, is a little more active because he’s 10 years younger.
“So he’ll run 5 to 7 miles every morning, or do a workout video, or go over to the gym even during these two and three performance days. You get physical activity during [a rodeo performance] but as far as strengthening your joints, you’re not making them stronger, you’re just [abusing] them all the time.”
‘Comedy is the hardest part’
A steady workload and too many bad bulls have led Burelle to expand his resume recently.
Among rodeo clowns there are specific duties. The bullfighters, who usually work in pairs, are in charge of cowboy safety and just a little bit of show biz.
“They bring in fighting bulls so we can do a little exhibition and add a little showmanship,” said Burelle, explaining the rodeo’s practice of turning one bull loose without a rider each night so he can have some fun with the bullfighters. “You’ve got to give the crowd a taste of what freestyle bullfighting is like.”
So while Burelle is a bullfighter, he is beginning to sometimes seek out the relative safety of being a barrel clown, the one who holes up inside a barrel and can be heard swapping banter with the rodeo announcer between rides.
Burelle seems to be more fearful of that job than of any bull.
“The comedy is the hardest part of it all. To be on a microphone in front of 8,000 people every night … it’s very hard to make people laugh,” Burelle said.
Getting the bull’s attention
But at the Stock Show, Burelle is a bullfighter. And he and Tuckness must work together as a team.
“You divide the arena in half. You always want to have one guy on either side of that bull, so no matter how that cowboy comes off, you cover your half, he covers his half,” Burelle said. “So once that cowboy comes off, my goal is to find that gap between that cowboy and the bull. If it’s six feet or six inches, that’s the hole I need to go through.”
Burelle explained that he is often just “trying to get the bull’s attention.”
“Usually I will try to grab his head with two hands and holler at him. I need to take the bull in the right direction. If you can get him to jump forward and out of that spin, that can stop that helicopter,” said Burelle, using the rodeo term to describe the sight of cowboy spread eagle in flight while still attached to a spinning bull.
So Burelle’s job is every bit as tough as it looks. But he likes the place he has chosen for his office.
“Rodeo is different from other sports. Even though you are competing against one another, you are standing at the back of the chute rooting for the other guy. … It’s one of the rare sports where you want to see the best out of your competitors,” Burelle said. “So I don’t ask myself why I am doing this. Instead, I just grit the teeth I have left and go back out there.”