Two Okies and a guy from Wyoming walk into the rodeo arena, with faces full of makeup and britches six or eight sizes too big.
But these three are no joke.
They may ride in last, atop their stick horses during the grand entry before each of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo’s 34 performances. But as the crowd gets rarin’ to go for the rodeo’s marquee event, Dusty Tuckness, Evan Allard and Nathan Harp are all business.
They’re the security detail for bull riders: Cowboy Secret Service. They’re bullfighters, and they say Fort Worth is the most grueling, but also one of the most rewarding rodeos on their calendars.
“Everybody wants this rodeo,” said Tuckness, the eight-time defending PRCA bullfighter of the year. “But there are only a few who can actually work it.”
Tuckness should know. The 31-year-old has worked the Fort Worth rodeo the last 10 years and will be on hand with Allard and Harp as this year’s edition continues through Saturday.
He counts at least 340 performances at the Will Rogers Memorial Center Coliseum. Every year he’s been here, he and his crew have stared down close to 600 bucking bulls and fighting bulls. Those are staggering numbers, considering the damage that just one of those 1,500-pound muscle rockets can inflict on a bullfighter, or worse for these three, on a cowboy.
Tuckness was 22 and had made it unscathed through his first seven performances in his first run at Fort Worth in 2009. During one of the weekend performances, though, he stepped between a bull and a cowboy, got wrecked and, while he was on the ground, got his head stepped on.
“My eye swelled shut, but I had to continue,” Tuckness said.
Because bullfighters don’t travel with alternates who are ready to step in if one twists an ankle. These three, plus Troy Lerwill the rodeo clown, are it.
It instills a brand of accountability in bullfighters. If they’re not there —and not there quick enough — that’s one less fleshy line of defense for the bull rider.
‘Just doing my job’
Tuckness has also had his share of exultant moments in Fort Worth. In 2013, a bull named Snot Shot bucked his rider close to Chute 2 after just 1.2 seconds.
Before the cowboy could get up, both Snot Shot and Tuckness converged on his location — the bull on his way to hook him, and Tuckness to give up his own body and get hooked instead. Tuckness stepped on the crown of the bull’s head, and the beast’s upward reaction launched him atop the 5-foot-tall gate to the bucking chutes. He landed on his feet, gave a fist bump to one of the chute bosses and waved to the roaring crowd to say, “I’m OK.”
“That was nothing I did,” Tuckness said. “That was a God thing. It was a blessing to be able to walk through that. People bring that up from time to time, but I was honestly just doing my job.”
Just doing the job, though, is something bull riders the world over appreciate to no end. In fact, the 15 bull riders who make the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas used to pool together $3,000 to give $1,000 bonuses to the three bullfighters who made the finals until a couple years ago, two-time NFR qualifying bull-rider Tim Bingham said.
Then that appreciation became institutionalized — Las Vegas Events, which hosts the NFR, now adds $1,000 to each of its bullfighters’ take-home pay.
“I’ve got quite a few photos of me hanging off of bulls and he’s in there taking the bull by the head,” Bingham said of Tuckness. “When you have bullfighters who are the best in the world at what they do, you feel confident. We wouldn’t be able to get on 100-plus bulls a year without them.”
‘Welcome to Fort Worth’
Harp, 27, is in his fourth year working the Fort Worth rodeo. In 2015, the Tuttle, Okla. native got a rude welcome in his first-ever Fort Worth performance, similar to the beating Tuckness took in 2009.
“My first year here I was just supposed to be here for the bull riding at the Cinch Shootout. I went home but the other bullfighter that was working with Dusty got hurt,” Harp said. “So I came back up here, and my first performance, the first bull out, I step in and got hooked, and the announcer says on the mic to me and to the crowd, ‘Welcome to Fort Worth.’
“So it didn’t take me long to realize how tough and grueling this rodeo is.”
Tuckness and Harp are built like football safeties: twitchy and lean, using anticipation and quick feet to get the bulls’ attention, turn them around and beat them to a spot so a cowboy can slip to safety.
Allard, 28, is the tight end of the bunch: more the size man a bull should pick on, but every bit as instinctual and evasive as his partners. Last Friday, after all the bulls had been ridden and announcer Bob Tallman gave the bullfighting trio a chance to showcase their abilities, instead of faking out the hard-charging Humdinger, Allard hopped right over the bull as it dipped its head to hook him, like NBA star Blake Griffin did over a Kia to win the 2011 NBA Dunk Contest.
“I don’t work out as hard as the others do,” Allard said. “I work with bulls every day on a ranch, and I’m fighting back problems, so I let that be my workout and just try to take care of myself in general, but I’m not in the gym like they are.”
Allard might be more gung-ho than his partners, but keeping the cowboys and each other safe is always Job 1. Last week he got caught by a bull and flipped upside down. The bull dragged a hoof across his face, bringing a little color to his left eye and a decent-sized wound to the bridge of his nose.
That’s nothing, though, compared to the time he broke his neck in Lubbock in 2013. But even as he worked his way back from that broken neck, he never once thought about hanging up his baggies.
“Not at all,” Allard said. “I was at the top of the game. I was fighting bulls better than I had ever fought bulls at that time. No way was I quitting.”
So are these guy crazy?
“A lot of people say we must be crazy to do what we do,” Allard said. “I don’t think I’m crazy. There are a lot of jobs people do that I think they’re crazy for doing.
“Once you get past the fear that a bull could hurt or kill you, it becomes art. It’s a dance, and we’ve got the steps down.”