Cody Teel’s 2,000-pound ride at a Houston rodeo in 2013 whipped its head back and pulled him to the ground. As Teel’s arm folded across the bull, he figured he got lucky.
“Thankfully, I got knocked out,” he said, remembering how he avoided the excruciating pain of a broken elbow.
Teel, a 23-year-old competitor at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo the last two weeks — including the popular Bulls’ Night Out — has earned more than $1 million as a professional bull rider. He’s won two world championships and two National Finals Rodeo titles.
But just like other professional athletes involved in contact sports, Teel’s success often comes at a painful price.
Most recently, the 5-11, 155-pound Teel battled groin strains, a recurring ankle injury and a pain in his knee that might have started as a torn ligament. Those were only nagging injuries, so Teel toughed it out.
“Unless it gets to the point where it affects my ride, I don’t want to sit out,” said Teel, who grew up in Kountze, north of Beaumont.
He’s hoping to stay as healthy as he did last year, when he avoided a major injury for the first time since turning pro.
‘Broke clean in half’
From 2010 to 2014, Teel ruptured his intestines, broke his leg, broke his elbow, broke his jaw and cracked his top teeth, and broke his ankle.
The intestines injury happened in November of 2010 at an unsanctioned event in Jasper.
Teel’s hand got caught in his rope, and the bull spun toward him, landing his head into Teel’s stomach. The blow knocked Teel’s intestines against his spine.
Teel, who competed in college at Sam Houston State, had just bought his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card for the 2011 season.
$200,000 prize money won by bull rider Cody Teel in 2012.
Instead of competing in the winter rodeos, he underwent two surgeries and spent three weeks in the hospital.
By April, Teel returned and later finished 20th in the PRCA world standings, earning more than $50,000.
The next year was even more lucrative: He finished first in the season-long standings, becoming the youngest PRCA world champion in the modern era and earning more than $200,000.
He also broke his left fibula.
When Teel stepped off of a bull at a Nevada rodeo, the bull stepped on his leg. At first, Teel only felt sore.
“I didn't know it for a week,” Teel said, “but it was broke clean in half.”
KO’d a ‘few times’
His leg injury is an example of the “real fine line” rodeo athletes tip-toe between competing and sitting out, said Rick Foster, the program director for the Justin Sports Medicine Team.
Justin provides medical staff for most rodeos, including Fort Worth, where riders can receive treatment before and after rounds.
“They don’t get paid if they don’t compete, unlike a Dallas Cowboys injured player who will still be making a reasonable amount of money,” said Foster. “The pain threshold of these athletes is amazing compared to any other type of athlete.”
A 2011 study by Canadian researcher Dale Butterwick showed reports of 49 “catastrophic” rodeo injuries from 1989 to 2009. Twenty-one of those injuries were fatal, “far more than any other professional sport.” Eighteen of those deaths were from bull riding or junior steer riding events.
Butterwick’s research, the first comprehensive registry of rodeo injuries, confirmed what many probably assumed:
“Comparison of bull riding injury rates with other contact sports confirms bull riding is the most dangerous organized sport in the world,” the study said.
Teel said quitting “never crossed my mind laying in a hospital bed.”
His father, Robbie, rode bulls in the 1980s, and Teel was riding calves by the age of 7. Now chasing world titles — which are determined by money earned — Teel’s schedule demands about 80 rodeos a year.
“It’s not like it’s to the point where you can expect to get hurt every time,” he said. “I’ve had more of the severe injuries —it's a more radical case, for sure. But it’s not outrageous or senseless. There’s meaning to it.”
His main preparation is a stretching routine. He lifts weights, but “you’re not going to out-strengthen a bull.”
For protection, he wears a PRCA-mandated vest and a hockey-style helmet with a face guard. The helmet only helps so much — he’s been knocked out “a few times” with it on, Teel said.
A jaw-dropping hit
Foster estimates a little more than half of bull riders wear a helmet on a regular basis. Foster said helmets can lessen the blow of an impact, but just like those in football, it’s not a cure-all.
Teel knows that first-hand.
In May of 2013, a bull in Hugo, Okla., popped Teel in the head.
I told them to cut my jaw open if I passed out, so I wouldn’t swallow my tongue or anything like that.
Cody Teel, bull rider
With his top teeth split, Teel went to “one of those doctor express deals.” They patched him up, and he went home, taking a winner’s check with him.
But the quick-fix doctors overlooked a break in Teel’s jaw. His dentist caught the fracture a few days later.
Forced to sit out, Teel returned two weeks later with his jaw wired shut. Before his first ride back, he handed a rodeo worker a pair of wire cutters.
“I told them to cut my jaw open if I passed out,” Teel said, “so I wouldn’t swallow my tongue or anything like that.”
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