Interview by Paul Salfen
Bonner Bolton shouldn’t be walking into Cowboys Red River today – literally. This time last year, the 29-year-old PBR (professional bull rider) was laying on the dirt floor of a stadium in Chicago with a broken neck after landing on his head dismounting a bull named Cowboy Up. It was the same neck injury that paralyzed Superman actor Christopher Reeve and Bolton had thought he had met the same fate – or worse. But the Grapevine resident not only recovered, but has started a new career as a model with IMG and has already modeled for the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Next month, he returns to the arena, not as a rider – but as a host. He’ll be at the Iron Cowboy at AT&T Stadium in a much different capacity, but he’s fine with that. He’s just happy to be alive and well, although he is still recovering.
Here, Bolton recalls the fateful day and talks about his recovery and what’s next for him in his new career.
AMFM Magazine: I can’t imagine that people would picture themselves as bull riders as often or as frequently as they would, say, a football player or basketball player. How did you decide this is what you wanted to do?
Bonner Bolton: So for me, I grew up in a ranch in the West Texas in the Midland-Odessa area and my dad was a cowboy, my mom’s side of the family were cowboys, so were my uncles and my grandpa. I grew up doing the cowboy thing riding horses and herding cattle on the ranch and then my dad also rode bulls and was a pro rodeo athlete and he rode with some of the greats that started this sport called PBR and rode with the old pirates that branched away from the whole rodeo thing and helped promote that idea of standalone bull riding events. I had a lot of really big influencers in my life from the time I was 3 or 4 years old like Ty Murray, who kind of like the captain of our sport and my dad for sure is number one. I started out at the junior level at 10 years old and had all of the proper instruction and coaching from my dad and started practicing and doing it little by little at a low-key level and started working my way up to the harder stuff. When I was a teenager, I started doing amateur-ranked events and when I was 18, I started going pro and got into PBR and started doing PBR ever since until I was 28 last year when I had my wreck so that’s a 18 and a ½ year long career for me.
AMFM: You seem so young to have a career that long…
BB: [Laughs] Right?
AMFM: People use the expression “You could break your neck” all the time…
BB:…but I did for real. [Laughs]
AMFM: What goes through your mind when you’re in a moment like that?
BB: Oh, man. There’s a million things that go through your mind. I was paralyzed that day on the dirt when it happened from the neck down. I literally thought I was dying on the floor in the arena and very well could have. The team that handled me in Chicago – I just thank them so much, my doctors that did the surgery, and number one I thank God that I’m still here in front of you today. I have no doubt there were some angels in the arena with me that day. So yeah, it’s a pretty scary thing thinking you might never use your body below your neck again and I had about 24 hours to wrestle with those sort of thoughts before I started feeling my body again. Yeah, your heart is pounding, the adrenaline is flowing, you can’t breathe, I was sucking dirt into my lungs from laying face down on the ground. Unfortunately, it didn’t knock me unconscious. I was still conscious. It sort of dazed me and I got rolled over to see the full paramedic team and my doctor is standing over me with a bad look on his face and he doesn’t show a lot of expression, so I’ve seen a lot of guys get wrecked out pretty bad to where he never changed expression. When he rolled me over and looked at me, I could tell that he was alarmed and thought I might be paralyzed. I knew I had broken my neck laying down in the dirt. I could feel the swelling and heat coming over my neck and so they’re wheeling me into this dark ambulance and all I can think is just to breathe and start praying. I was just praying that I would get to see my family and friends again. I was thinking I might not. If it was my time, it was my time but I was sure praying it wasn’t. It wasn’t meant to be for me to lay still in that hospital bed. I was pretty determined not to accept that. I told the doctors that they would see me walk out of that hospital. So four days after surgery they had me walking in ICU doing rounds and two or three days after that, they had me walking stairs so I realized if I could do that, I could come back to a full healthy recovery and if at all possible, ultimately, want to return to the sport. I know that sounds crazy to most people but I know cowboys have a bit different passion for the sport they play than most athletes because there’s a lot more danger in it, it’s life or death every time you go out there and play so you begin to look at it as it is who you are in a sense even though it’s just what you do. It can ultimately determine your life so you have to have this extreme this extreme thought process, much like a motocross rider or big wave surfer.
AMFM: What makes you want to do it again?
BB: Just the extreme passion. Obviously I have so many good memories tied up into the life – 18 ½ years I dedicated everything to this sport so it is hard to just up and say “OK, well, I got hurt. Goodbye.” [Laughs] If there’s a way they thought I could come back and do it relatively safely without paralyzing or killing myself right off the bat, you would see me out there for sure but right now the doctors are basically holding me out.
AMFM: Aren’t you nervous, though?
BB: Yeah, I mean…I’m not nervous right now because I can only focus on the things I can do and not what I can’t, so I think when you start getting caught up on what you can’t do, it’s just unneeded stress. At the moment, I have a lot to be thankful for with our company, IMG, and WME coming in and picking my story up. It shows a lot of positivity for riders that might end up in my same position that would just retire and move on to something else – there’s other options out there. They’re creating outlets for other careers for guys like me. It’s really nice to see. That hasn’t ever happened in our sport.
AMFM: How do you get mentally ready to do something so dangerous? Do you think about all of the possibilities or just clear your mind?
BB: Yeah, that’s a cool question. Everyone trains different for this sport. It’s a really complex mental game when it comes to this sport because there’s a big danger like we’ve been talking about but for me, one of my biggest heroes has always been Bruce Lee and I’ve always been a big fan of martial arts and my dad involved me and my brother in martial arts growing up and told us it would always help with your rodeo career if you choose to take it seriously. It’s that mental discipline of learning to control your emotions and your thought process and my dad always told us the more calm you stay the better it is so you kind of get locked up and freeze if you tense up and amping yourself up so it’s really Zen, calm state of mind and all of the greats in this sport will tell you it’s all about harboring and controlling those emotions and letting it out when the gate opens. It’s a “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” sort of thing – some Bruce Lee stuff. [Laughs]
Modeling seems to be the opposite end of the spectrum of bull riding.
BB: It is, man. Growing up, I had family member try and tell me to take pictures and stuff but it just never registered to me that I could do something like that. I’ve never looked at myself like that. I’ve always been a cowboy through and through. It’s a huge honor to do that and I accept it graciously, man. IMG did it before I was even out of my neck brace so that itself gave me a lot of fire to recover and get healthy again and not think about the bull riding side as much. I needed to pick my chin up literally and move forward.
AMFM: And how do you have this six pack – or eight pack? Most of us would be happy with two!
BB: [Laughs] Man, a lot of the shape I’m in is due to the shape I was in when I got hurt. I was at the peak of my physical condition when I got hurt. I came in at the top of my athletic game in 2016 at that first event in Chicago – I had just came in from a Top 10 win in Las Vegas for the world finals and felt like I was ready to dominate and win that gold buckle to be the world champion. That state of physical condition helped me come back stronger and in better shape. A lot of it is determination and pure willingness to not let that pain and stiffness set in. As soon as I was ready, I just sort of had to grit it out and endure the pain. It’s been painful for sure. There have been a lot of grueling moments just trying to make my body work. A lot of soreness after training, dealing with the inflammation but continuing to keep that mental drive just to push through and train and just function and think about not just what I can’t do but what I can do and not focus on the finish line but the steps right ahead.
AMFM: What advice do you have for aspiring bull riders?
BB: Definitely depending on the area where you’re from, it’s good to do your research about who’s around you that’s involved in the sport and seek out the closest people for advice and figure out where you can start training. There are a lot of guys out there who offer training to young athletes that want to come up and learn. There’s a lot of instruction at camps with people from PBR, you can go on the website and look up the PBR Academy for Training and go to Colorado or they do a camp down here in Texas and so there’s different new avenues for stuff like that.
AMFM: Well, it still must be exciting to be there even if you’re not riding, so what can we expect from the big event next month at AT&T Stadium?
BB: It’s super exciting! It’s coming up on February 18th and there’s a hot new rookie out there, Jesse Lockwood. He just won our season opener event in New York. He’s on fire. He’s definitely my pick coming into Arlington and I think he’s got the potential to hold up that gold buckle this year. It should be fun to watch. I should be out there enjoying all of the action and meeting and greeting people and hanging out and hosting the event so we’ll see you out there.
PBR: Built Ford Tough Series – Iron Cowboy takes place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Saturday, February 18th at 5:50pm. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com.