With their 10-year-old daughter watching from the stands, William Dunn and his wife, Chrystal, signed a waiver giving up the right to sue even in the event of death. Throughout that evening more than two weeks ago, the announcer at a bull riding event at the Owensboro (Kentucky) Sportscenter encouraged the “stupid people’’ in the crowd to volunteer for “Cowboy Pinball’’ and a chance to win $100.
When the bull riding ended, Dunn and his wife left their VIP seats that cost $28 apiece and joined 21 other spectators who were led into the rodeo arena to wait on a bull. Only minutes passed before mayhem ensued and the crowd fell eerily quiet. Video footage that went viral shows a bull flipping two men into the air and ramming a third man into the arena fence. The third man was Dunn, whose wife had scrambled out of the arena before the bullfighters ran to separate Dunn from a massive, black bull.
“I tried to run but I couldn’t get my feet to move. They were just kind of plant,” said Dunn, 40, a welder from Owensboro with three daughters between the ages of 10 and 14. “And here the bull come and I thought, ‘OK, it’s going to go around me.’ But switched back over to me real quick and that’s when I started high stepping and running. “He got me in the ribs, busted a couple of my ribs. Spun me around, threw me up against the gate and then he kicked me in my leg. Put a pretty good bruise on that. And amongst all that, I got horned in the butt. So my whole butt cheek on my right side is nothing but purple. …
“As soon as they got me off to the side, they brought (his daughter) down. My wife comes back down there. I told them I was all fine. My 10-year-old started laughing. She thought it was funny.’’
More than two weeks later, USA TODAY Sports interviews with Dunn, a second participant, and promoters involved in extreme rodeo events have provided new details and perspective. Dunn and Makia Nunn, who according to the Owensboro Times was knocked unconscious after being flipped into the air and tore knee ligaments during the Cowboy Pinball event, should probably consider themselves lucky.
Jerry Nelson, a longtime, prominent bull owner, said he has seen two people killed during the so-called specialty acts. “That (stuff) there is just an accident waiting to happen,’’ Nelson said, adding that Cowboy Pinball is particularly dangerous. “That’s nuts.’’
Alcohol often driving factor
In Cowboy Pinball, the contestants stand inside circles typically drawn with white chalk and a bull is released into the arena. The prize, typically $100, goes to the winner — the last person to leave their space as a bull circle the arena and often charges at the contestants.
The events are used across the country to help spice up bull ridings and rodeos, especially in smaller markets, according to Nelson and two promoters – Ben Prilwetz and Reno Rosser. Despite the risks, there is no shortage of volunteers, said Prilwetz, a promoter in Missouri who said he gets no fewer than six volunteers for each of about a dozen Cowboy Pinball events he stages every year. “Tons of crazy people out there,’’ said Prilwetz, who estimated that 90 percent of the volunteers consume alcohol before signing waivers and participating. “I’m a retired professional bullfighter, and that’s still probably the only way I would do it, with some Pendleton Whiskey.’’
Dunn said he doesn’t drink but was suspicious of other contestants who filed into the arena with him in Owensboro.
“There was quite a few of them in there that did not act like they had their stuff together,” Dunn said. “I mean, when you’re in a bull ring with a 2,000-pound animal and you get down in a football stance like you’re going to tackle him and wave to him like ‘Come on,’ normal people don’t do that without a little, how can I say it, liquid courage?” Katie Cook, who participated with her fiance, said she recalls the announcer saying: “Everybody gets out your phones and video cameras to tape the stupid people that are down here doing this.’’
The video shows scores of spectators holding phones in the air before the first bull was released into the arena.
A smaller white bull looked menacing but did not charge at anyone before he exited the arena. Then a black bull charged into the arena and promptly flipped two men into the air and rammed Dunn before the bullfighters could get the bull out of the arena.
Video footage from the chaos that took place Feb. 16 in Owensboro has been viewed more than 375,000 times and generated outrage, with some on social media directing criticism at Dunn and other contestants.
“People were saying that we’re hillbillies or rednecks, we’re idiots or this or that,’’ Dunn said. “But as far as my employers or anything like that, nah. Even my boss come out and was talking to us and said, ‘You know if I was young age, I probably would have done the same thing.’
“You know, it was just kind of an adventurous deal. Kind of a bucket list thing. You know, hey, we’ve never done this, let’s try it.’’
‘One of the worst things I’ve ever seen’. It’s nothing new. The popularity of Cowboy Pinball and other so-called specialty acts can be traced to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, according to Rosser, a long-time rodeo promoter. During the annual prison rodeo, for example, four inmates are seated around a card table before a fighting bull is released into the arena. The last inmate to leave his seat wins $100, with the bull inevitably charging at — and, more than occasionally, injuring — the men.
Convict Poker, they call it. Outside the prison walls it’s known as Cowboy Poker, and the event gained popularity decades ago, said Rosser, who lives in California and for more than 30 years has staged showdeos — offshoots of rodeos — that feature such dangerous specialty acts. Rosser also was involved in the filming of dangerous bull acts featured in Jackass Number Two, the movie starring daredevil Johnny Knoxville.“A lot of our old, diehard rodeo fans are dying off and we’re trying to come up with extreme and new, exciting things to attract that younger generation to the rodeo,” he said. “And it seems to be working.’’
But Rosser said he uses only people trained to be around livestock and bulls about half the size of the one used in Owensboro, a city of about 60,000 people. “I saw this video and I cringed,’’ he said. “You could tell these people were either severely inebriated or just had no clue the way a bull could move.
“The bull was way too big and dangerous. It was asinine. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen”. Ernie Treadway, a promoter from South Carolina who produced the show in Owensboro, did not return several messages from USA TODAY Sports left on his cell phone.
Cook said she and her fiance were not looking for an apology from Treadway — at least not for safety issues. By the time the black bull was led out of the arena, Cook was one of four contestants still standing inside their white circles and presumably eligible for the $100 prize. But without her approval, Cook said, it was decided the money would go to the man who suffered a concussion and torn knee ligaments. “That man got what he deserved,’’ said Cook, 28. “He had ample amount of time to get out of the way of that bull. And instead of getting out of the way, he waved the bull on.