Mike Lee talks bulls, broken bones, and bended knees
ANDY WATSON/BULL STOCK MEDIA
“Super Cool Cat’s” eyes glow with fury as the bull gives Mike Lee a workout during a PBR Built Ford Tough Series competition in Pueblo, Colo.
His faith is no bull for 2004 World Champion Professional Bull Rider (PBR) Mike Lee, 29, who has become a legend on the bull-riding circuit and continues today not only promoting the PBR, but spreading God’s message with each ride or appearance he makes. All he hopes is to be remembered for his compassion and the way he lives.
Lee took time out in mid-August, prior to his appearance in the 2012 Professional Bull Riders Built Ford Tough Series Bass Pro Shops Chute Out in San Antonio, to visit with the Wilson County News, sharing how he got started in the sport, the hardships that almost ended his career, and his faith in God. He also spoke of the legends and unsung heroes of the rodeo arena.
Born in Billings, Mont., Lee resides in Decatur, Texas. At the age of 10, he started on the route that earned him both the Built Ford Tough World Finals event title and the Built Ford Tough Million Dollar World Championship. The 5-foot, 9 inch, 160-pound athlete has qualified for the world finals 10 times. The left-handed rider has earned more than $2.9 million his first 10 years of competition, beginning in 2002. Lee has scored a 90+-point ride 19 times on bulls 10 times his weight.
to a bull
Lee’s journey started when he worked summer jobs with his dad, who trained horses. No stranger to hard work, he has done everything from working with irrigation pipes for growing hay to doctoring cattle. His first rodeo experience was with a jackpot/buckout steer-riding event. Although Lee was thrown head-first to the ground and the incident “scared the tar out of me,” he said, he wanted to do it again.
By the age of 11, Lee was involved in youth rodeo, competing in bull riding all over the country. Because of the money needed for a good horse and the diesel for travel, he opted for bull riding instead. To prepare him, his father traded a lawn mower to purchase a bucking machine that the two modified for bull riding. Lee watched tapes to improve his techniques and learned from his mistakes.
A two-time national high school rodeo finalist, he turned down several college scholarship offers to turn professional at 18.
Bull riding is a dangerous sport and is a mind game, Lee said. The rider has to persist through the pain of injuries, control the pain, and control any fear he has of a bull that he has drawn for the ride. Since the event involves just a flat braided rope for the bull rider to hold onto, the cowboy has to rely on his senses to judge what the bull will do.
Lee explained how he watches for pressure on his leg while pressing down to keep from being thrown from bulls weighing 1,500 pounds or more. He feels for a drop of the bull’s shoulder, between his own calf muscles, to gauge how to prepare and act before the bull does.
In 2002, Lee led the PBR rookies with $111,259 in earnings. While he led the pack in earnings, he was not named the Rookie of the Year; instead, he came in second. At that time, the title was determined by points.
In 2003, Lee ranked sixth leading into the World Finals, but missed six events, due to a serious head injury. He returned and finished first at Atlantic City in the second event after his injury. For the year, he finished 16th in the world finals.
In 2004, Lee was the first rider to win both the world championship and the world finals event title in the same year. In 2004, he also set the single-season earnings record with more than $1.45 million in one year. In 2006, Lee became only the fourth rider to reach $2 million in career earnings.
According to www.prorodeoonline.net, “In April of 2004, Lee and two other PBR bull riders signed individual sponsorship deals to represent Team Army.” Lee attended a short boot camp, and promoted the Army at various conferences and autograph sessions.
His highest-marked ride was during the World Finals Nov. 1, 2004, with a score of 93.75 points on “Mossy Oak Mudslinger.” The highest score possible is 100, with 50 points given for the bull, for characteristics such as speed, power, directions of change, kicks, and body rolls. The other half reflects the cowboy’s control and body position during the 8-second ride. The rider cannot touch himself or the bull with his free hand.
Lee knows the dangers of bull riding. In 2003, he sustained a blow to the head that required brain surgery, due to a “bleeder.” The surgeons had to open his skull and clot the blood, and Lee was out for four months. The injury would have ended his career if he had lost his motor skills. He was “blessed,” he said, and continues today. Although he lost vision in one eye, he has no other side effects.
Lee credits wearing a rodeo helmet -- a modified hockey helmet and face cage -- for saving his life. He has been wearing one while competing since he was 13. The helmet aids in the protection of a rider’s facial bones and teeth.
Another safety feature cowboys use today is the vest. The bull rider credited for this is Lee’s hero, Lane Frost. See “Lane Frost” for more on this.
Lee also sings the praises of the bull fighters, sometimes mistaken for rodeo clowns, or as the PBR calls them, the “Secret Service of the PBR.”
“We would have a lot more injuries without them,” Lee said. “Our careers last longer” because of the bull fighters, he added.
While Lee praised their work and said it is a “rare talent,” he would not consider doing it himself. “My heart would come out of my chest,” he said.
The former world champion also holds the bulls -- his fellow athletes -- in high esteem. See “Little Yellow Jacket” for more.
Have a little faith
The soft-spoken cowboy speaks highly of family life and is not afraid to share his Christian faith with others. Lee said he was introduced to the Cowboy Church while on the youth rodeo circuit, and that his dad would read the Bible on the road. Learning about God is “cool,” Lee said.
Whether it is reading the Bible or displaying three crosses on his chaps in competition, Lee wants to be remembered for his compassion and the way he lives.
And his life story is what legends are made of, when overcoming things that would sideline most people.
Although involved in the tough sport of bull riding, he wants to be remembered for his personality and his love of people, like his hero, Lane Frost. Frost always took time for the little kids, Lee said.
Lee also has a soft spot -- his twin children. When not training for the next big ride, working in the arena, or repairing houses for resale, his most enjoyable time is with his children, taking them to the park or doing other things as a family.
On the circuit
Lee competed in the 2012 PBR Built Ford Tough Series Bass Pro Shops Chute Out Aug. 17-18 in San Antonio, placing fourth overall. According to Jack Carnefix, senior manager of public relations for Professional Bull Riders, Fabiano Vieira won the event and was the only rider to ride all four bulls assigned.
Lee scored an 86.50 in the first round, followed by an 89 in the second round, for a score of 175.5 points. For his fourth-place finish, he earned $10,475. In the 2012 Professional Bull Riders Built Ford Tough Series Season standings, Lee is currently 19th with 12 wins, totaling $59,849.64.
After San Antonio, Lee was off to compete in California, chasing his dreams in another event.
‘Little Yellow Jacket’
Mike Lee expressed admiration and respect for the bulls he rides. “Little Yellow Jacket” is memorable, he said, and is a legend of his own on the Professional Bull Riding circuit.
The bull was only ridden the full 8 seconds 14 times in its career. Either the cowboys got a high score in the 90s or they ate the dust. In the bull’s second start in January 2000, Owen Washburn scored an 87; otherwise, the cowboys all scored 90-plus, with Michael Gaffney scoring a 96.5 in Idaho in 2004.
These bulls are all products of specialized breeding programs using genetics to enhance their “bucking instinct.”
Legends are made, and this was the case with Lane Frost, whose life was taken at the age of 25. The 1987 World Champion bull rider, Frost also was a bronze medalist in the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, in rodeo. He lost his life doing what he did best.
After a successful ride in 1989 during the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, Frost was battling slippery, muddy arena conditions, and was hit not once, but twice, by a bull named “Takin’ Care of Business.” The second time, the bull’s horn broke Frost’s ribs, severing a main artery. The attack lasted just seven seconds -- less time than his third-place ride.
Frost is credited for the vests worn today by professional bull riders. The vest, designed by retired bull rider and Professional Bull Riders livestock director Cody Lambert in the early ’90s, has reduced the number of serious chest and internal injuries among bull riders.
The movie, “Eight Seconds,” recounts Frost’s career and contributions to bull riding.