Modern Cowboy Gladiator

by | Aug 1, 2012 | Features

Roman Gladiators Fought Wild Beasts. Cowboys Ride Them.
Bull riding has been called the “most dangerous eight seconds in sports.” Bucking bulls are bred with a bucking attitude and can weigh in at up to 2,000 pounds. Riders are cowboy brave, but seldom weigh more than 200 pounds. At best, riders hope they can hang on for eight seconds and not bucked, gored or trampled.
Yet, every year hundreds of young cowboys test their nerves and their luck to ride these beasts as amateurs. Many try but few make the pro circuit.
Professional bull-rider, Justin Koon from Grapevine is a real-life cowboy gladiator. At 5’ 8” and 140 pounds, Koon has defied the odds to become a top-rated pro. Currently ranked 14th by PBR (Professional Bull Riders), in 2011 he earned more than $78,000 – his top year since he joined the PBR in 2004 at the age of 20.
Despite the monetary advantages and bragging rights, bull riding is extremely dangerous and has serious pitfalls. These include broken bones, internal injuries and long hours on the road driving around the country from one event to another.
The sport is not always as lucrative as Koon’s career high would indicate either. Most professional bull riders barely cover their expenses and medical bills.
“It’s definitely hard sometimes to keep a positive outlook when you find yourself in a situation when you’ve been bucking off, have bills to pay, a family to support, etc,” said Koon.
A common saying among bull riders is: “It’s not if a rider will get bucked off, it’s when.” So, why do these young roughnecks risk so much?

According to the axiom, ‘Fortune Favors the Brave,’ applies to bull riding more than any other sport in the world.
Koon, who lived in Sheridan before coming to Atkins, began riding at the tender age of 10 when he attended a steer riding event at the Grant County Fair.
“I said something about it, and before you know it, somebody had me entered. I actually stayed on alright and it just went from there,” said Koon.
Koon has broken most bones in his body, suffered a punctured lung, lacerated liver and a skull fracture that put him in a coma for three weeks. This is just a partial list of injuries, said Koon. “Unfortunately, I could go on all day here, haha!”
Yet, for Koon, bull riding is more a mental game of finesse and endurance than one of physical strength in combat.
“The mental side of bull riding, in my opinion, outweighs physical ability. A guy with a small amount of talent and a strong mental outlook can accomplish things that a strong guy with a sorry mental outlook is not capable of. My best mental strategy is to just try and “turn my brain off”, as I like to explain it, and let my body do work,” said Koon.
Koon prepares his body with hard work. “I try to go to the gym as often as my schedule allows. I do strengthening exercises, and a lot of cardio.

 However, it’s a pretty delicate balance to gain strength while not bulking up, which inhibits my movement when I ride.”

“I wear a protective helmet (for obvious reasons), and a protective vest which is required by the PBR’s regulations for its riders. I can’t tell you how many times my protective helmet has saved my life in a very literal sense. There’s no way I’d ever get on without it.”
Fortunately, Koon has his own private medical caregiver as his wife Elyse is studying to become a nurse at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
“Let’s face it; her choice to go to school to become a registered nurse was no fluke!

She gets more practice than she probably ever wanted when I come home! I think she finally figured, “Well, I might as well be getting paid to do this!”
Koon also feels protected by his strong faith. “It all goes back to my faith in God. Romans 8:31 says, ‘If God is for us, who could be against us?’ I try to lean on Him if I ever start questioning myself.”
“I truly believe I am supposed to ride bulls. I am built for it, I love it, and it has given me an unbelievable platform to share my faith. I hope to let others see the light in me. I don’t have to be afraid—and that can be applied to many walks of life. It’s definitely not just specific to my career,” said Koon, who is actively involved in the Horseback Family Ministry with First Baptist Church (FBC) in Russellville.
FBC Family Outreach Ministry leader, Jay Ham, speaks very highly of Koon, who started coming to their events (when he was in town) about two years ago and baptized there on Easter 2011.
“The kids love having him there and helping with all the events and he always signs lots of autographs and takes lots of pictures. When he is in town he serves as our judge for the rough stock events, and he also made a donation to purchase all our buckles that will be given away this year.
During calf, steer or bull riding, Justin is always there to help the kids (and sometimes adults) with becoming a better rider. He is quick to give all the glory to God and loves talking with people about how God has helped him in life,” said Ham.

Koon also has his own website, justinkoon. com. He has been featured on several professional bull riding sites and has his own fan club. But, his biggest fan is undoubtedly Elyse, his wife of less than two years.
“If there is a word that comes close to describing how I feel about Justin’s career, it would have to be “proud” – I am so proud of the fact that he never gave up, and am so proud of the name he has made for himself in the sport. I am proud of the way he interacts with his fans – he’d rather talk about their interests than talk about himself. It doesn’t matter if he just got stomped in the dirt, or just won a $20,000 check – I can count on the fact that Justin Koon is still going to be Justin Koon at the end of the day. That’s what matters,” said Elyse.


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