Riding the baddest bulls made him a legend. Then one broke his neck.

Rodeo stars find purpose in navigating primal forces. None of them ever went harder than J.B. Mauney.

STEPHENVILLE, Tex. — The black bull stands in an upper pasture on J.B. Mauney’s ranch like a blot on the green ryegrass horizon. His dark hulk presides over a hilly rise looking down on the tin-roofed hay sheds and iron chutes where Mauney is hard at work. Mauney moves to a dissonant music of creaking gates, unceasing wind and snorting animal exhalations, punctuated by the laconic cussing of the cowboy himself as he pours feed into buckets. The bull watches as Mauney makes his way up the hill and steps into the pasture to fill a trough. “A--hole,” he mutters with something like fondness.

Mauney, too, cuts a black outline. From under a black felt cowboy hat, hair blacker than coffee runs to the collar of his black shirt. The impression of severity is relieved by blue eyes the color of his jeans and a smile crease from the habit of grinning around a Marlboro. It’s an arresting face, burnished by years of outdoor chores, smoke, roistering humor and pain soothed by shots of Jägermeister. It befits arguably the greatest rodeo bull rider who ever lived and certainly the hardest-bodied, a man who never conceded to any power. Until a bull broke his neck.

“I always knew something like this was going to have to happen,” he says.

It had been less than six months since something like this happened. On Sept. 6, during an event in Lewiston, Idaho, a bull named Arctic Assassin sling-shotted Mauney (pronounced Mooney) into the dirt squarely on top of his hat, summarily ending the most legendarily gallant career in rodeoing. After emergency surgery to stabilize his head on his shoulders, Mauney retreated to heal with wife Samantha and 5-year-old son Jagger on his ranch, a place called Bucktown XV, where he is still adjusting to his abrupt retirement. “Forced retirement,” he corrects. Gesturing at his wife and son, a striking former barrel racer and a child with hair like flying corn silk, he adds, “If it wasn’t for her and that little boy, I’d never have stopped.”

Samantha follows after the boy, who shucks his shoes and clothing like a bird drops feathers while she retrieves them from the ground. “He’s my boss,” she says. She wears loose jeans, a sweatshirt and Converse sneakers, her only adornment some earrings and a diamond ring. J.B. likes to tell a story about that.

He picked out the stone at a jewelry store in one of those fancy malls where they also sell what he calls “Louis Vooton.” He looked at the jewel and said, “I like that one.” Samantha said, “I do, too.” The saleswoman told them it was a fine choice, then announced how much it cost.

“Do what now?” J.B. said.

He looked at the diamond again and began turning it over with his finger.


“Is something wrong with the stone, sir?” the saleslady asked.

“Naw,” J.B. said. “I’m just trying to find the motor on it because I figure anything that expensive, you ought to be able to drive it out of here.”

Mauney, 37, was the first man to get legit rich at bull riding. “The Dragonslayer,” they called him, as he set the record for career prize money with more than $7.4 million and tied for most event victories on the Professional Bull Riders circuit with 32. But his real legacy, what made him the most popular draw in fringed chaps, was that he always chose the fiercest bull to ride, costing himself who knows how much more in money and titles.

A bull rider doesn’t earn a score unless he can stay on for eight seconds. And if he gets bucked off, he doesn’t get paid at all. Most bull riders in championship rounds choose the bull discerningly, with business in mind. Not Mauney. He would tie his hand into the baddest bull as if he was lashing himself to a mast in a hurricane and just refuse to let go. “I’d rather get dragged to death than starve to death any day,” he would say. From 2007 to 2018, Mauney rode every ranked world championship-caliber bull there was.

The consensus greatest bull of all time is named Bushwacker. A mahogany-colored beast, he could kick his hind legs so dynamically that his hoofs reached 10 or 12 feet in the air. Newsweek magazine dubbed him “the Michael Jordan of bulls.” For five years, Bushwacker was all but unrideable. He owned the longest streak of consecutive buck-offs in PBR history, with 42, until one summer night in Tulsa in 2013 when Mauney caught a ride on him that friend and PBR publicist Andrew Giangola likened to “bodysurfing a tornado.” Mauney scored 95.25 points out of a possible 100. Bushwacker would not be ridden again, by anyone.

Arctic Assassin was no Bushwacker. But by last September, Mauney was not his younger self, either. He had so much metal in him from being torn up by bulls that if you gave him a full body X-ray, his bones would look like silverware. There were a screw with 13 anchors in his right shoulder, a plate and screws in his left hand and a plate in his pelvis. He had broken his jaw on both sides, fractured an eye socket, taken five staples in his head above his left ear.

Arctic Assassin came out of the chute and wrenched right, then left. Mauney was okay for the first couple of bucks. But then he sat down hard and lurched sharply forward. The bull’s rising hips caught him and propelled him into the air. Mauney’s boots and spurs went up over his hat. He was halfway into a somersault when he slammed to the ground.

Mauney landed in the sand of the arena floor and flopped over on his belly. He tried to raise his head, and pain ran through his neck as if he had been stabbed with a hot knife. Somehow, he got half upright. He began walking insensibly on his knees across the arena in the dirt. It was an old instinct, drilled into him as a boy by a mentor named Jerome Davis, the 1995 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion bull rider.

“Unless you got a broke leg or you’re knocked out,” Davis told a young Mauney, “you better get up and walk out.”

Davis spoke those things from a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the chest down by a bull in 1998.

Get up and walk out, Mauney told himself. He rose and staggered. Watching from the fence, three of his best friends and top riders realized he was hurt way beyond the ordinary. One of them, Shane Proctor, leaped down and got an arm around him and guided him to safety behind the chute gate. “You all right?” Proctor asked.

“I just broke my neck,” Mauney said.


Mauney limped away, clutching an arm stiffly to his side to keep his head from lolling, and headed straight toward the paramedic station.

Another rider asked Mauney’s friend Stetson Wright, “You really think he broke his neck?”

“I don’t know, but something’s wrong because I ain’t never seen him walk straight to any paramedics,” Wright said.

Mauney was infamous for resisting hospitals.

At the paramedic station, a medic said to him, “What’s going on?”

“I just broke my f---ing neck,” Mauney said.


“Well, we should probably get a collar on you,” the medic said.

“That’d probably be a good idea,” Mauney said.

Mauney sat down at a picnic table. As he waited for the ambulance, he casually lit a cigarette. “I figured where I was headed, I couldn’t smoke,” he says.

The break was bad. It required the insertion of a rod, a plate and screws in his neck. He also had lost a disk. The next day, a doctor talked to him about the risk of resuming bull riding.

If he landed on his head again, Mauney was told, he more than likely would break his neck a second time, either above or below the reinforcing rod and plate. Snap the neck below, and he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Snap it above, and he would be dead.

The doctors kept using the word “if.” Mauney knew better. “There was no ‘if’ about it,” he says.


Mauney looked the doctor in the eye and said, “It’s about a 100 percent chance I’ll land on my head.”

On Sept. 12, Mauney announced his retirement. He would never ride a bull again.

About two weeks later, he was at home in Stephenville convalescing in a neck brace, with little to do but think. He picked up the phone and called his good friend Matt Scharping. A top stock contractor who breeds champion bucking bulls out of Minnesota, Scharping was the co-owner of Arctic Assassin.

Mauney asked him, “Hey, what are you going to do with the black bull?”

“I’m going to retire him,” Scharping said.

“Well, I want him,” Mauney said.

There was an incredulous pause on the line.

“For what?” Scharping asked.

• • •

For what? There’s a question. For what reason does anyone mess with, much less provoke, a 1,700-pound bos taurus, a creature that is all chest, haunches and horns and that exerts a ground force reaction of 12 times its body weight when it stomps you with its back legs? That in its prime has such a fighting instinct that if you merely float a piece of paper into a pasture, it will try to gore it?

Every other activity at a rodeo has some passing relationship to ranching skills. Breaking wild horses and roping steers are necessary for managing rough stock. But bull riding is just a dare. It has no other reason for being.

To animal rights activists, it’s a barbaric relic of the Visigoths. PETA claims “countless animals have paid with their lives to satisfy humans’ desire to play cowboy.” PBR counters that a 2020 study showed there were just two bull injuries in more than 5,000 “outs,” meaning the times its bulls left the chute, and that the animals receive first-rate nutrition and sports medicine. It’s a legitimate question whether animals should be used for entertainment. But it’s also an ugly truth that the career option for a bull is the meatpacking industry. Most cattle have an average life span of just 18 months before slaughter, the same as for chickens.

Champion bucking bulls, however, tend to live for 10 to 15 years and retire to pastures, valuable as sires. Bushwacker’s sperm goes for $5,000 a vial.

Still, life is cruel for all range animals, given that the American range no longer exists.

If rodeos are part nostalgia, they also reflect a modern anxiety. The enthusiasts of the sport - five PBR events on CBS in 2023 commanded more than 1 million viewers - see a desperately needed antidote to creeping cultural neurasthenia. In Mauney particularly, they saw a last American vestige of stoicism, self-reliance and “cowboying up,” so much so that he still commands more than 1 million followers on Instagram and retains all of his sponsors, from Wrangler to Monster Energy to the American Hat Company. As Mauney sat atop a bull that twisted and stamped, all kinds of things swirled around him. Fear. Character. Power. And make no mistake, ethic.

Man’s fascination with the epic form of a bull - and his attempt to bestride it - is older than any American rodeo. In an exquisite Minoan fresco at the Knossos palace in Crete dated to 1450 BC, a man is depicted vaulting off the flank of a bull. The most striking thing about the fresco is the profound mismatch between the slight human figure and the mass of charging, rearing bull. The contest is not about strength - and never could be.

“You’re not going to overpower them,” Mauney says. “It’s a dance partner. They make a move, you got to follow.”

Bull riders are not in charge. And that is a part of the draw - that feeling that they have hooked into an intense and massive primal force and are in something like cooperation with it. They put the lie to the notion of human sovereignty over nature.

In every other dangerous form of competition, “You’re still the one with your foot on the accelerator or the brake,” says former champion Ty Murray, now a commentator. “Even if we’re talking about mountain climbing, you’re still the one that’s deciding what level things are going to. But in bull riding, the bull is the one with the accelerator.”

There have been attempts to scientifically measure the forces that a rider experiences on an erratically bucking bull. One study using NASA-provided accelerometers showed that a bull weighing 1,700 or more pounds rearing explosively can exert a pull of 26 G-forces on a man. For context, an IndyCar wreck at 200 mph creates about 50 Gs. That’s just acceleration. Now mix in violence. The hind hoofs of a large bull generate a force of 106.3 kilonewtons. An Olympic boxer delivering a straight punch, just 3.4.

Mauney is not a big man. He is 5-foot-10 and a blade-thin 140 pounds. On a 1,700-pound bull, “he’s outmatched on a scale that you just can’t imagine,” says Tandy Freeman, who has treated bull riders for more than 30 years as part of PBR’s sports medicine program. Most of the injuries Freeman sees are head injuries. According to a paper titled “Rodeo Trauma: Outcome Data from 10 years of Injuries,” rodeo athletes suffer serious head injuries at a rate 15 per 1,000 rides, far outstripping any other sport. They’re 10 times more likely to suffer major injury than football players.

What really makes bulls buck is genetics: They are bred to it. They’re animals of prey, programmed by evolution and DNA to rear, shake, stamp and horn-hook the things that land on their backs, and breeders enhance their athleticism through bloodlines. Bushwacker’s owner, Julio Moreno, once observed that the first time he threw a flake of hay into the pen, the bull tried to kick it.

In world-class bull riding, the bull is regarded as every bit as much of an athlete as the rider - to the point that the bull’s performance counts for half of a cowboy’s score. PBR even names bulls as world champions along with riders. Bucking bulls in their prime are worth at least $10,000, and if they come from proven sire lines, their value skyrockets to $500,000 or more.

The people who climb on these creatures are, of course, addicts. They have a dependency that requires regular doses of centrifugal and vertical speed as well as sluices of dopamine and epinephrine and a sense of conquering the well-nigh unconquerable. When a bull reared and stamped, Mauney could feel all those G-forces and kilonewtons in his fingertips.

“I would rope and make a good run, and, yeah, I felt good about it. But it wasn’t the same,” Mauney says. “I made a good bull ride, and I was 10 foot tall and bulletproof.”

The sensation leaves a man wanting more - craving it, even, to a degree that trumps any pain. Jerome Davis craved it. He had been rocked to sleep on horseback as a baby at his parents’ ranch in Archdale, N.C., but no other motion did for him what a bull’s did. When he was taken to rodeos as a boy, he couldn’t take his eyes off the bulls. “I was just glued,” he says. “I would just sit in my seat and wouldn’t talk, just stared. … After you get into it, you just get eat up with it. It just takes you over to where you become infected with it.”

In 1992, Davis was one of 20 men who met in a hotel room in Scottsdale, Ariz., and founded the Professional Bull Riders circuit with $1,000 stakes each, breaking away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association to start a tour of elite stand-alone bull events.

By 1998, Davis was making $500,000 per year, ranked No. 1 and leading the PBR standings when he got on a bull in Fort Worth named Knock ‘Em Out John. The bull lived up to his name. He whipsawed forward, then rocked back and hit Davis’s forehead. Knocked cold, Davis was thrown off like a heavy sack and came down on the side of his neck. The fall crushed two vertebrae.

Later at the hospital, his fiancée, Tiffany, a horsewoman whose family staged rodeos, was at Davis’s side when a doctor told him he would never walk again. He was 25.

“The first thing Jerome said was, ‘I can’t ride bulls again?’ " Tiffany remembers. “He didn’t even think about the not walking part. That’s how much they love it.”

Within a year, Davis got back in a horse saddle, with the help of Velcro, a back brace and a gentle animal. He and Tiffany began raising bucking bulls and hosting rodeo events on weekends. Just being around the pens, gates and chutes gave Jerome back some of the “bull mojo,” as he called it.

The Davises threw a lot of junior rodeos, with prizes for the local kids that ranged from belt buckles to Bibles. One day, a guy named Tim Mauney, a longtime acquaintance from the Carolina rodeo world, showed up with his black-haired 6-year-old in tow and entered him in a junior calf-riding event. That’s when the Davises met James Burton Mauney.

“That’s the first time I remember him, sticking in my head,” Tiffany says, “because I thought, ‘Ohhhh, rascal’s got some grit to him.’”

• • •

On the Mauneys’ family farm in Mooresville, N.C., J.B. was always getting caught climbing the fence boards to try to mount something bigger than him. “My grandpa would raise hell at me because I’d be riding his beef cows and stuff,” Mauney says.

The Mauneys came from Alsace-Lorraine settlers who established a large farm in Iredell County in the 1820s. At one time it was pure cow country, with more than 300 cattle ranches and dairies, scores of rich brown cows lolling in the grass. But by the 1930s, large textile mills came in and the farms dwindled. Most of the people Mauney grew up with worked as laborers, ranching just a sidelight. His grandfather did 27 years in the Templon Spinning Mill. His father, Tim, worked night shifts in a lumber mill, while his mother, Lynne, worked for the local school system. But they still found time to keep cows, and every weekend they went off to a rodeo.

Tim Mauney was an amateur steer wrestler and such an enthusiast that he would volunteer at local shows. When a rodeo was short of riders to fill out the program, Tim would make two or three extra runs. “He’d put on a different cowboy hat so the crowd wouldn’t know it was the same guy,” remembers Tiffany Davis, whose father staged some of the shows.

Most of the rodeos offered “mutton busting” events for the smallest children; 5- and 6-year-olds were placed on the back of sheep and rode until they fell off. But J.B. Mauney wanted no part of that. “Boy, he felt it was stupid,” recalls Michael Laws, a family friend who was J.B.’s first bull instructor. “He wasn’t riding no sheep. He was going to ride bulls.”

By age 9, J.B. was riding the family steers and winning youth events in the Junior Southern Rodeo Association. He was just 13 when he got on his first small bull. His father and Laws used white medical tape to mark an X on the bull’s shoulders; Laws told him don’t take your eyes off it. Don’t look down; don’t look at your dad. It taught him focus.

Bull riding wasn’t about “manhandling” an animal, explained Laws, who made stained glass for a living during the week and rodeoed on weekends. “That’s not how you ride bulls. You have to ride them with grace, finesse - just flow with them.”

To do that, the boy had to develop a gymnast’s core strength. Laws took a two-by-four and shaved it edgewise down to about an inch and a half wide. He mounted the plank in the air like a tightrope and told J.B. to get on it and practice walking on that edge, with one hand up in the air, as if he was on a bull.

Mauney got to where he was so strong that he could tiptoe on the plank edge in his cowboy boots. “Imagine a bull rider taking ballet,” Laws said. “I seen him get on a board fence, which wasn’t but three-quarters of an inch wide, and walk halfway around the arena. … That’s balance.”

Mauney was long in the legs but featherweight light, weighing just 120 pounds as a freshman in high school, thin and bendable as a willow switch. But it was a serious mistake to take him for weak. On his first day aboard the high school bus, he got teased by a senior, who pinched his ear and called him skinny. Mauney leaped out of his seat and punched the guy in the mouth. “Broke my hand,” he recalled.

Mauney preferred outdoor work to anything. He would cut his agriculture classes to work at a cattle sale barn, herding and loading bulls, only to get caught when the class took a field trip there.

He spent weekends and most of his summers over at the Davis ranch, along with a gang of other aspiring young cowboys. J.B. would help set up the arena for rodeos and pick up trash. He ended up staying there for long stretches, crashed on the living room sofa or in an old bunk room.

Being around Jerome and his wheelchair “made you open your eyes pretty good,” Mauney says. “You realize a lot earlier than most guys that if you’re going to do it, you better mean it because one day it’s here and next it’s gone.”

Jerome didn’t talk much about his accident. He just taught J.B. with the way he went about his rehab and built his life back. He would say: “Don’t cry on my shoulder. You’ll rust my spurs.”

Most important of all, Jerome taught that when you got hurt, “no reason to complain; you picked it,” J.B. says.

By 15, Mauney was the closest thing to a prodigy in rodeo. He won the Southern Rodeo Association junior all-around title in 2002 and the adult title just two years later. He turned pro on his 18th birthday Jan. 9, 2005, and won the very first event he entered for a $10,000 prize.

Then he got stomped - bad. At a rodeo in Raleigh, N.C., a bull came down on his midsection with two hoofs. Mauney knew his ribs were broken, but he figured all a doctor did was tape you up. He wrapped himself in an elastic bandage and drove home. The next morning, his side was badly distended, as if a football had been shoved under the skin. He took himself to an emergency room. “That’s your liver,” a doctor told him. He was rushed into surgery, and afterward the surgeon said she didn’t understand why he hadn’t keeled over dead. He was ordered not to ride for eight months - if he got gored by a bull while his organs were healing, it could kill him.

To make money as he recovered, he went to work at a local ball-bearing plant, sweltering through shifts covered in grease. He quit after four months and went back to riding. At his first competition, someone asked who cleared him to ride again.

“Dr. Mauney,” he shot back.

• • •

By 2006, Mauney was on his way to becoming the fastest bull rider to collect $1 million. At 20, he was making $400,000 a year and thought he would never be broke again. It wasn’t just the winning; it was his devil-may-care attitude that attracted fans. With a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lip, he radiated uncompromisingness. When a chewing tobacco company offered him a $250,000 endorsement deal, he turned it down because it said he couldn’t smoke. When the company redid the language to say he couldn’t smoke at public appearances, he said, “Okay, for 250, I can hide it.”

He traveled in a 24-foot camper that between seasons he parked back at the family farm in Mooresville. When someone asked him why he didn’t get a house, he said, “So if the neighbors piss me off, I can move.”

In 2007, he went to Las Vegas for an annual event, and as he walked into the lobby of a hotel, he noticed a woman with waist-long hair so ash blond it looked almost white, amber eyes and a laugh that radiated across the room. He stalked over and said, “What are you doing tomorrow night?” She answered, “Having dinner with my family.” He said, “Can I come?”

Her name was Samantha Lyne, and she turned out to be the daughter of one of the greatest all-around rodeo athletes ever, Phil Lyne, who was being inducted to the PBR’s Ring of Honor that weekend. Phil Lyne had dominated the early 1970s before he retired to a ranch in Cotulla, Tex. A superbly athletic rider and roper who was the subject of the 1973 Academy Award-winning documentary “The Great American Cowboy,” Lyne had been featured in a famous Chevrolet trucks ad that boasted, “A great way to get to work.”

Samantha’s parents tolerated Mauney at dinner, but they were appalled when she went down to North Carolina to stay in his camper. They had sent her off to TCU for a degree and wanted her to go into business, but she kept going back to the horses and cowboys.

This cowboy and cowgirl were a little too wild to hang together for long. Samantha was chasing her own career as a decorated barrel racer - she would qualify for the national finals in 2014 - while Mauney was approaching his height as a competitor - and a carouser. While other cowboys lifted weights and trained in gyms, he bragged that the only time he had been on a treadmill was for a bet - which he won. He drank four cups of black coffee in the morning, his nutrition consisted of Corn Pops and Uncrustables, and he stayed up till closing time drinking beers and Jägermeister.

“The most exercise he got was lifting a can,” Laws laughs.

Mauney rode with no regrets, except for the money he lost or threw away or people filched from him. “I could’ve took care of business a little bit, not been at the bar all night,” he says. “But you live and learn.”

It was part of his heedlessness. He rode with a looseness others envied, the fringe on his chaps flying around. In 2012, he broke his left (riding) hand and simply switched to his right - and still managed to place among the top five in the world. His epic conquering of Bushwacker in 2013 propelled him to his first world championship and a $1 million bonus.

It wasn’t as jaunty as he made it look, of course. Between the big rides, there were terrible wrecks. A bull named Jawbreaker horned him in the chest and collapsed his lung. There were personal wrecks, too. A brief encounter left him with a baby daughter, Bella, an adored black-haired child who looked just like him. A marriage to a young woman he met through rodeo colleagues collapsed after just two years. He became estranged from his family in a business dispute that left him feeling more used than loved.

The injuries began to mount. Mauney’s problem wasn’t so much what happened on the bull; it was that he was terrible at getting off. When it came time to dismount, he just couldn’t seem to release his hand and land neatly. “Everything I’ve got, since the age of 14, I made all of it tying that thing in there to where it wouldn’t come out,” he says, showing his gnarled hand. He cracked both shoulder blades and his tailbone. He lost the ACLs in both knees and had a perpetually untreated ulnar collateral ligament tear in his elbow. And the pinkie on left hand was permanently curled from his poor dismounts.

“I was not worth a s--- at it,” he says. “I’d land up underneath them, my hand would hang in my rope and jerk me under them, and I’d get stomped. Well, my entire life I practiced how to stay on them, not jump off them. … I tied my hand in there to mean for it to be there.”

Nevertheless, he still chose the “rankest” bulls whenever he could. Most famously, in 2015 Mauney already had clinched his second title when he called for a bull named Bruiser at the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas. He was a two-toned creature who would be named world champion bull for three consecutive years. Bruiser lashed him around so violently, the bull’s tail was flapping against his hat. He stayed on for a score of 92.75.

By then, Mauney was back with Samantha, her family had fully come around to him, and what no one knew about that championship was that each morning in their hotel room, she had to help him out of bed. “I was, like, lifting him,” she says. Both had matured, and along with the original attraction they had something deeper: understanding. She was ranch-reared, capable in brittle situations and had a no-quit attitude as he did. “We’re a lot alike,” she says. That’s why she also understood that beneath Mauney’s exterior lurked sensitivity.

“I just knew he was not the person that he wants people to think he is: tough guy,” she says. “Which he is, right? But he’s really kind.”

She knew how to deal with the fact that J.B. wouldn’t go to the doctor unless it was an emergency. Once, he developed abscesses in some shattered teeth from a broken jaw after taking a hoof to the face. Instead of going to a dentist, he shot himself up with cattle antibiotics. The only problem was the cow needle was as big as something you would knit with. When he jabbed himself with it, he shuddered in pain for a full two minutes, his bare backside hanging out, before he could squeeze the plunger and pull his pants up.

Samantha would employ vet medicine on him, with salves and therapeutics for his joints such as an equine laser. “She doctored me like a horse,” he says.

The habit of choosing the baddest bull certainly cost him another title. Mauney mounted Bushwacker 13 times, almost twice as much as any other rider, and was bumped off 12 of those. In 2016, he had a clear shot at another championship gold buckle, but he chose Air Time, 1,650 pounds of dappled heavyweight. Ten riders had tried Air Time, and all of them were thrown. So was Mauney, who lasted about three seconds before Air Time threw him into the metal fence, subluxing his bad shoulder and tanking his chances.

There was something “honorable” in the way Mauney always chose the hardest ride, Murray observes, even though he didn’t need to.

“He’s always going to be remembered as a guy that slayed every dragon there is at some point,” Murray says. “Even the guys who did it that way at times, they didn’t do it that way all the time. J.B. basically did it that way all the time.”

J.B. and Samantha were married Jan. 3, 2017, and she moved into a log cabin in North Carolina with him and his collection of junk food. “He eats like a 5-year-old,” she says. All of their friends thought they were a perfect match. According to the Davises, Samantha is the only person J.B. toes the line for. “They’re tit for tat,” Jerome says. Tiffany says, “Sam’s woman enough to call him out.”

They eventually found their way to Stephenville, where they bought some acreage a few miles outside of town. It had nothing on it but a single-wide trailer with a tin roof. They decided to live there while they looked for a house and ended up staying in it for two years.

As they put away their things in the single-wide, J.B. told her, “I knew I’d white trash you up.”

Only two things disturbed their happiness: J.B.’s increasing string of injuries and Sam’s difficulty getting pregnant. At the July 2017 Calgary Stampede, J.B. got his hand caught in the rope as he tried to dismount after scoring over 90 points on a bull named Cowabunga. The bull stepped on his shoulder at the armpit, just about ripping his arm off. It was the worst injury he had ever suffered: Three rotator cuff tendons were torn off the humerus, and the ball of the shoulder was fractured. A screw and 13 anchors reattached his shoulder, and he turned the mandated six-month recovery period into four months.

Meanwhile, Samantha was told that because of a medical condition in her youth, she had only a 1 percent chance of getting pregnant. The couple considered in vitro fertilization treatment and visited a clinic. They listened to a lecture on the difficult decisions they would have to make, such as whether to choose the sex of a child and what they would do with unused embryos. On the ride home afterward, both were quiet. Then Mauney burst out: “Samantha, I’m not real religious, but I’ll be damned if I want to choose. I just don’t feel right about that.” Samantha said: “I know. I don’t feel right, either.”

“Well, look,” he said. “How about we just go along for a while and see what happens?”

A few months later, they were sitting out front of their camper as usual with a circle of their friends, opening beers. Samantha said, “I don’t really feel like drinking.” Mauney whipped his head around. Samantha could usually drink his friends under the table. She said, “I just feel funny; I’m going to lay down.” He followed her to the back of the camper and said, “You’re pregnant.” And when the test came back, she was.

“Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something,” he said, grinning.

• • •

Jagger Briggs Mauney arrived early in the morning of Jan. 23, 2019. After that, the collision between Mauney and Arctic Assassin became increasingly inevitable.

Just a few weeks after his son’s birth, Mauney rode a bull named Big Black to tie the record for PBR event victories. But when it was over, he had to ask for a hand up from the sand, unable to stand.

That year, he rode through a fractured tibia, a torn medial collateral ligament, a torn rotator cuff, a rib separation and fracture, a sprained wrist, a sprained ankle and a groin strain.

“He doesn’t bitch about anything. He never complains,” Samantha says. “But I mean, I could see it all over his face.”

Samantha managed to watch outwardly impassive from ringside, with the little boy in her lap. She was more nervous than she appeared. “Lots of times,” she admits. “Especially if I got a bad feeling, and then it was like, you can’t say you have this weird bad feeling, right? Because if something happens, then you feel like it’s your fault.”

She had one of those feelings in August 2021 in Kennewick, Wash. He got a hoof in the head and was out for five minutes. When she arrived backstage, he was still unconscious with blood coming out of his mouth and medics were yelling at him, “J.B.! J.B.!” trying to make him come to.

At the end of 2021, he was tied for first place after the opening round of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The next bull was named Johnny Thunder. Mauney’s head collided with a horn, rendering him unconscious while he was still atop the bull. He sagged off sideways and was dragged like a sack of potatoes as the bull kicked him repeatedly. His hand came free at last. Somehow, the motionless heap started crawling. He left the arena under his own power. “Things got a little western,” he joked afterward.

At some point in those years, an interviewer who saw where it was all headed asked him how he wanted to be remembered. Mauney answered: “That’s pretty easy. That’s real easy. … I don’t really give a s--- what anybody thinks about me, whether I’m the greatest or not. … All I want to be remembered as is that son of a bitch put it all out there every single time he nodded his head.”

It’s fair to say Mauney proved his point. And once a bull rider has proved everything to himself, that’s where the most danger comes in. Ty Murray explains, “The only thing that’s left out there is for you to get hurt.”

On the day Mauney and Arctic Assassin met in Lewiston, Idaho, Samantha wasn’t there to see it. They had driven the camper to Ellensburg, Wash., which was their next stop up the road, so Jagger could settle for a few days and Samantha could go to a barrel race. “Just stay,” J.B. told her. He would ride to Lewiston in a truck with a couple of other riders and then double back to join them.

The cell reception in her camper was so bad she couldn’t stream his ride. “And it was a good thing it wasn’t on, to be honest,” she says. Instead, she got a call later that night from Shane Proctor’s wife, Haley. “J.B’s okay. He got up and walked out, but he said he broke his neck,” she reported. Samantha spent the night packing up the trailer and then drove it over a mountainous route to the hospital.

It was a three-day trip from Lewiston back to Stephenville, and when they got home, he spent exactly two days in bed. The hospital had given him all sorts of do’s and don’ts, such as, “Don’t lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk.” But Mauney got up and started putting his clothes on.

“What are you doing?” Samantha said,

“I’m going to the barns,” he said.

Pretty soon, he was working the gears in a tractor in his neck brace, shoving dirt around.

About two weeks after he got home, Mauney picked up the phone and made the call to Matt Scharping, to tell him he wanted to buy Arctic Assassin.

When Scharping asked, “What do you want him for?” Mauney might have replied that he wanted to make a belt out of him. Instead, what he said was this:

“I want to say I was the last guy who ever rode him.”

One afternoon, Mauney was working around the barns when one of his friends said to him, “I just hate that you didn’t get to end on your own terms.”

“It was always going to end this way,” Mauney said. “I wasn’t ever going to be able to tell myself I couldn’t do it.”

• • •

There was the “for what.” J.B. Mauney chose to live with the bull that ended his career because Arctic Assassin delivered the message that he was never going to tell himself: It was time to quit.

“That was the best thing that could’ve happened,” Mauney says. “I’m still upright.”

It had been a little more than 16 weeks since the catastrophic injury. Mauney no longer wears a neck brace, and his curling black hair hides any sign of scarring on his neck. When he wakes in the morning he is achingly stiff, but he has found that over the course of a day, working with the animals in open air eases it. “He goes to work and gets outside, and he feels so much better,” Samantha observes. “He feels better if he’s moving around.” As a result, he has pivoted to training the next great bull riders, as Jerome Davis once trained him. In February, Mauney announced he will serve as the coach of the Oklahoma Wildcatters, part of the PBR’s team competition.

Mauney’s ranch has become a practice site for bull riders - newly minted 23-year-old PRCA champion Ky Hamilton is there almost weekly. On horseback, Mauney herds bulls into the pens while young riders pull on their gear. Jagger arrives with Samantha from preschool to watch. He has miniature versions of his own riding gear: chaps, boots and a glove.

Jagger swirls through the legs of the men, imitating their every move. Someone hands him a bull rope. Jagger stomps in a circle, imitating a stamping, twisting bull. Then he falls to the ground and clutches his throat.

“Daddy, my neck is broke!” he cries.

There is silence.

“Daddy, my neck is broke! My neck is broke!”

Mauney is up on a welded metal fence, bent over the chute, dealing with a bull.

“Well, quit talking then,” he says mildly without looking around.

Jagger seizes a roll of adhesive tape, which the cowboys use for their ankles and wrists, and bandages his neck. After a while, he tries to rip it off his tender skin. An expression of shock crosses his face, and he begins to wail. Samantha picks him up, and J.B. stops what he’s doing and climbs down from the fence. She hands him over, and the boy buries his face in his father’s shoulder.

Pain is the price of living rampant. Jagger will figure that out, just as his parents did. They won’t spare their child this education. “He can play the piano for all I give a s---, as long as he does it 110 percent,” Mauney says, and you can tell he means it.

Late in the day, after the cowboys have left, it is evening feeding time. Mauney heads to the upper pasture to tend to the black bull on the horizon, the inevitability he always knew he one day would have to surrender to, given all the things he jumped off of and ran into, the things hazarded rather than held back. Arctic Assassin was loaded on a trailer and delivered to Stephenville in late January. Mauney gave him his own broad, quiet paddock on the hillside, well away from the bucking ring, which Arctic Assassin will never see. As Mauney likes to say, “He retired me, so now he gets to retire.”

As Mauney steps into his pasture, the black bull wanders over and noses him. The bull bends his head, conciliatory, as Mauney gently strokes his back with a peculiar half-smile on his face. What happened between the two of them, after all, was only life.

“Of all the mean son of guns I got on in my career, and this dog-gentle one is the one that ended it,” he says.

As the cowboy strokes the tough hide, he’s at peace with his fortunes, while out across the American savanna, more riders await their bulls.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist and feature writer for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.