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I flew to Texas to watch bull riding on an aircraft carrier during COVID

The lengths we’ll go — and the risks we’ll take — to get together

By Matt Crossman

The bull’s name is Foghorn Leghorn. He is roughly 1,600 pounds of brown and white spotted mayhem, a thickly muscled mass of bovine boisterousness with a look on his face that drips disdain. Or maybe I’m reading into it. Regardless, I am relieved that there is a metal pen between me and this bull, who has been bucking off cowboys in the Professional Bull Riders for three years.

Grabbing onto the outside of that metal pen is a rising bull-riding star named Ezekiel Mitchell. He is 155 pounds, a lithe and flexible rag doll in chaps, equal parts intense stare and easy-going, dimply smile. Standing in the shadow of a World War II-era Air Force fighter jet, he discards his face mask for a helmet. Holding the rail, he quick-squats, once, twice, six times, stretching to prepare for the ludicrous thing he is about to do. He hops over the metal fence and straddles Foghorn Leghorn’s back.

Mitchell slips his red-gloved right hand under a rope on Foghorn Leghorn’s back and nods his head. That’s the cue for someone on the other side of the pen to open it. The bull bursts out of the pen, and so does Mitchell, trailing above and behind him like a cartoon, left hand high for balance, right hand clinging to that rope. Mitchell hangs on for the bull’s first two jumps. On the third, his hand slips. Now he’s just along for the ride, and there’s little chance it will end well. Foghorn Leghorn bucks again, gravity takes over, and Mitchell lands on his head. He turtles in the dirt for a blink, and Foghorn Leghorn rams his horns into him, then mercifully runs away.

Mitchell pops off the ground and circles around to the back of the bullpen, where he sits down and catches his breath. He’s fine, or at least as fine as a man can be after he gets thrown off of a bull, lands on his head, and then gets rammed. Even by Professional Bull Riders standards, the crash is spectacular. It’s historic, even, because of where and when it happened. Mitchell is the first cowboy in the history of the world to get thrown off of a bull …

On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier …

… in the middle of a pandemic.

As Mitchell walks to the makeshift arena to watch the rest of the event, I exhale, thankful he is OK. Standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Lexington, docked on the Gulf of Mexico in Corpus Christi, Texas, I ask myself, not for the first time, why did I fly to Texas to watch bull riding on an aircraft carrier as COVID-19 wracks the country, as a fall surge intensifies, as public health officials issue warnings and families drop their holiday plans?

And why are there 250 others on this boat, too?


The week before I left for Corpus Christi, I read Fahrenheit 451, about a future society so descended into frivolity that it burns books to avoid learning what’s in them. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I wondered if bull riding on an aircraft carrier as a deadly disease ravages the planet was evidence that we are, indeed, amusing ourselves to death.

But I learned on the aircraft carrier that bull riding wasn’t really the point of all of those people getting together. Connection was.

The isolation we’ve experienced since March 2020 is bad for us. Perhaps the most insidious fact of the coronavirus has been that the best way to get through the pandemic emotionally and mentally is also the best way to catch the virus: by being a member of a tight-knit community. Figuring out how to be present with others, and what risks we’ll take to do so, is the tightrope upon which we all have been walking.

Human beings are social creatures. We need to feel connected. We will do dumb things or expensive things or risky things to get those connections satisfied.”

Daniel Aldrich, director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University

“The reality is human beings are social creatures,” says Daniel Aldrich, director of the Security and Resilience Studies program at Northeastern University, who has extensively studied the relationships among social connections, death, and disasters. Early in the pandemic, Aldrich gave interviews in which he criticized the term “social distancing” because he thought it sent the exact wrong message. He prefers “physical distancing.”

Aldrich points to research showing that participation in a community is crucial to helping humans endure disasters. If we all locked ourselves in our homes and never left, that would kill the virus. But we would pay a steep price for losing our social networks, because it’s not a zero-sum game, no matter what histrionic Twitter scolds might say.

“We need to have these networks; we need to feel connected,” Aldrich says. “We will do dumb things or expensive things or risky things to get those connections satisfied.”

After Mitchell’s ride, I walk a lap around the fenced-in riding area. I face the dirt, with the gulf behind me. A woman wearing a U.S. flag vest leans against the fence. She waves a sign that thanks PBR (Professional Bull Riders, the sport’s sanctioning body) and announces today is her 70th birthday.

Her name is Jan Bernard, and she has been a huge fan of bull riding since 2011. How huge? She can recognize the top bull riders by getting a quick look at their rear ends.

The source on that tush tidbit is Lloyd Bernard, Jan’s husband of 50 years — and also her chauffeur, luggage handler and travel agent. This year alone, Jan and Lloyd drove their white 2015 Dodge Durango more than 40,000 miles to attend 13 PBR events, most of them after the shutdown. They wear masks everywhere they go, use copious amounts of hand sanitizer, clean their hotel rooms themselves, and bypass restaurants that are too crowded. After each trip, they quarantine at home. All to watch cowboys ride bulls.

Why?

“See this red hair?” Jan says, smiling as she points to an amber bob of curls. “I have the temper that goes with it. If I have to stay home too long …”

The rest goes unsaid, but the implication (confirmed by Lloyd) is that it would be unpleasant. But it’s not just leaving the house that’s important. What matters is who was there when they reached their destinations: People who share their passion.

When I talked to Jan and Lloyd on the flight deck the night before the bull riding event, a steady stream of people — from other fans to Ezekiel Mitchell to PBR CEO Sean Gleason — stopped to say hello. I half-expected Foghorn Leghorn to saunter over for an elbow bump.

I told Jan I was impressed the CEO knew who she was. Her hair glowed redder as she cracked, “He better talk to me. I pay his bills.”

Indeed, she and Lloyd, along with 35 other fans, forked over $1,500 apiece to be here. With donations from Ford and Wrangler and other corporate sponsors, the one-hour event, held on Nov. 21 and broadcast on CBS the next day, raised $250,000 for military charities such as Operation Homefront, which supports military families. That stiff fee earned VIP ticketholders entrance to the event, meals, a couple of nights in a hotel, a COVID-19 test (which was required of everyone who got on the boat), tours of the U.S.S. Lexington, and a priceless immersion in a community of friends.


PBR, like other sports, has allowed some fans to attend events for months. By design, the stands have not been full. But the slow trickle of attendance at such events will become a flood as soon as state and local governments allow it, and as people desperate for interaction feel safe enough to do so. “Every single venue, theater, movie, whatever, is going to be packed,” Aldrich says. “There’s such pent-up demand now for all those connections. It’ll be nuts.”

In the meantime, events that allow fans follow strict safety rules, some dictated by state and local regulations. Bull riders run the constant risk of getting their brains stomped out. It is an aggressive, swashbuckling, laugh-at-danger sport that celebrates its participants’ ability to endure pain. So I wondered what PBR’s protocols would be like. Answer: Stringent.

From the sport’s return in Oklahoma in late April, through 20 events in 10 states, until the final bull ride on the Lexington, PBR employees and contractors were tested constantly and required to wear masks and stay within bubbles on the road and at home. The social pressure was as strong as the professional pressure — nobody wanted to be the reason that the virus spread and did to the season what Foghorn Leghorn did to Mitchell.

Those protocols were evident for the U.S.S. Lexington event. Before I flew to Texas, I was told, multiple times, that I would not be allowed on the aircraft carrier to cover the event until I passed a COVID-19 test administered by PBR. That applied to everyone — the Bernards, bull riders, and bartenders. Well, almost everyone. Nobody shoved a Q-tip up Foghorn Leghorn’s nose. Masks were mandatory on the boat, even though it was outside and everybody had been tested.

After those precautions, we damn sure expected a spectacle, and a huge amount of work went into providing it. Onto the 872-foot-long flight deck, PBR hauled 300 tons of dirt and steel and 15 miles of copper and fiber-optic cables (for the CBS broadcast). Twenty dump trucks hauled up dirt to fill the 58-by-70-foot bull ring. The limited attendance included VIPs like the Bernards as well as local fans who paid $375 per ticket.

While the location was unique, the process was fairly normal. PBR rents dirt and builds and disassembles bull rings in arenas around the country, and has done so in Times Square and on California’s Huntington Beach.

Getting the bulls onto the flight deck? That was new.


“How do they get the bulls onto the aircraft carrier?” my wife asked as she drove me to the airport.

I told her PBR would use an elevator normally used to take planes to the flight deck.

“Will there be somebody in the elevator with them?” she asked. This made her nervous, and rightly so. “I imagine the bulls are like velociraptors.”

I told her I hoped nobody would be on the elevator with the bulls. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to ride on an elevator with a bull on an aircraft carrier, because once is the number of times I’ll have a chance to do that, pandemic or no pandemic.

And that’s how I’ve come to take that ride with not one, but seven bulls.

In truth, I’m not sure elevator is the right word. It’s technically a platform lift on the side of the U.S.S. Lexington. I ride up with Foghorn Leghorn, Evil Intentions (no bull worth riding would ever be named Good Intentions), and five other bulls. They stand (maskless! not social distancing! breathing all over each other!) in a trailer pulled by a white Ford pickup.

I could reach in and pet them. I opt not to, just in case they are, indeed, like velociraptors.

The truck pulls onto the lift, and the truck and trailer are too long to fit. The driver turns slightly, so the truck and the trailer look like clock hands pointed to 12:35. Even with that adjustment, the very back of the trailer hangs off the end over the Gulf of Mexico.

As the lift carries us up to the flight deck, Foghorn Leghorn, Evil Intentions and the rest jostle for position. Their movements shake the trailer. Not a lot or anything, but seven bulls shaking a trailer that’s hanging over the Gulf of Mexico …

 “If I drop a bull into the bay, I’m dead,” jokes Easton Colvin, a PBR media representative.


This entire experience is the brainchild of PBR CEO Sean Gleason. At mid-morning on the day of the event, Gleason and I talk at a round table a level below the flight deck. He wears a thin layer of scruff, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. His dancing eyes make me think bull riding on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a pandemic isn’t the wildest idea he’s ever had, it’s just the wildest one he has pulled off so far.

Gleason has wanted to buck bulls on an aircraft carrier since well before the COVID-19 crisis, when he saw a college basketball game on one a decade ago. This summer, he called a staff meeting and proposed the idea. “Do you think we can do it?” he asked them. “They all stopped and said, ‘Well, hell, yeah.’ I said, ‘Good. Let’s do it.’”

Now, a few hours before the event starts, Gleason is stunned at what his team has pulled off. “When I walked up and saw the crew laying down the dirt for the first time,” Gleason says, “I’m like, oh, holy shit, this is going to happen.”

The whole event is a manifestation of PBR’s slogan: Be Cowboy. “It’s about getting up, dusting yourself off, getting back to work. It’s cowboy ingenuity that got us back,” Gleason says. “We dove in and learned everything we could possibly learn about this virus.”

Gleason says the key to holding an event safely is understanding the difference between living in fear and living with danger. If we live in fear, he figures, we will cower in our homes. If we agree to live in danger, he thinks, we will face that danger responsibly — and take the necessary precautions.

“If it was all about the individual, none of my people would care if they caught COVID,” Gleason says. They aren’t worried about getting sick themselves. “But what they have learned, and what we will continue to preach, is it’s not about you. It’s about the person across from you.”

I don’t want to overstate the heft of a conversation about bull riding on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a pandemic, but our talk was full of two precious commodities: reasonableness and hope.

“The protocols we put in place have worked since Day 1,” Gleason says. “We’ve had test after test after test, and result after result after result, to prove that what we did — stepping out and being forward-thinking with a safe and responsible return — was the right thing to do.”

The first reason Gleason wanted PBR to get back to bucking bulls was that most people who work in the industry only get paid if events happen. The second reason was to give fans a sense of community that isolation had ripped away from them.

His third reason? “It’s our way of giving the finger to 2020.”


If Gleason wanted to flip 2020 the bird, Flint Rasmussen, PBR’s rodeo clown, wanted to point at it and laugh. With clown paint on his face and sneakers on his feet, he entertained the crowd in between rides with a mix of singing, dancing, and stream-of-consciousness commentary.

I probably missed some of his references because I was laughing, but I caught obvious nods to the movies Titanic and Top Gun. I mean, of course he ran to the bow and pretended to be Leonardo DiCaprio as the King of the World. Even Foghorn Leghorn could see that one coming.

When Rasmussen saw Jan Bernard’s sign announcing it was her birthday, he flirted with her, offering to be Maverick to her Goose. Then he turned serious, or as serious as a rodeo clown can be on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a pandemic. “From me to you, thank you for coming to this shindig,” he said. Then he sang “Happy Birthday” to her, and her hair glowed redder still.

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He has written for Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, Men's Health, and The Washington Post.

 

Photos by Andy Watson/BullStockMedia.com

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