Bullfighters tackle many tasks at rodeo

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Chris Kirby fights a bull during a recent rodeo. Kirby will handle numerous tasks during the Will Rogers Stampede in Claremore, Okla., and will fight bulls with partner Clay Heger. (ROBBY FREEMAN PHOTO)
Chris Kirby fights a bull during a recent rodeo. Kirby will handle numerous tasks during the Will Rogers Stampede in Claremore, Okla., and will fight bulls with partner Clay Heger. (ROBBY FREEMAN PHOTO)

CLAREMORE, Okla. – By the time Chris Kirby is ready for bull riding at the Will Rogers Stampede, he will already be drenched in sweat from a full night’s worth of work tackling many of the behind-the-scenes duties that are involved in producing an event of this caliber.

It’s OK, though. It’s something in which Kirby takes great pride.

You see, the Kaufman, Texas, man is a professional bullfighter who will work alongside Clay Heger of Odessa, Texas, in keeping fallen bull riders out of harm’s way. That is their main job at Claremore’s rodeo, with three performances set for 7:45 p.m. Friday, May 24-Sunday, May 26, at Will Rogers Round Up Club Arena.

But they have many others with Pete Carr, owner of Carr Pro Rodeo and Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo, which will be providing livestock in Claremore for the first time in the rodeo’s 67 years.

“I’m just doing something I love to do,” said Kirby, 31.

Kirby will be in charge of hauling some of the best animal athletes to Claremore. Once on site, Kirby and Heger will work with other crewmates and members of the volunteer committee that produces the annual rodeo.

“We have a family atmosphere, and we all know what to expect with each other,” Kirby said. “I’ve just kind of jumped in there. If there’s a void that needs to be filled, I just go with it. We all try to make sure that what needs to get done gets done. It’s a smooth deal.

“If we do it all right, it looks effortless. Everybody has an understanding of what each of us does, and it’s a team effort.”

A longtime athlete, the Texas-born Kirby likened it to another professional sport.

“It’s no different than the Dallas Cowboys playing,” he said. “When they’re in the huddle and the play is called, everybody’s supposed to know their situation and know what they’re supposed to do. The offense drives down the field, and you score, just like you’re supposed to.

“There’s no one-man hero. We’ve got people who don’t mind going the extra step out of their way. We always make sure everybody’s got what they need.”

Kirby grew up competing in more traditional sports like baseball and football. His family cared for livestock, so he’d been around horses and cattle all his life, but it wasn’t until his early 20s that the man learned why rodeo gets in one’s blood.

“I played other sports, and really I didn’t know roping calves could pay you money,” he said. “I saw a buddy I went to college with fight bulls, and I thought I’d give it a try. The first one I ever got in front of ran me smack over. I got up and said, ‘Let’s do this again.’

That was a decade ago, and he’s been doing it ever since. In fact, he began taking it seriously just five years ago. In 2010, he became a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the top sanctioning body in the sport, and got involved with the Carr crew.

“It’s a job I get paid for that I really enjoy,” Kirby said. “I never really looked at it like it’s a dangerous job. It’s just what I do. And, really, I’m just as safe in that rodeo pen as if I’m driving down the highway.

“Plus you get to travel and you get to meet a lot of nice people doing it.”

Still, not many others get a chance to look in the eyes of a bull toting nearly a ton of kicking, spinning muscle. As a bullfighter, Kirby moves in once a bull rider comes off the animal, battling to get the bull’s attention, then using his natural athletic ability to get himself and all others in the arena out of harm’s way in the blink of an eye.

“It’s exhilarating,” he said. “It’s everything about it. It’s truly sensational to know there’s a wild animal right there that I’ve got a hold of that’s going to follow me wherever I go.

“I showed calves in high school, and it took me three or four months to get him to follow me so I could show him. All I have to do is be in the same pen as the bull, and he’ll follow me everywhere I go.”

While he works in front of thousands of fans at any given rodeo, Kirby tests his night on how little he is recognized in the arena. If he’s doing his job well and everybody stay’s out of harm’s way, then a bullfighter goes unnoticed. That’s his goal in Claremore, but that’s also his “working behind the scenes” personality.

“Going from amateur rodeos to the professional level, I didn’t realize the production of a good rodeo,” Kirby said. “It took me about a year to really see it, but what Pete wants and what we want is to have the kind of production where everybody that paid to be there got their money’s worth and then some. That’s our goal every time.”


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