ZWINGLE, Iowa – The phrase “working my tail off” has become synonymous with diligence. To that end, Tim O’Connell could be a poster boy for any package of words about a strong work ethic.
He took it to a new level in 2021, breaking his tailbone and having his coccyx surgically removed in order to continue to compete in rodeo at a high level. In a strange set of circumstances, the three-time world champion bareback rider suffered the injury in early August and continued to ride until he couldn’t ride any more.
“I broke the coccyx clean; I broke it very straight, so it didn’t touch any of my nerves,” said O’Connell, 30, from Zwingle but now living in Marshall, Missouri, with his wife, Sami, and son, Hazen. “(The bone) was trying to poke into my lower intestine, which was more of a life-threatening injury. It was eventually going to get through, so we had to stop that before it happened.”
He was hurt in Lovington, New Mexico, but didn’t know the extent of his injuries. Cowboys are known for their tolerance of pain, but this was at a new level. He competed that week at two rodeos in his home state of Iowa, then took four days off before returning to action. He got on horses in Hermiston, Oregon, and Sikeston, Missouri, before he yelped, “Uncle.”
He reached out to Shawn Scott and Rick Foster with the Justin Sportsedicine program, who recommended contacting renowned rodeo physician Dr. Tandy Freeman.
“When I called Tandy, he said, ‘I’ve seen your X-ray; I’ve already called your surgeon,’ ” O’Connell said. “Dr. (Andrew) Dossett is the spine and neck specialist for the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Stars, and he said, ‘I’ll go in there and snip it the rest of the way out.’
“It’s a very rare surgery, and he said he’s done the most, and he’d done nine. On Aug. 24, with 100 days to go until the first round (of the National Finals Rodeo), I had surgery.”
When he opted to go under the knife, O’Connell was first in the world standings. Over the last six weeks of the regular season, he only fell one spot, which proved how his season had gone up to that point. He will enter his eighth straight NFR with $156,056 in season earnings, second only to leader Tilden Hooper.
How did the time away from action hamper his preparation to compete in ProRodeo’s grand finale?
“It hasn’t been much different,” he said. “The biggest thing about this surgery is I had to take care of the incision. I had to be very careful of it so there wasn’t any infection. I couldn’t sweat for two weeks. The last thing Dr. Dossett said before surgery was, ‘If you screw up my incision, you can kiss your NFR goodbye.’
“I couldn’t get it dirty. The biggest risk of the surgery was the infection.”
He followed the surgeon’s orders, and by mid-September – when the other NFR qualifiers were still battling the miles and the bucking horses – O’Connell was in the gym getting his body built up for riding 10 of the best bucking horses in ProRodeo in 10 consecutive nights.
His first test to what the surgeon had done came at the Great Lakes Circuit Finals Rodeo, which took place Nov. 11-13 in Louisville, Kentucky. While there, O’Connell won the first two rounds outright, then split the third-round title with one of his traveling partners, Jess Pope. It all added up to the average title and $10,082 in earnings and served as the perfect proving ground to see if O’Connell was ready for 10 December nights in the Nevada desert.
Actually, it was the perfect symbol for his fantastic season, one in which he was pretty dominant from the beginning until he had to step aside. Even with seven weeks off at the end of the campaign, he trails Hooper by less than $6,000. Of course, there were so many positives for O’Connell, from tying the PRCA record with a 94-point ride on Frontier Rodeo’s Gun Fire at the Riggin’ Rally in Weatherford, to winning titles in both Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Calgary, Alberta.
“I’ve always loved being the No. 1 guy in the world, but I found something out about that,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything if you’re not the No. 1 guy on the last day of the year. I’ve always liked being the guy with the bullseye on my back, but I’m ready to throw down in Vegas. I feel ready for a 10-round war.”
He also got something some of the other men in the NFR mix didn’t: Quality time at home with his wife and son. In fact, the day before he was to have surgery, he and his wife found out they are expecting another baby next spring.
“My son is 3 and a half years old, and he wants to be Daddy’s boy now,” he said. “I dig it. Things could have been so much worse.
“I just needed to be home, and this was going to be find. What kind of blessing is it that you get to be home with your family and find out you’re going to add to your family.”
It has definitely been a growing experience for the O’Connells. As a man who makes a living one bucking horse at a time, there are learning opportunities at every turn. From what it’s like to tangle with the toughest beasts on earth to knowing that any excessive risk could put his 2021 campaign in jeopardy, he managed to grasp all the positives he could.
That comes after a season that was precluded by a disappointing second-place finish in 2020. He found a maturation process through all those negative experiences and hopes to build off it as he makes himself a better competitor and a better man for each forward step he takes.
“This year I’ve learned how to deal with my anxiety a little bit,” said O’Connell, who credits a great deal of his success to his sponsors, 12 Gauge Ranch, Polaris, Panhandle and Rock and Roll Clothing, Justin Boots, Veach’s Custom Leather, Ingram Quarter Horses, MRT Racing Tires, Capri Campers, Twin Cities Featherlight, American Hat Co., Super Duty Fans, Farm Girl Marketing Solutions, CDLjobs.com and Kleinschmidt Western Store. “I used to be very anxious about not being the No. 1 guy in the world. Last year, I was the No. 1 guy for 297 days, and I wasn’t No. 1 when it counted.
“I learned to be more present in the moment. Never look past the one that’s underneath you and also enjoy the process. I’m not a young guy anymore. I’m about to go to my eighth NFR in a row. I’ve ridden at seven in a row, and I’ve been in world title races in most of them. I need to enjoy these days more. Little things happen every day that remind you to be thankful. It’s helped me find another way to control my emotions.”
Still, there’s a fire that burns deep inside the gut of Tim O’Connell. He craves the opportunity to ride bucking horses, and he doesn’t back down from anything that stands in front of him. He also realizes that the 14 other bareback riders in the mix and the 100 best bucking horses in the game will have something to say about how the 2021 ProRodeo season comes to a close.
“I’m going to be aggressive for 10 straight rounds,” O’Connell said. “Normally our game plan is pretty simple: You look at what horse you have, then you justify the ride you’re going to put on them. I usually watch the first 10 or 11 guys go, then I know what kind of ride I need to make.
“This year, I’m going to make smart, aggressive rides like I’m backed into the corner for a world title.”