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Back in the saddle

Hometown show could be last ride

Hometown show could be last ride

August 03, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

BEDINGTON, W.Va. - Last October, when Nathan Catlett broke his neck bull riding at a southern New York event, he thought that was the end of his professional bull-riding career.

The Berkeley County native's mindset about winning a Professional Bull Riders' championship - the big leagues of bull riding - changed course to focus on helping to start a junior rodeo association and spending more time with his family.

Then a good medical report renewed his hope.

So about a month ago in Virginia, he started riding again.

Last week, near Leesburg, Va., Catlett mounted a bull three times during Loudoun County Fair. Two-jumped, or bucked off quickly, he was mad at himself for his inability to stay aboard in a sport in which eight seconds is a significant accomplishment.

He doesn't want his bull-riding career to end that way.

Next Thursday, during the Berkeley County Youth Fair, Catlett could ride a bull for the last time.

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He says he's "about 85 percent sure" his last ride could be then.

"I guess my small, last little goal is just that I end it on a good note, end it on my terms. ... Ride a good one, step off, tip my hat and walk out that way rather than my last one being the one I broke my neck on," Catlett says.

That attitude comes from the way he was raised.

"When we were riding horses and mules, if you got bucked off something, Pappy didn't let you finish cry before he snapped you by the britches and put you back on it," says Catlett, whose day job is being a farrier - he shoes horses.

Catlett, 28, is getting old for a bull rider.

His fascination with riding a 1,000- to 2,000-pound animal that didn't want to be ridden began when he was about 12, when he saw a rodeo at the Berkeley County Fairgrounds.

It wasn't until two years later that his parents acquiesced, and he participated in a Pennsylvania High School Rodeo Association (PHSRA) rodeo.

He practiced on a barrel tied by ropes to four trees. Springs on the ropes made the barrel buck when it was boarded.

At about 160 pounds, his first ride was on an estimated 1,300-pound bull. He lasted three to four seconds.

"It was a big adrenaline rush," Catlett says. "I've never done drugs, but I would imagine it's a lot like your first time doing drugs. You just know right away you're addicted to it. It's hard to describe."

He got stepped on and scraped up, but he knew before he dusted himself off he wanted to do it again.

His first year he won the PHSRA finals, earning a trip to nationals in Gillette, Wyo., where he says he finished in the top 25 nationally.

He was United Bull Riders' rookie of the year in 1999 and scored enough points to be named International Bull Riders champion. He was chamption again in 2003.

A bull rider earns points based on his ride and how much the bull bucks. If the rider is still aboard at the eight-second mark, a buzzer sounds, letting him know it's time to dismount.

"He rides with a lot of confidence. He's a very good rider, and he's a true athlete. He came back from an injury that most people would have hung it up," says Steve Stolipher, of Charles Town, W.Va. Stolipher is chairman of Tri-State Regional Bull Riding Association and has known Catlett since they showed horses together as boys.

In October, he was set to ride a bull he'd been on before, a bull whose bucking pattern Catlett was familiar with. Then the bull bucked in the other direction, and before he could adjust he was flying off. Instead of hitting the bull's back hip on the way off and landing on his feet, Catlett hit the ground with the top of his head.

"I knew something was wrong. My right arm wouldn't work, wouldn't move at all for a second or two," he says. Not wanting to hold up the show, he got up and walked out of the arena.

"It wasn't some horrendous Evel Knievel crash like you would think it would be," says Boonsboro resident Blaine Whipp, who also was riding at the event. "He jumped right up. ... It didn't seem like a very big deal at first."

Catlett drove himself and Whipp to a hospital where Catlett underwent a CAT scan that revealed the broken neck.

Meanwhile his wife, Melody, received a phone call that he was hurt and drove six hours in the middle of the night to New York.

Recently considering the possibility that her husband's bull-riding career is about to end, Melody Catlett says her emotions are torn.

She loves to watch him ride.

"I'm just at the point I'm not sure I'm willing to pay the price anymore," she says, referring to his fractured neck and time away from the family.

Bull riding has had him on the road just about every weekend.

Catlett, a 1996 graduate of Martinsburg Christian Academy, is teaching his sons, Matthew, 10, and Tyler, 7, about bull-riding skills by using a trampoline.

"It's all about balance. ... Strength has nothing to do with it," Catlett says.

Catlett says he gets more nervous in front of the hometown crowd than when he's competing before bigger crowds or for more money.

People hear he's good, but they have this one local event to judge him by.

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