Fowler: Former bull rider finds new life after injury

May 6, 2013 

— It has been 15 years since a bucking bull first knocked Jerome Davis unconscious and then flicked him into the air. Davis soared like he was doing a dive into a swimming pool – headfirst, with his hands hanging limply at his sides.

That 1998 accident paralyzed Davis from the chest down and put him into the wheelchair where he remains today. He was 25 then and one of the best professional bull riders in the world. They called him the “Carolina Cowboy.”

He is 40 now – married to the woman who was his fiancé before the accident and raising the same kind of bull that nearly killed him in 1992, then paralyzed him six years later.

And he is happy.

“I’m pretty wide open these days,” Davis said. “I’ve probably got 20 percent of my body. So that’s enough to keep going, I reckon.”

Davis has full mobility in his arms and “half his hands,” as he describes it. He can’t grip objects well or make a fist at all, but he can work a Smartphone and can drive his heavy-duty Chevy truck with hand controls. And he drives it everywhere, hauling a dozen of his best bulls to rodeos in Jacksonville, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and Roanoke, Va., over the past several months.

“He’s busier than ever,” said Tiffany Davis, who has been Jerome’s wife and primary caregiver for the past 15 years. “He does not slow down. He wears me out trying to keep up with him.”

Davis has stayed fully immersed in his sport. He goes to Las Vegas for the world bull-riding finals every year, just like he has done for 20 years. Now, though, his bucking bulls – with names like Super Freak and Boogity Boogity Boogity (NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip owns a piece of that one) – compete in the rodeo instead of him.

The irony of this does not escape him, but he is at peace with it.

Even though much has changed in his life as a result of his accident, much has stayed the same.

When I first went to Archdale to meet and write about Davis in 1997, nine months before his accident, he was the only rodeo world champ to ever hail from east of the Mississippi. He had grown up in Archdale – 15 miles south of Greensboro – primarily on his grandfather’s dairy farm.

He still lives on that property (but in a new cedar log house that accommodates a wheelchair more easily).

He ran local rodeos at the Davis family ranch then. He still does that, including a huge professional bull-riding event every Labor Day weekend. He always wore a cowboy hat and had a Southern drawl as thick as three-day-old grits, and that’s still the same. He and Tiffany were inseparable, and they remain so.

The difference, of course, is the wheelchair. But Davis doesn’t blame the sport he loves for that.

“Why do I stay in something that almost killed me once and then put me in a chair for almost 15 years now?” he asked. “My answer to that is I grew up around the sport and you didn’t have to tell me that I could have got paralyzed or I could have got killed. Because I’ve seen it. I know it happens. It just goes with the game.

“If you’re going to play a big man’s game, you’ve got to pay a big man’s price sometimes. That’s what’s happened with me.”

Husband, wife and bulls

To get to Davis’ house, you drive 90 miles west of Raleigh, get off Interstate 85, drive on Jerome Davis Road awhile and then hang a left and a right before you wind up at the three-story log house, complete with an elevator, that Jerome and Tiffany Davis moved into six months ago.

They are an unusual, functional family – husband, wife, two cowdogs and about 120 bulls. From the back porch, you can look out in the pasture and see a few of the bulls. Davis knows them all by name.

“I know them like people know their kids,” Davis said, pointing out a couple from his wheelchair. “That’s Who’s Your Daddy – the black and white bull. The red bull on the right is Fired Up.”

Davis said the names with a note of pride in his voice, the same one parents use when pulling up their children’s snapshots on an iPhone.

About children: It is medically possible for Davis to have them, and he and Tiffany continue to consider the possibility. “But right now I’m like a big kid and my wife has to put up with me already,” he said. “We ain’t tackled that yet. Maybe down the road.”

“I keep putting it off, but I’m going to have to figure it out,” said Tiffany, who is 38.

For now, Jerome Davis is consumed with the bulls, which he and several family members raise from birth in the business on several hundred acres scattered around North Carolina. He would like to breed the next “PBR superstar,” as he calls it – a bull that could throw any Professional Bull Riding cowboy off his back in less than eight seconds.

Bulls are in their prime from ages 4 to 6, Davis said, and it costs about $300 per month per bull to take care of them properly.

To make ends meet, Davis sells shares in his bulls, much like some thoroughbred horse owners do. He and his wife maintain a robust website – JeromeDavis.com – that keeps prospective owners apprised of their upcoming sales.

You might say Davis has joined the other team, aligned more closely with the bulls than the cowboys. He doesn’t see it that way. When he gives motivational speeches, he talks about doing what you love for a living but changing your goals if you have to. That’s all he has done, he said.

And the bulls and cowboys are kind of on the same team anyway. In bull riding, a cowboy wants to draw the “buckingest bull” to ride, because successfully “covering” the bull for the required eight seconds draws the highest score. Bulls have their own wing at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs.

Davis has never blamed “Knock ’Em Out John” for his injury, which came in Fort Worth, Texas.

“How can you do that?” he asked. “It’s like a cage fighter who goes in and gets his butt whupped. You can’t be mad at the guy whupping you. That’s part of the game. … Bull riding is pretty much the same extreme. You go to battle. Sometimes it turns out good. Sometimes it turns out bad.”

The accident

As a child, Davis sometimes would fall asleep atop a horse on his grandfather’s dairy farm. He told his first-grade teacher he wanted to ride bulls for a living.

His family was supportive of his dream. His grandfather allowed him to cut down some cedar trees on the property, string wires between them and make a homemade rodeo arena. His parents allowed him travel the country to compete in rodeos when he was still in high school.

One of his heroes, Lane Frost, was a bull-riding champion who was gored to death in 1989 at a Wyoming rodeo. Davis would later do some stunt work for the movie “Eight Seconds,” based on Frost’s life.

So Davis was well aware of the risks. Even before the accident that paralyzed him, Davis had broken both arms, one wrist, a dozen ribs and a foot on different bull rides. A bull named “Gunslinger” once kicked in his teeth.

One named “Orange Pop” punctured his lung, broke his collarbone and sent him to an intensive care unit in Reno, Nev., for five days. That was the accident that almost killed him because of breathing problems.

On March 14, 1998, Davis almost missed the bull-riding competition. The plane he and Tiffany were flying in couldn’t land in Fort Worth and had to divert to Waco, Texas.

He hurriedly rented a car, got to Fort Worth, then was kept out of the arena by a security guard demanding to see credentials he had forgotten to bring with him. Davis was No. 1 in the PBR standings at the time, but the security guard didn’t know that.

Davis spent much of the final hour of his life on two good legs pleading with the security guard to let him into that arena so he could ride the bull that would ultimately break his neck and paralyze him.

After that 1998 accident, Davis wasn’t unconscious long. He woke up on the arena’s dirt floor, stunned and scared. A doctor pinched his leg. He couldn’t feel it.

“I knew something bad was wrong because I couldn’t feel my body and at the time I could not move anything,” Davis said. “I was just there. Pretty scary deal. And here we are now 15 years later, and I still think I’m coming out of it.”

‘Adapt and overcome’

After that accident, all of his sponsors eventually dropped him, Davis said, except for Wrangler. He has built his life back up slowly by a three-word mantra: Adapt and overcome.

The paralysis isn’t the only health issue. Said Tiffany: “I always have said that when you see somebody in a wheelchair, you think, ‘Aw man, that’d be bad.’ The wheelchair is the easy part. It’s everything that goes along with it. For Jerome, it’s kidney stones. Pressure sores. The fear of infection. He can’t breathe like we can because of the paralysis.

“But we’ve been blessed. Yes, we’ve really been blessed, for him to be hurt like he was and not to have more complications than he’s had.”

Davis has tried to help others from his wheelchair, because that helps make him feel more alive. He has kids’ rodeos at his arena and an event for the church he goes to, called Cowboy Church. He holds a bull riding camp at his ranch.

He once went on a hunt geared to disabled people and enjoyed it so much that he and a relative decided to create their own and make it an annual event. It’s called Back in the Woods Again – 45 disabled hunters participated in the most recent one, in Bear Creek, N.C., last October.

And even 15 years later, Davis still believes he will one day rise up out of his wheelchair.

“Maybe he’s in denial,” Tiffany said with a small laugh. “But he’s not giving in.”

Davis has followed the latest research into paralysis closely and finds hope in some of the clinical trials that are going on now.

“One day I really believe I’ll walk again,” he said. “It’s going to be funny, too. People are going to say, ‘Man, that guy was in that chair for 18 years’ or whatever it might be. And that sucker is walking now!”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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