There's a cowboy cliché that has made it into everyday American lexicon: Sometimes, you've gotta take the bull by the horns.
Well, in the life of a rodeo athlete, that cliché occasionally works in reverse: Sometimes, the bull takes you by its horns. And that's every bit as harrowing and painful as it sounds.
Tag Elliott knows this firsthand. The 24-year-old bull rider qualified for the National Finals Rodeo this year, for the first time in his career. But that career was nearly derailed before it really even got started back in 2007.
Elliott doesn't remember much about what happened after the accident, but the date is firmly implanted in his brain: July 24, 2007, at a rodeo in Salt Lake City.
"A bull got me pulled down over his head, and as he whipped his head back, he caught me in the cheek with his horn," Elliott recalled. "It knocked me out right there, and I don't remember anything after that for about four or five days.
"They ran out and hauled me off in an ambulance to the hospital and went about trying to put stuff back together."
And there was a lot of stuff to put back together.
"I broke the hell out of everything - my cheek, eye socket, a chunk of my skull, my jaw. I lost some teeth," he said, noting initially that emergency personnel harbored grave concerns for his life. "Right when it happened, they were getting a little worried."
For most people, just surviving such an incident would be satisfaction enough. But cowboys in general, and bull riders in specific, are cut from a different cloth. Elliott wanted to get back on top of a bull and get his eight seconds worth.
"There really wasn't any doubt that I'm gonna do it again," he said. "That was my deal: Get better, and do it again."
Well, "again" ended up taking a year and a half. In early 2009, he was finally cleared to take some practice rides at a ranch in Utah, not too far from his Idaho home.
"It went alright," Elliott said. "I was slow and pretty rusty, but everything held up, and that's what I was worried about."
At the time, Elliott was enrolled at the College of Southern Idaho and competed on its rodeo team. So he got some more practice there, then finally got back to real competition at some college rodeos in the spring of 2009.
"It was fun. I was just trying to treat 'em like practice," he said. "It was good to be back."
His return to the professional ranks came later that spring at a California rodeo.
"That was exciting, but there was still quite a bit more to go," he said, noting he still hadn't fully returned to form.
In 2012, he really got it all back together, riding his way to the best year of his young career. Elliott earned $63,912 during the regular season, putting him 15th in the world standings, just good enough for an NFR berth - which goes to the top 15 contestants in each event. He said his first trip to the Finals was long overdue, with or without the harrowing injuries.
"It should have happened a couple years ago, but I'm glad it's finally here," Elliott said.
Knowing he has survived a life-threatening situation, Elliott has taken a much more simplistic approach to his riding, even with so much money and opportunity on the line at the NFR.
"I'm not riding bulls to make money or for fame. You do it because you enjoy it," he said. "I'm just going to ride to have fun, and if you make it (to the NFR), good."
Still, there is a competitor inside Elliott, and he's eager to contend for go-round wins and maybe even a world title over the course of the 10-day event.
"Everybody has a chance going into it," he said. "Whoever's on that week can win it, and it's kind of hard not to think about winning it. I'm kind of a long shot. But I'll just take one bull at a time and try to have fun.
"I'm really looking forward to being out there. Not just watching it from the sidelines, but being able to be in it. I'm really excited about that."