I haven’t met a professional cowboy or cowgirl who didn’t have a laundry list of injuries they’ve suffered during their careers, and you certainly won’t find any here at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo without his or her fair share. Whether it’s a broken bone, contusion or torn ligament, pro rodeo contestants have all been bitten by the injury bug at some time or another.
That’s what makes the Justin Sportsmedicine Team so crucial to the sport and the Wrangler NFR. More than a dozen trained medical personnel work hard to apply their knowledge and skill every day to help the contestants recover and keep going.
At the Wrangler NFR, the Justin Sportsmedicine Team room is an ant’s nest of activity, with the medical staff helping contestants do everything from stretch and ice sore muscles to providing electric stimulus treatment and even sutures for cuts. They hand out miles of medical tape and use thousands of pounds of ice to treat what ails the pro cowboys and cowgirls, and no two days are ever the same.
"The last few nights, it’s been like a MASH unit in here," Mike Rich, executive director of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team said Saturday. "During the event, it’s a lot of triage, and we may have to help them or backboard them out of the arena. It’s kind of what is fun about it medically, because you never know what you’re going to get."
During the rodeo, the room is flooded with people coming and going, and the team uses it as an emergency room of sorts to handle all types of injuries. During the first two rounds alone, team doctors stitched up five people and provided treatment for dozens of contestants and staff.
It’s a crucial part of the world’s grandest rodeo, which is a brutal grind on the contestants who have to do battle for 10 consecutive days.
"We can do a lot of good in a short period of time," Rich said. "You’ll see us in here taping or bracing a lot of guys, working on backs, shoulders or knees, just getting them loosened up so they can compete at the highest level. Like Groundhog Day, the next day it all starts over again."
The contestants appreciate the treatment and care they receive from the Justin Sportsmedicine Team – which has a presence at 125 PRCA rodeos across the country each year – a great deal.
"They help us out a bunch," said four-time Wrangler NFR bareback rider Jessy Davis. "Back in 2008, I had to come in here and have them pop my shoulder back in a couple times. They keep us going and keep us healthy, and I can’t explain how much help they are."
Steer wrestler Ethen Thouvenell was in the treatment room before Round 3 to get some electronic stimulus treatment to his upper back and neck muscles in an attempt to loosen them a bit. He was happy to be able to get that kind of professional treatment at the arena.
"They do a lot for me," said Thouvenell, who is in the running for the world title. "It’s hard for us to get to doctors and have that constant support, so being able to see these guys is great. They take their time and put a lot of effort into it, and I really appreciate all of what they do for me."
The treatment the team provides can mean the difference between a contestant competing or not, and that translates into dollars, as they have to earn every penny they take home each year.
"We enjoy helping people, and we want to give them the best advice and give them the most we can," said Justin Sportsmedicine Team Program Director Rick Foster. "These guys are high-level achievers, and they don’t want to sit around hurt. They want to get back out there.
"In a sport like rodeo, which is so abusive on the body, for us to be able to help them get down the road and compete at the highest level, it’s great."
The array of services contestants can receive in the treatment room at the Thomas & Mack Center – which is open from 10 a.m. to noon and again roughly three hours before the rodeo each day – is seemingly endless.
"We have a trauma surgeon, a general surgeon, orthopedic surgeon and family practitioners, and we also staff (the room) with our athletic trainers, physical therapists and chiropractors," Rich said. "We can triage them here, suture them and we have an X-ray (machine) here, so we do everything we can to keep them out of the emergency room and treat them like another pro athlete would be treated."
Doctors and other medical personnel come from around the country to work in the treatment room at the Finals, and many of them have Western or rodeo roots that make their service a labor of love.
"Helping people is why a lot of us went into the medical field," Rich said. "The thing about these guys is that they’re the most appreciative athletes. Most of our staff has worked in pro baseball, pro football, Olympic sports, you name it, but they all gravitate to rodeo. We don’t pay them a lot of money, and so they do it because they love it."
The team even helped this writer out last year after my lower back decided to seize up on me and render me even more useless and inactive than usual. Through electronic stimulation treatment, the application of heat and the guided stretching of chiropractor Shawn Scott, I was able to once again resemble a functional human being, relatively speaking, of course.
That, in and of itself, is a minor miracle.
Neal Reid is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., who spent five years as editor of the ProRodeo Sports News and who has written for USA Today, ESPN, ESPNW, American Cowboy, Western Horseman and The Associated Press. This is his ninth Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.