The last time many rodeo fans saw Wade Sumpter, he was face down on the arena floor at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas with a torn pectoral muscle and a steer wrestling world championship slipping away.
The injury, suffered during Round 2 of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, put an ugly ending on an otherwise storybook season for the Fowler, Colo., cowboy. After entering the NFR leading the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings, he didn't win a dime in Las Vegas and wound up seventh in the final world standings.
Even after the injury his right pectoralis major muscle was torn from the humerus bone, the large bone in the arm he tried to ride in Rounds 3 and 4, finishing both with an unceremonious face plant in the arena dirt.
"It was just a joke," he said. "I couldn't do anything."
But don't feel sorry for Sumpter, not for a second.
"I've been lucky," he said. "There are a lot of guys that have been hurt a whole lot worse than I was."
The type of injury is uncommon in the sports world in general, but fairly common in the world of steer wrestling where cowboys dismount a horse running full speed, grab onto an 800-pound steer running full speed, stop it and flip it on its back, all in less than 4 seconds if they want to finish in the money.
"It is a fairly common injury apparently in steer wrestling," said Tandy Freeman, an orthopedic surgeon and medical director of the PRCA's Justin Sports Medicine Program who performed the surgery on Sumpter. "Out of the 15 guys who competed at the NFR this year, six of those 15, including Wade, have had this injury. It's virtually unheard of in other sports."
The surgery in mid-December was straight-forward. Freeman made an incision, found the end of the tendon that had been detached and reattached it to the bone.
Since then, Sumpter has rehabbed the injury, bought a house and married a beautiful blonde from a legendary rodeo family without so much as a look in the rear view mirror.
After all, one lousy break in December couldn't take away from the 2008 regular season that saw Sumpter shatter the regular-season earnings record in steer wrestling and win titles at some of the biggest rodeos of the year.
His PRCA earnings were $133,685, which included the $50,000 round at Rodeo Houston. That total did not include his winning of the $100,000 round at the Calgary Stampede, which isn't a PRCA-sanctioned rodeo, but his bank account surely noticed the difference.
Sumpter also captured the steer wrestling championship at the 2008 Reno Rodeo the place he plans to make his 2009 debut after six months of rehabilitation following his Dec. 17 surgery in Dallas. He will celebrate his 29th birthday on June 22 and hopes to be in the championship round six days later, going for another set of Reno Rodeo Silver Spurs.
"It feels real good," he said of the surgically repaired muscle. "I've tested it doing other stuff, I just haven't bulldogged yet. But it feels strong. It will probably be more of a mental thing than a physical thing for a while. I just have to get back into it and get into the routine."
Freeman said six months is the usual time to heal from such a surgery and said Sumpter looked good in a recent examination.
"The tendon is obviously attached and he's got full motion and full strength," Freeman said.
Unlike the past couple of years, Sumpter said he won't spend the entire week in Reno. He often helps the Flying U Rodeo Company crew during the event, doing his part to help the family business. In late May, Sumpter married his girlfriend Linsay Rosser, the grandaughter of Flying U patriarch Cotton Rosser.
Last year, just minutes after winning the steer wrestling championship, Sumpter was opening gates during the saddle bronc and bull riding, untying calves in the tie-down roping and helping feed and water the stock after the performance ended.
But with half the regular season already gone, Sumpter knows he needs to be on the road and turning steers if he wants to qualify for a fourth consecutive NFR.
"It's time," he said. "I've been without a paycheck for a long time now. I didn't win anything at the Finals. I guess the last time I won much was in September, so I need to get going. It doesn't pay too good when you're sitting at home. Hopefully, I won't struggle too much for too long."