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Helping Hands

1/26/2006

It's a fact … rodeo hurts. And for the last 25 years, the Justin SportsMedicine Team has been dedicated to making sure the athletes of ProRodeo have the assistance and treatment they need when things go wrong and the pain comes.

One of the most important and integral support groups associated with the sport, the Justin SportsMedicine Team is bigger and better than ever before and has come a long way since its beginnings at the National Finals Rodeo in 1980. The 2005 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo marked the end of the program's 25th full season as a mainstay in professional rodeo, and the dedicated doctors, medical personnel and staff members who make up the Team are geared up for another 25 years.

The program began as the brainchild of Dr. J. Pat Evans and Don Andrews, who saw a need for ProRodeo to have a full-time, mobile sports medicine system at rodeos across the country. What started as a 10-event trial run servicing 775 contestants has blossomed into a program seen at more than 130 rodeos and assisting more than 6,000 contestants each year.

The program, initially called the Justin Heeler program, debuted at the 1980 NFR and officially became sponsored by the Justin Boot Company beginning in 1981. The constant presence of injuries in the rough-and-tumble sport made the program a must.

"It was something that I felt was really needed," said Evans, a former team physician for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. "I had been dealing with other professional sports, and I felt that these guys deserved the same kind of care those athletes were getting. We saw a need and tried to fulfill it, and it's just kind of handled itself from there."

In the early days, the Justin SportsMedicine Team members worked closely with the cowboys and cowgirls to begin to develop a program designed especially for the professional rodeo athlete and the injuries that are associated with the sport.

"From day one, we wanted to listen to the athlete and find out the needs of the athlete," said Andrews, who now serves as the program's executive director. "We brought a lot of experience from sports other than rodeo, but we needed to find out what we needed to do for them as rodeo contestants. They taught us a lot about the sport, so we adapted some of the basics of physical fitness and sports medicine to the sport."

That interaction between the contestants and the Team members became the foundation for relationships that have deepened and trust that has grown year by year. The contestants trust the Team members and lean on them when wrecks occur in the arena.

It's a relationship and bond that is special to both the competitors and the medical personnel whose job it is to keep them healthy and competing.

"The most important thing to know about the Justin SportsMedicine guys is that they're friends of ProRodeo," said veteran bareback rider Mark Gomes. "It's comforting to know that they're going to be right there to take care of you and to have your best interest at heart as soon as a wreck happens. You don't ever want to need them, but every time I have needed them, they've been there."

Gomes needed the Team in a big way in 2000, when Harry Vold's horse Sheep Tick broke Gomes' pelvis after smashing him against the chutes at the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days. The Team immediately sprang to action and helped him recover enough to win the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Round on Sheep Tick the following year at the Guymon (Okla.) Pioneer Days Rodeo.

Helping cowboys like Gomes is a job the Team members are more than happy to do week-in and week-out.

"These guys are the best guys in the world to work with," said Evans, a ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee in 2004. "It's always satisfying because you've got a job you want to do, and you're able to see results. With all of the experience I've had working with athletes, these are the only guys who have taken the time to say 'Thank you.' I never had any NBA or NFL players do anything like that."

Five-time world champion Cody Ohl was one such grateful cowboy at the 2005 Wrangler National Finals, where he pulled his groin during his winning run in Round 1 and had to compete in pain for nine more rounds. Ohl's injury required extensive daily treatment, including injections for pain, and thanks to the Team's help, he was able to complete all 10 rounds and rise to No. 2 in the final world standings.

"I was thinking I was done when I got through with Round 1," Ohl said. "We had to do lots of icing, electronic stimulation and treatment on my groin during the day just so I'd be ok at night. They made it where I still had a chance to win a gold buckle, and I dang sure ended up winning a lot of money and ended up with a good year. Always being able to count on them is a big deal."

Ohl benefited from the Team's plethora of treatment options and state-of-the-art medical equipment, services that have gradually grown and expanded through the years. As advancements in medical procedures, practices and technology have improved with time, the Justin SportsMedicine Team has progressed as well.

"I've seen a big evolution," said Dr. Tom Flescher (Oklahoma City, Okla.), who has been a Justin SportsMedicine Team doctor since 1982. "We went from having Don Andrews in a trailer that went around to rodeos to having more permanent sites and dedicated physicians.

"Now, cowboys can get anything they need anytime they need it, and it wasn't always like that. They can get anything from athletic tape, to medicine for a cold, to treatment for major injuries. It's come a long way."

Evans said one of the Team's main goals is to get the contestants treated and back competing as soon as possible. Time away from the arena due to injuries hurts ProRodeo athletes in more ways than one.

"Our goal is to try to provide needed care for these guys and to allow them to participate," Evans said. "I've changed a few things and beefed up some surgeries a bit so that these guys can get back as soon as they rehab adequately."

Treatment can not only help contestants recover more quickly, it can help them add years to their careers, giving them more opportunities to provide for their families and compete at the highest level.

"The longevity of a professional athlete is going to increase by 25 to 30 percent for his career, and that's due to the Justin SportsMedicine Team," the 36-year-old Gomes said. "Rodeo's grown by leaps and bounds in many areas, and one of the main ones is the medical staff that is on-hand at rodeos."

Nowadays, the Team consists of a variety of trained medical staff, including emergency room physicians, massage therapists, physical therapists, athletic trainers, orthopedic surgeons and EMS personnel. The Team members, which include 12 full-time program managers, work with ProRodeo athletes in a variety of ways, from designing physical fitness regimens and working on preventing injuries to treating any number of ailments and injuries and performing corrective and trauma surgery.

Massage therapy was added as a program feature in 1999, and the program's mobile units have been modified through the years as well. The program utilizes three Mobile SportsMedicine Centers, 40-foot aluminum gooseneck trailers pulled behind Dodge one-ton dually pick-up trucks.

The Centers — the first mobile sports medicine service vehicles in professional sports in North America — travel more than 80,000 miles each year and provide Team members with sophisticated equipment to help diagnose, treat, monitor and track injuries in ProRodeo.

The program also has two permanent facilities in Guthrie, Okla., and Mesquite, Texas, and Team members use a referral network of medical care providers throughout the country for long-term treatment of injuries suffered by ProRodeo athletes.

Through the years, the Justin Boot Company has been the program's sole sponsor, a distinction the company is pleased to own.

"Since 1980, the Justin Boot Company has been proud to help provide medical support services at rodeos across the country," said Justin Brands President and CEO Randy Watson. "In rodeo, it's not if you get hurt, it's when. The Justin Boot Company wants to be there for the cowboys and cowgirls who, in turn, have always been there for Justin."

And the company has been there from the start. It didn't take much for Evans and Andrews to enlist the company's support.

"Mr. John Justin, when he heard about the program, said that rodeo cowboys had been good to him and he wanted to give them something in return," Evans said. "So, he stepped up and said he'd be glad to sponsor it."

In 1989, the company also became the sponsor of the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund (JCCF), a program designed to offer financial help to injured athletes during their time away from the arena. The JCCF has provided more than 3.8 million dollars to hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls through the years.

No two days are the same for a Justin SportsMedicine Team member, and each day at a rodeo arena presents the opportunity for disaster. But with the Team firmly in place at the side of contestants around the country, ProRodeo's talented athletes are in good hands.

While there's no doubt ProRodeo athletes have benefited greatly from the Team's dedication to service, they're not the only ones who have been touched and rewarded along the way.

"Being around these guys and them keeping me young is the most rewarding part," Evans said. "I love the sport, so I've always wanted to get them back to competing as quickly as we could. It's a great group of guys to work with, and it has been thoroughly enjoyable."

Here's to the next 25 years.