One metal plate, five screws, some bone chips, a major surgery and plenty of resting time. That's what bull rider Sonny Murphy hopes is the recipe for a healthy return to the PRCA.
Murphy broke the C-6 vertebra in his neck during the first round of the 2006 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. After posting an 80.5-point score on Frontier Rodeo's Crooked Tooth in that round, Murphy was injured when he landed hard on his head. Although he was unable to continue competing, Murphy, sporting a neck brace, supported his fellow bull riders for the remainder of the rodeo.
Murphy knows he was lucky a broken neck often means serious injury, even paralysis.
"They said I'd be out a minimum of six months, but I'm going to take the whole year off," Murphy said. "I'll start getting on some bulls in November and just take it easy,
Doctors at the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, performed surgery to the back of Murphy's neck on Dec. 15. It was painful for a few days, but now is much better, he said.
When his neck heals, three of Murphy's vertebrae will be fused together. He said it might limit the mobility in his neck a little, but not much. Right now, he's wearing a neck brace he'll be able to take off after a few more weeks, and tentatively in April will be able to become a little more active.
"I also team rope, so I can start doing that in about six months," Murphy said. "It's going to suck (being away from rodeo for a year), but it's part of it. It could have been a lot worse."
Murphy is just one in a long line of PRCA cowboys who are on the mend and who may miss considerable time this season. The following is a synopsis of their injuries and recovery timelines.
The details of Matt Austin's recent injuries are enough to make just about anyone cringe. The 2005 World Champion Bull Rider tore several muscles in his abdominal and groin areas, and he underwent surgery Dec. 15 in Philadelphia at Hahnemann University Hospital.
Dr. William Myers, who has operated on athletes including hockey player Mikael Renberg and football star Donovan McNabb, performed the surgery on Austin. Myers is known for minimally invasive groin and abdominal surgery for athletes that help get them back to their sport quickly.
"I tore basically the basis of my groin, all the muscles, completely away from the bone, so they reattached those," said Austin, who tried to ride hurt at the Wrangler NFR, but lasted just two rounds. "And then the stomach muscle that runs down to the leg, I'd ripped that in half, so they fixed that too."
Austin took it easy for a couple of weeks. Then, to keep himself busy, he's been working with some young bulls he owns and recently purchased land that he's fixing up.
"I'm feeling pretty good, but I'm not going to push it. I'm enjoying the time off," Austin said. "I guess it's a blessing in disguise."
Austin just started physical therapy and said he could possibly be ready to ride bulls again by RodeoHouston, which begins Feb. 27, but said he'll likely take some extra time to completely heal.
"Even if they say I'm ready, I'll probably take an extra month," Austin said. "It might be April when I'm back. I want to be in better physical shape than I was."
For now, Austin is busy enjoying things at home and feels like he's improving all the time.
"I've been riding this tractor pretty good," Austin joked. "But it just doesn't buck hard enough for me."
Four-time and reigning World Champion All-Around Cowboy Trevor Brazile had a much better outcome with his injury than the aforementioned cowboys. Brazile (Decatur, Texas) battled a groin injury the last half of the 2006 season, but a little time off after the Finals helped the muscles heal and he has already begun his trek toward a fifth all-around world title
Eight-time world champion Fred Whitfield is expected to be sidelined until June after undergoing back surgery on Jan. 5. He will also undergo rotator cuff surgery at the end of the month.
Whitfield (Hockley, Texas) battled through back pains during the 2006 Wrangler NFR, and immediately following its conclusion he spoke with three different doctors regarding the injury. Doctors in Dallas removed bone spurs from his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae and worked to alleviate his compressed spinal column, and he will be in a neck brace for a few weeks for it to heal.
While he came into the Wrangler NFR with a sore groin, Cody DeMoss' health problems grew by leaps and bounds in the eighth round. Carr Pro Rodeo's Coffee Bean reared up in the chutes, slamming DeMoss' back against the hard metal. The result was fractured transverse processes to three lumbar vertebrae, which are located in the lower back.
DeMoss, who was battling Chad Ferley for the world title, tried to ride in Round 9, but was quickly bucked off and had to be carried from the arena for the second consecutive night. Surgery was not required to correct the injury, but rather time is helping the bones heal.
"Dr. Tandy (Freeman) told me to let my pain be my guide," said DeMoss, who finished second in the world for the third time in his career. "That was the worst pain I've ever felt in my life."
DeMoss plans to take it easy in saddle bronc riding early this season, competing in a select few rodeos such as San Antonio, Houston and San Angelo, Texas. He plans on spending his time team roping with fellow Louisiana cowboy Natie Johnson until his back completely heals.
"I don't really plan on getting on anything (saddle broncs) for a little while," DeMoss said. "If this team roping works out, maybe I'll be taking a horse and a saddle to Las Vegas."
Eight-time world champion Joe Beaver underwent hip surgery on Dec. 15 to remove a bone spur that had developed in his right hip. The surgery was performed in San Francisco, where doctors removed the bone spur and also rounded his bones more so that his hip socket would function better.
Beaver (Huntsville, Texas) had been dealing with a hip injury for several months last year but the severity of the injury escalated during the American Royal Rodeo in Kansas City the end of October.
Beaver has begun light rehab and expects to be out at least eight weeks.
Steer wrestler Ronnie Fields hopes to return to the rodeo arena in February after resting his right knee for a couple of months. Fields tore the medial collateral ligament in his knee and withdrew from the final five rounds of the Wrangler NFR.
He said he's not sure when the injury started, but after a steer landed on his knee during Round 5, he decided not to take a chance of worsening the injury and withdrew. He did not require surgery, but has been doing physical therapy on it after wearing a straight brace for three weeks.
"If I can't compete at 100-percent, then I just don't want to do it," Fields said. "That's part of why I opted out of the last rounds at the NFR. It's hard to turn down five rounds at that kind of money, but then I might have (made it worse) and been out a whole year, so it was really a pretty easy decision."
Fields met with Dr. Tandy Freeman on Jan. 11 and said even if he's released to begin competing, he'll stay out until at least February.
"Hopefully I'll be back for San Antonio (Texas)," he said. "Hopefully by then I can feel like I'm really comfortable with (my knee) again."
Dru Melvin spent much of the 2006 season in pain. The Tryon, Neb., steer wrestler dislocated his right shoulder at the Pace Picante ProRodeo Chute-out in Tulsa, Okla., in May and competed with the injury for the remainder of the season.
Using a shoulder brace, Melvin qualified for his first Wrangler NFR, even though he said his shoulder popped out of place six times during the year. It did so again twice in Las Vegas, but he fought through the pain to place in three of the 10 rounds.
With the Finals over, Melvin underwent surgery at the Kansas Orthopedic Center in Wichita, Kan., on Dec. 14 to completely reconstruct his shoulder's anterior ligament, which had been torn in three different areas. Doctors also had to reconstruct damaged cartilage, and he expects to be sidelined for four to six months.
Melvin is attending physical therapy sessions twice a week and has to wear his shoulder in a sling. He said he plans to return to action at the Guymon (Okla.) Pioneer Days in May, but that he's not going to push his return by any means.
"I'm going to take it real slow at the start, and my ultimate goal is to be fully back and in a good rhythm over the Fourth of July," Melvin said. "If I have a good Fourth, I'll go hard the rest of the year, but if I don't, I might just stay home and go to circuit rodeos for a year."
Tie-down roper Stran Smith underwent shoulder surgery on Nov. 22 to repair torn ligaments he suffered during the American Royal Rodeo in Kansas City the end of October. Smith (Childress, Texas) dislocated his right shoulder and in the process tore all the ligaments away from the bones, causing the damage.
The surgery was performed in Dallas and doctors discovered more damage than originally thought. In fact, following the four-hour surgery doctors told him that if he had been a major league pitcher his career would be over as a result of the decrease in range of motion. Not only were there torn ligaments but he had also torn the labrum surrounding the ligaments holding them to the bone. Doctors had to insert six screws to reattach the labrum and ligaments to the socket.
Smith was able to remove the sling the first of the year and began light rehab. He will return to Dallas in mid-January for a check-up but plans to be out until at least May.
This bull rider joined the injury list when Flying Five Rodeo's Rapid Fire Xchange bucked him off and stepped on him in Round 4 of the Wrangler NFR. Domangue (San Angelo, Texas) suffered a dislocated left hip and chipped pelvis and had to be carried from the arena on a stretcher.
He underwent surgery the next day, Dec. 4, at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, and doctors inserted a plate to stabilize the joint. He was on crutches until Jan. 15 and is set to begin physical therapy soon.
Domangue plans to take his recovery slow and hopes to return to action in Reno, Nev., in June.
"I'm not going to rush it," Domangue said. "I think within a couple of months I'll be able to walk around well, and I'm going to make sure I'm feeling 100 percent."
A regular in the Justin SportsMedicine Team room during last year's Wrangler NFR was saddle bronc rider Rusty Allen. Allen came into the 10-day event nursing sore ribs from the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour Championship, then was stepped on by Stace Smith Pro Rodeo's Bad River in the fourth round. He also had to battle pulled muscles surrounding his left hip, an injury that limited his mobility and spurring ability.
Allen reports he is on the mend and expects to have a full season this year, crediting many of his injuries to the many bumps and bruises PRCA cowboys encounter during the long season.
"I'm doing a lot better and am all healed up for the most part," said Allen, of Lehi, Utah. "It was all more of a really bad inconvenience than a really bad injury. It just made it harder for me to do what I needed to do. I'm looking forward to the new year, and with the new Tour format, it should be exciting."
Ann Bleiker & Neal Reid contributed to this story