Flint Rasmussen couldn't help but laugh when he looked into the crowd at the Professional Bull Riders' Built Ford Tough Series event in Reno, Nev., and saw a pair of fans holding up a sign reading, "We Love 2-Stint Flint."
Six months after suffering a heart attack, Rasmussen, the PBR's all-everything entertainer, isn't afraid to laugh about it, especially with his fans whose words of encouragement helped him in his recovery.
"I got hundreds of e-mails," Rasmussen, whose high-energy dancing, singing and comedy routines have made him arguably the most famous entertainer in the rodeo world, said.
"I was getting 20 to 25 cards a day in the mail and over half of them were from people that I had no idea who they were. That was the biggest surprise."
Rasmussen has built a large and loyal following from his years with the PBR and on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit before that. He was voted the PRCA's clown of the year for eight consecutive years and worked many of the biggest rodeos in the country. He signed an exclusive contract with the PBR in 2005.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least initially, was having the heart attack in the first place. Always physically fit, the 41-year-old Rasmussen had just finished a vigorous workout at his home in Choteau, Mont., on March 11 when he was stricken. He was airlifted to the hospital in Great Falls, Mont.
"It was no fun," he said. "It was a weird thing. I wasn't scared at the time. I didn't think I was having a heart attack. I mean, why the hell would I have a heart attack? I was in good shape. I weighed 155 pounds. My diet wasn't bad. Once it was all over, it was two weeks before it all sunk in."
Doctors found one artery completely blocked and another 95 percent blocked. Two stents were inserted and Rasmussen was sent home to recuperate.
He said it was a life-changing experience, but not for the reason many people would think.
"I guess what it did was woke me up about how I was living my life," said Rasmussen, a married father of two daughters. "I think people automatically think, oh now you're eating better. That's not necessarily the case because I wasn't unhealthy physically before. I think emotionally, I was unhealthy. I was full of a lot of stress, lots of anxiety. People kind of giggle at that when I say that because they see me out (in the arena) and assume they kind of know what my personality is like. Looking back now, I know it was the stress that caused me to have a heart attack."
Reducing the stress has been a process, he said.
"I've realized what is worth stressing about and what isn't," Rasmussen said. "Don't get me wrong, there has been some help there. It isn't something like, 'Oh, I had a heart attack. I'm instantly not going to stress and be depressed.' I've gotten some help with that. Modern pharmaceuticals are amazing."
Six weeks after the heart attack, doctors cleared him to return to work, wearing a heart monitor so he could keep track of his heart rate and he worked three events before the PBR's summer break started in mid-May.
He spent a good part of summer break with his wife, Katie, and their daughters Shelby and Paige.
"This summer, I took my wife and my 10-year-old daughter (Shelby) they are both barrel racers out rodeoing and it was a lot of fun. I'm the driver. It's like a camping trip for me. I don't have to be on all the time."
On Sept. 8, Rasmussen had his six-month checkup with his cardiologist and the news was excellent.
"They did the whole echo and cardiogram and they were amazed," he said. "Actually, (the doctor) said, 'your echo is amazing. Everything is functioning good.'"
The positive check-up meant Rasmussen was restriction free inside the arena. The heart monitor was gone.
"I'm going a little harder now," he said. "Mentally, too, when they said everything looks good, I instantly felt better."
Like the riders of the PBR, Rasmussen is now going full-tilt through the PBR World Finals.
Fans just might see him crack a few jokes about his heart attack along the way.
"It's good material," he said. "We can joke about it. Some people have gotten so politically correct, they were afraid to have me joke about it. I said 'It's OK. I'm the one that had the heart attack. I can make fun of myself.'"
He said he's looking forward to the stretch run and happy to be doing and enjoying what he loves.
"I'm a lot easier to be around," he said with a smile. "My wife will tell you that."