LAS VEGAS — There are some bulls out there that guys just don't want to get on. Maybe they're especially mean, or unpredictable, or just have something particularly unsavory about them. Whatever the reason, these bulls are out there — whether bull riders admit it or not.
Unless you're J.W. Harris, that is.
"They could run a bucking lion in there and J-Dubb would get on it," said bullfighter Clay Collins, who also happens to be Harris' best friend.
Collins cited the time the two men were at a rodeo with the great bull Reindeer Dippin': "Everybody hated that bull, nobody wanted to get on him. So J.W. told 'em, 'just load him up and I'll get on him tonight for free, just for the heck of it.'
"Nobody else in the world would have thought about doing that, but that's just the way he is."
And although that ride didn't end in success, it encompasses the essence of the way J.W. Harris, who was crowned PRCA world champion for the second year in a row, approaches his chosen profession.
"My mental approach is that I can ride everything I get on, and there's nothing out there that can throw me off," Harris said. "I have an aggressive attitude, and you have to be when you ride bulls. You can't be laid back and let them bulls do what they want with you. You've got to go out there and show them who the boss is."
Harris has been asserting his dominance over his bovine rivals all year long, winning 22 rodeos this year including the Justin Boots Championship in Omaha, Neb., and the Reno Rodeo in June en route to earning $219,275 on the season.
Coming into this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Harris' sizeable lead all but assured him of a second world title in a row, which would make him the first repeat champion in bull riding since Utah's Blue Stone in 2001-2002.
But in the second performance, Harris met up with the bull Bring It and walked out of the Thomas & Mack Center with a fractured right hand. The door had been opened — albeit just a crack.
"It was hard sitting there watching," Harris said. "It really kind of aggravated me that I couldn't get out there, but it's just something that happens. It's part of bull riding."
All told, Harris sat out five of 10 rounds in Las Vegas. But a poor showing from the rest of the field allowed him to clinch the title after nine rounds anyway, making him the first bull rider to win a world championship without winning any money at the WNFR since Bill Nelson won the gold buckle back in 1971.
To make matters worse, after a stellar season where Harris rode seemingly everything they ran in under him, he failed to make the eight second mark even once during the event. That made him the first to win a world title without a qualified ride in the WNFR since Freckles Brown in 1962. Brown, it should be noted, was in a waist-to-neck cast after breaking his neck in a wreck at a Portland, Ore., rodeo.
Harris did his best to come back and ride, using a combination of ice, muscle stimulation and pain-numbing shots to get on in Rounds Five, Six and Nine — despite the fact that his right hand had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe and could barely fit in his glove.
Collins, who was chosen as a bullfighter at this year's WNFR by his fellow competitors, said that's just who Harris is.
"He's the toughest son of a gun you'll ever meet — ever," Collins said. "Tough just is not something you question when you talk about J.W. Harris."
The entire experience, however, was a disappointing ending to what Harris himself describes as a "dream season." Harris was married on Oct. 3 of this year to his longtime girlfriend Jackie, whom he met at the 2006 WNFR when she was a flag girl. They recently bought a house, and never had time to go on a honeymoon.
Harris was hoping to earn enough money at the event to pay off the house, and maybe even have a little left over for that honeymoon. But he says it's his wife who's kept him going in the first place.
"She keeps me motivated and keeps me going up and down the road," Harris says. "She's my biggest supporter there is in the world, and she's just as tough as I am."
The tough Texan won't have much time to enjoy his second gold buckle — he has surgery on his hand scheduled for the Thursday after the WNFR. But don't expect him to be out for long. Harris promises he'll be back on the rodeo trail in January, in hot pursuit of what he says is his ultimate goal — beating Donnie Gay's record of eight gold buckles.
"I've got six more to go," he declared in the hallway of the Thomas & Mack Center after Round Nine, eyes blazing with determination.
For now, he'll sit back and enjoy his win — one that he says will hold a special place after the season he's had.
"It's just been a lot of fun. Winning's always a lot of fun, but this has really been a dream season," Harris said. "I just went to every rodeo and had a blast at it, and I enjoyed going up and down the road and getting to spend time with all my friends. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
And lucky for J.W. Harris, for the second year in a row, he won't have to.
The WNFR will be televised nightly on ESPN Classic and ESPN2. At the conclusion of the 10th performance on Dec. 12th, the contestants with the highest earnings in each event will be crowned as the 2009 world champion.