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Bull riding legend returns to Las Vegas 26 years after shattering face

Because this virus that continues to linger and evolve essentially shut down the bull riding tour he founded, Tuff Hedeman was not asked last year about having his face broken 25 years ago by Bodacious the bull at the MGM Grand Arena in one of pro rodeo’s most notorious wrecks.

But with the series returning to the South Point Arena Saturday night and the five-time world champion making himself available to local media, he knew it was only a matter of time until somebody would remind him of having somehow survived it.

“All I’ll say is I’m still here and he’s not,” the affable El Paso, Texas, cowboy said with a chuckle both wry and appreciative from his spread in the plains near Fort Worth. “He won the battle, but I won the war, maybe.”

Hedeman, a member of the ProRodeo Cowboy and Professional Bull Riders halls of fame, is now 58. Bodacious, once not-so-affectionately known as the “The World’s Most Dangerous Bull,” died at age 12 in 2000.

Hedeman did not send flowers. But the thought certainly must have occurred to him.

Bullish on Bodacious

For the best riders of bull riding’s halcyon era, triumph and near tragedy intersected on the broad back of the 1,896-pound beastin intervals of eight seconds or fewer.

Usually fewer.

Bodacious had a distinctive color: Not so mellow yellow. The knuckles of those who tried to ride him usually were white.

Hedeman was one the few brave souls who stayed aboard big Bo for the required eight seconds.

It happened in California in 1993 at the Bull Riders Only Finals at the Long Beach Convention Center. Hedeman and Bodacious were first out of the chute and were awarded 95 points on a scale of 100. The judges later told Hedeman had they not been leaving room at the top for other successful rides, they would have given him even more points.

Like a bazillion.

Two years later at the PBR World Finals, when Bodacious bucked once and then a second time, smashing his face into Hedeman’s with the force of a wrecking ball, no points were given.

Instead, somebody called an ambulance.

This was when bull riders still wore cowboy hats and Western shirts instead of hockey helmets, facemasks and flak jackets.

“I remember walking out (of the arena) and seeing the horrified expressions on people’s faces,” said Hedeman, who looked like he had been 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. Or Freddy Krueger. But this was no ordinary TKO or Nightmare on Elm Street. This was literally a bloody disaster.

“It might have been the adrenaline, but I didn’t feel a lot pain until they strapped me on the gurney,” Hedeman said.

“I could feel it then.”

Eight-second salute

When he arrived at UMC, the emergency room doctors thought he had been shot in the face.

Nearly every bone in Hedeman’s face was broken. He went through two surgeries totaling 13 hours during which six titanium plates were implanted.

Hedeman recalled South Point owner Michael Gaughan coming by to check on him to and from his office each day, and how much those visits meant.

“When I was released, Mr. Gaughan picked me up, took me to the airport and flew me home on his jet,” he said. “After the second time, he said, “I’m tired of flying your ass — you need to knock it off.’”

He was born Richard Neale Hedeman, but he always has been Tuff. And tough. And perhaps just a wee bit insane.

Just six weeks after Michael Gaughan dropped him off at McCarran airport, Hedeman was back in Las Vegas to compete in the NFR. He had lost 25 pounds during his recuperation. He still managed to ride five of his 10 bulls.

Make that nine bulls.

Before the fifth round, Hedeman drew Bodacious. He elected not to ride.

When the chute opened and the baddest bull on the planet stormed from it, he had the Thomas & Mack Center arena to himself, save for the rodeo clowns tucked safely inside their protective barrels.

There was a thunderous ovation for the man and the bucking machine that Tuff Hedeman gratefully acknowledged for both.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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