AUSTIN, Texas – Bonner Bolton had pulled a Houdini-like move. He’d been admitted into the hospital on a stretcher, paralyzed. A week later, he walked out under his own power.
Now, 20 months after a nearly catastrophic wreck, the Texas cowboy and his rodeo cowboy dad, Toya, are bringing their appropriately named bull, Houdini’s Ghost, to Austin to compete in the PBR’s elite series.
Bolton, who remains on injured reserve after shattering his C-2 vertebrae in the 2016 PBR season opener in Chicago, has found another way to compete against the world’s best.
“If I’m not going to be riding, this is a great way to stay connected to the sport and keep up some great relationships,” Bolton said.
Bonner Bolton, bull stock contractor, heads to his favorite town in Texas after whirlwind appearances at New York Fashion Week, where he was Bonner Bolton, red-hot model hop-scotching velvet-rope soirees just as his cover feature in the premium magazine “THE IMPRESSION” was hitting.
He has one foot in the dirt of PBR and another on the red carpet reserved for A-listers.
“I enjoy the new world IMG has introduced me to, and I also hope to be able to stay with the stock contracting,” Bolton said. “These animals are the heroes of our sport. I love being around them and taking care of them. Best of all, I have a great partner in my dad, who has a real eye for bull talent.”
The Boltons bought Houdini’s Ghost nearly two years ago while attending a rodeo Bonner’s sister had been competing in. She is a rising star in barrel racing now on full scholarship in college in west Texas.
Sixty miles away from campus in Odessa, Houdini’s Ghost lives with a dozen bulls on the Bolton ranch, where Bonner had been home schooled, rising every morning at 5:30 am to feed the horses.
Toya, a childhood friend of PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert, taught Bonner how to break a colt, care for cattle, shoot a rifle, and fix a cow-torn fence. He implored Bonner to work hard, be honest, love the animals, and treat women and children with respect.
He told his son to keep his word, own up to his inevitable mistakes, and take responsibility for his actions.
“Dad would say, ‘Try to do the right thing, always,’ Bonner said. “More than that, he led by example. I wish I were half the man my dad is. It’s a big set of boots to fill even though he’s a smaller man than I am.”
Toya, who was born and raised in New Mexico, got hooked on the adrenaline rush of riding bulls when he was 11. The cash pocketed from his first three events made it easy to keep going back. He stayed with it the next 20 years.
When Bonner came along, there were plenty of VHS bull-riding videos around the family ranch, and young Bonner was riveted to the sight of a five-foot six-inch cowboy conquering enormous snot-slinging, spinning, jumping, gyrating bulls.
“I’d watch for hours, captivated by my fearless dad,” Bonner said. “I knew when I was three or four what I wanted to do.”
The Boltons would temporarily relocate to France, when Euro Disney was looking for an authentic American cowboy. Disney had drafted Toya for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Toya played one of the cowboys and drove a stagecoach.
Bonner’s mom Sally, an art teacher, took him to visit the Louvre more than 20 times, instilling a lifelong appreciation in the arts.
In the Parisian apartment complex the family stayed in, Bonner remembers wild, joyous parties hosted by the Native Americans brought over for the western show, strange smoky aromas wafting down the hallway as tom-toms pounded late into the night.
Back in the states, in addition to riding in the southwestern rodeo circuit, Toya would teach Bonner all he knew about bull riding and taking care of his body. He raised several formidable bovine athletes who would have very successful careers, including Wild Red Man and Fandango.
Lambert, who Toya befriended in junior rodeo when he was 12, and a group of rodeo cowboys had been talking about a bull-riding only league. The men lacked formal business experience and the connections for financial backing. When they finally formed the PBR, it was too late for Toya.
He was 31, and without modern-day sports medicine and recovery techniques, his body was getting beaten down.
“By this time, I had dislocated both shoulders pretty badly, broke my right femur and left leg, tore all the ligaments in my left ankle, broke my right ankle, collapsed a lung, lost a few teeth, cracked some ribs, and busted up my collarbone and sternum. I also had numerous concussions. What’s your name again?” Toya asked with a laugh.
Despite his Evel Knievel-like injury list, in 1991 Toya had been riding as consistently as ever. At a Bull Riders Only (BRO) event in Denver, he was knocked out, hooked, and stomped.
“I woke up in a place that was cool and white,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Yes, I’ve made it to heaven, thank you, Lord!’ Then I hear a voice say, ‘Stay very still.’ It wasn’t the Lord or St. Peter. It was the nurse. I was in a CAT scan machine in the hospital.”
Toya made a career decision before the testing was over.
“I could have easily not have woken up, and these boys would have been fatherless. I was thankful I still had the opportunity to raise them,” he said.
PBR riders Michael Gaffney and Brent Terry came to the hospital to drive Toya home.
“See you next week,” they said when dropping him off.
“No you won’t,” Toya responded. “I’m done, fellas.”
His son’s most recent bull ride, a frightening wreck on Cowboy Up to begin the 2016 Built Ford Tough Series season in Chicago, may be a similar swan song.
Considering the extent of Bonner’s neck trauma in a sport producing car-wreck injuries, Toya is fine with that.
“Sally and I am so thankful that Bonner can walk and talk and feed himself,” he said. “Gosh, we enjoyed watching him ride, and I hate it for him because of what being a professional athlete in this sport means for him. But he’s seeing there’s life after riding bulls, and he’s having a great shot at it.”
For now, father and son will be partnering in the beloved sport they were fortunate to survive.
“I’m tickled for Bonner to have another outlet to be in the PBR,” Toya said. “It will be fun to be there together to watch a bull of ours do his thing and hopefully perform like he’s supposed to.”
Houdini’s Ghost has been tested only at junior rodeos, but Bonner likes what he sees in him.
“He’s not the biggest bull out there, but he really bucks,” he said. “He’s hot-blooded and athletic, and his heart is big.”
It takes one to know one.