Cowboys are the epitome of ruggedly tough, able to handle the aches and pains that come with their lifestyle.
That’s especially true in bull riding, where men weighing 140 to 175 pounds try to test their athletic talents while atop a nearly 1-ton bucking beast. When they don’t make the 8-second buzzer, their bodies are slammed around, and cowboy hats don’t offer much protection.
That’s why a growing number of cowboys are tossing the hats aside in favor of helmets, and a Platte City company is on the forefront of attacking potential head trauma that occurs. Cody McGee and Cris Welch co-founded 100X Helmets and have based their operations in Platte City for the past year.
A large company trailer often sits in their small, non-descript parking lot in a strip mall along Highway 92. Few in the community realize the unique business venture is right here in town.
“It’s our job to produce helmets that reduce the risk of serious head injuries that can happen in bull riding,” McGee said. “We have seen the effects that these injuries can play on athletes, and we want to do something about it. There are still a lot of bull riders that choose to wear the traditional cowboy hats while competing, but I think it’s imperative that we get as many of these guys in helmets as possible.
“It doesn’t have to be a 100X Helmet; I just want more guys wearing them and giving themselves a better chance at staying healthy in the long run.”
With the Professional Bull Riders’ Kansas City Invitational set for Friday and Saturday, Feb. 11-12 at Sprint Center, there will be more cowboys competing in helmets than hats. McGee said 20 of the 35 cowboys competing on the PBR’s premier tour – the Built Ford Tough Series – are now wearing helmets, and 14 choose to use 100X Helmets.
At the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo two months ago, 12 of the 15 cowboys in the field wore 100X Helmets, including three-time reigning world champion Sage Kimzey of Strong City, Okla. The main reason is because of the technology McGee and Welch have developed with an understanding of impact distribution.
The company also utilizes lightweight materials that are formed in a certain way to withstand hard-hitting impacts. Because it’s a lighter helmet, it allows for bull riders to maintain better balance while also giving them solid visibility through the facemask.
“It’s just a great helmet,” said Stetson Lawrence, 28, of Lewiston, N.D., one of the bull riders who will be in Kansas City next week. “It’s the first helmet specifically made for bull riding and for the safety of bull riders. They’ve done a good job of taking in all the angle of hits and where to put the pads. The angle of the facemask is so you can see no matter where your head is.
“I’ve take a couple of hits with them, and I haven’t been concussed with it on yet. I think it’s been a great thing for me, and I feel a lot safer.”
Head injuries are nothing new in sports, especially those featuring large impacts.
Over the last few years, head injuries have led to the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among many top athletes. One of the most prevalent was Junior Seau, a Hall of Fame NFL linebacker who committed suicide in 2012.
Other renowned NFL players who have killed themselves and have been found to have suffered with CTE were former Chicago Bears great Dave Duerson and former Kansas city Chiefs players Mike Webster and Jovan Belcher.
But the bull riding world took a hit last month when Canadian Ty Pozzobon killed himself at his family’s home in British Columbia. That hit home to a number of cowboys that make their living in one of the most dangerous sports.
“Ty’s death has been an eye-opener for everybody in the sport of bull riding,” Lawrence said. “It’s been going on in the NFL for so long, and this is the first case of it in bull riding. You see a lot of guys now second-guessing themselves and leaning toward wearing a helmet.”
Pozzobon wore a helmet, but his was more like those worn in lacrosse and hockey.
Those helmets were not designed to take the impact of a bull’s head as it rears back in its bucking motion or to understand the force that comes when a bull lands on top of a cowboy that had already been thrown from its back. Still there will be some cowboys that remain committed to the cowboy way of life and the comfort of a felt or straw hat over the protection that can be provided.
“It’s really a guy’s personal preference,” Lawrence said. “In my personal experience, I’ve been knocked out and had my jaw broken. I had to sit out a long time because of the injury.”
Unlike other professional sports, cowboys aren’t afforded with guaranteed incomes. They only earn money when they finish better than most in the field. There is no pay if they can’t play.
One business in Platte City sits at the forefront of this technology, helping change the sport of bull riding.
“I don’t want to sit out because of an injury, and if it could have been prevented, then I feel pretty silly about it,” Lawrence said. “The great thing about the 100X Helmet is that it’s comfortable, and I feel confident and protected. I’ve landed on one bull’s head and it bent the facemask, but I got out of it clean.
“The other times I’ve hit the ground hard. Sometimes when you hit the ground hard, you can feel a little rattled. I’ve never felt any affects with that helmet.”