Some of Matt O’Flynn’s favourite times as a professional bull rider happen on the road to and from rodeos.
He and his car mates take the time to swap stories, watch the country drift by or just catch up on some much-needed sleep. It is fitting then that the 28-year-old O’Flynn was sitting shotgun in a truck when he made the decision to call it a career this summer.
It was the third week in August and O’Flynn says he was heading to a Bull Riders Canada (BRC) event in Cochrane, Alberta with his good friend and fellow competitor, Lane Cork.
To pass the time he read a follow-up article on Ty Pozzobon, a bull rider from Merritt who took his own life in January of 2017.
O’Flynn was close to Pozzobon and says the article hit him in the heart. It wasn’t just that he missed his friend. He also saw the road that could lay ahead for him if he continued to test his limits.
“Having seen what it did to his family and then knowing the way he acted was the way we all act really,” O’Flynn says, “Reckless and living for the moment.
“So all of a sudden, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. It just hit me and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to quit. This is it. This is the end of the road for me.”’
Pozzobon had just wrapped up his best rodeo season when he killed himself at the age of 25. He was riding bulls better than he ever had and seemed on top of the world; but inwardly, he was struggling mightily.
A post-mortem exam confirmed he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in contact sport athletes as well as military personnel.
Often it is the result of multiple concussions.
In a sport where contestants attempt to hang on to 1,800 pound bundles of fleshy muscle, injuries are abundant and it’s the cowboy way to shrug them off.
“I’ve pretty much had my face more or less rebuilt,” O’Flynn mentions as casually as someone telling their co-worker they put on winter tires recently.
“I had a bull crush my face,” he explains. “He fell down and jumped right back up and kicked really hard and I just, Bang!” he yells out, motioning his head smacking down against something in front of him, “Hit my face on the top of his horns, which is the thickest part of his skull.
“My nose was under my eye, which was pretty traumatic when I was looking at it in the rear view mirror on the way to the hospital.”
If a face crushing is not impetus enough to stop the dangerous sport, it begs the question, what is?
O’Flynn has also lost many teeth and broken his wrist countless times.
“The muscle was ripped right off my hand. It didn’t work for a while but we got that taken care of,” he says quite nonchalantly.
He also almost lost an ear while competing. The bull rider has a four or five inch scar going to up the right side of his skull behind the appendage, which was the result of 40 stitches to reattach it.
While he talks about his many maladies as if they were mere setbacks, he stiffens up slightly and becomes significantly more solemn when discussing head injuries.
“Definitely the worst injuries are concussions, and I’ve had well over 15,” he admits.
“I’ve been knocked out four times this year and reading that article, I saw a lot of the information was running parallel with my life right now.”
“You can have the world by the balls but if you push it too far, you’re going to get bit.
“Concussions are the killer.”
With the help of the Quesnel Rodeo Club, O’Flynn plans to organize a school for young rodeo athletes this spring. Part of its mandate will be to raise awareness of the dangers of head injuries in the sport.
“The biggest thing [I want to get across to athletes] is take the time and do the research and know the injury,” he says. “Even though you can’t see it bleeding and you can’t see the bruising, you’re still hurt and you need to take the time.
“You cannot rush it because it’ll shorten your career if you rush it,” O’Flynn adds.
“And I rushed it.”
He says the cowboy thing, being tougher than the leather your saddle is made from, has been bred into the sport for many generations.
“You will ride with a cast on or you will ride with a dislocated shoulder from the day before. There’s certain things that you can mitigate to make it work, but one of the biggest things that you cannot waver on is concussions.
“It’s part of it. You’re going to get knocked out. I know if I keep riding I’m going to get knocked out again. It’s not a question of if or how, it’s just going to happen.
“So, you have to be able to deal with that and that’s one of the things we will go over really extensively in my school.”
In addition to organizing the school, O’Flynn has taken over his father’s roofing business with his brother, Tom. He has been working hard to expand the company and hopes to double its size by next year.
During the winters he plans on travelling with his fiancee, who he hopes to marry next year.
O’Flynn is grateful for the support his family and friends have shown throughout his career, especially now that it is coming to a close.
“I’ve been really close with my parents and my brothers and sister,” he says. “They talked to me partway through this year about retiring and [asked] what my thoughts were.
“They weren’t pressuring me at all because they’ve seen how hard I’ve worked and what I’ve put in to this sport … so, when I did make the decision to retire it was 100 per cent my decision.”
Road companion and top bull rider in his own right, Lane Cork had O’Flynn’s back with the choice too.
“When I read the article I was pretty much crying and I talked to Lane right away and he said, ‘You should think about [retiring].’”
The two Quesnel men have been friends for a long time. O’Flynn says they’ve done a lot of wild and cool stuff together and have many shared memories, so the sentiment meant a lot to him.
Although 28 may seem young to be retiring from anything, O’Flynn has had a long career. He says he’s been partaking in rodeos since he was eight years old.
“Uncle Steve started me,” he says, referring to local rodeo hero Steve Hohmann, who at 52 is still riding bulls.
“He’s just old school. One of the last of a dying breed.
He had me doing about 30 rodeos a year by the time I was 11 and I started riding bulls by the time I was 15 and then competed professional for the last seven years, since I was about 20.”
If there were any regrets, O’Flynn says, it was not forcing his way on to the professional circuit sooner.
“I didn’t believe in myself enough [when younger],” he says. “It’s just so scary coming from B.C. to Alberta.”
Outsiders might think that it would be the bulls, not the big show, that would provide the most trepidation, but O’Flynn says he didn’t find them too frightening at all after a couple years.
“They’re huge and they’re scary and when you’re a kid, you stand there looking at this thing and think, ‘Why would I get on that?’ But after a while it becomes routine. You do your thing and you put your rope on and you go to work.
“In the last 10 years, I never thought a particular bull was scary.”
He says it was not even about the bulls so much as he has gotten older. It is more about the whole experience – highlights of which include getting to travel to Australia, training for winters in California, driving across thousands of miles with good friends and even meeting his fiancee through rodeo.
The rodeo tradition will carry on in the family, even as Matt retires. The youngest O’Flynn brother, Eric, will take up bull riding next year.
He is 16-years-old and has been riding steers for a few years.
“I cared more about calling him after rodeos than I cared about my own result,” O’Flynn recalls, laughing.
“I could finally force him to drive this year, which is a bonus. I’d say, ‘It’s your turn,’ and I’d go to sleep and wake up and he’d be eyeballs over the steering wheel, wide eyed, and I’d say, ‘You’re good, just keep going.”’