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Jess Griffin
Protecting Lives in Rodeo's Most Dangerous Sport
By Cris Paravicini.

Jess Griffin
Jess Griffin
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Jess Griffin
Protecting Lives in Rodeo's Most Dangerous Sport
By Cris Paravicini

At one time or another, we've all experienced a strong adrenaline rush while in the face of danger, and then hollered, "Feet, don't fail me now!"  Indeed, whether confronting the neighbor's snarling dog, the block bully, or your dad's favorite, cross-eyed mama cow, at some time during our lives, many of us have turned a yellow tail and skeedaddled-cackling all the way. There is, however, someone in our midst whose job is to ignore this primitive instinct, and instead, pursue danger until IT runs away. 
   When I last visited with 23-year old Jess Griffin more than three years ago, he had just stepped off the backs of rodeo bulls and landed squarely in a pair of bullfighter's shoes-happily working Wyoming high school rodeos and college shows. Since that time, Jess has been especially busy pursuing his career and polishing his dream of becoming the best professional bullfighter he can be. It is no wonder then that through a steadfast game plan of hard work, Jess is now poised to pass through the next gate in his career.
   Looking back, much of Jess's natural ability was cultivated when he was growing up on the family ranch in Riverton. Here, he was surrounded by a strong heritage-in ranching, 4-H, amateur rodeos, riding milk cow calves, and breaking colts to ride. His great-uncle George, and grandpa Herschel Griffin of Riverton, jointly shared Wyoming's Ag Men of the Year in 1996; Governor Jim Geringer presented that award, and Jess's dad and mom, Bill and BJ Griffin, are managing Maggie Miller's Todd Place here in Sublette County. 
   Jess found work during the summer of 1999 as a bullfighter-sometimes referred to as "cowboy protection or cowboy lifesaver"-at the Cody Stampede Nite Rodeos in Cody, Wyoming. His job entailed a split-shift routine of feeding rodeo stock in the morning and protecting cowboys' lives during the twilight hours of each day. 
   In December 1999, Jess attended the National Finals Rodeo to seek out bullfighting contracts for the new millenium. "This is where they book for the upcoming year," he explained, "and things have started hittin' here and there," Jess added, regarding his upcoming opportunities. 
   This past summer, Jess's career gathered momentum as he worked "hit and miss" at the Cody shows and followed PRCA rodeos throughout the mountain states of Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana, and picking up even more work in Arizona, California and Nebraska.
   The young athlete explained that a rodeo bullfighter is solely responsible for blazing his own path in the world of rodeo. He must aggressively pursue contracts and not be too proud to work the amateur shows. So, with road miles mounting, experience tallying up, and Jess continuing to fine-tune his ability, the rise through the ranks of his field was fast becoming a reality. 
   It's interesting to note that professional rodeo cowboys simply purchase a PRCA membership card, which allows them to enter sanctioned rodeos, nationwide. However, a prospective bullfighter seeking to work PRCA rodeos must first be judged by a panel of qualified cowboys through a series of rodeos, which then determines the applicant's ability to successfully protect bull riders' lives.
   Donna Larsen of the Broken Arrow Rodeo Company in Steamboat, Colorado and Hank Franzen of the Powder River Rodeos noticed Jess's talents and quickly hired him to work some of their summer shows. He also found bulls waiting for him in the employment of top contractors like Ike Sankey, the Honeycutts, and Cotton Rosser of the famed Flying U.
   "I've had some real good breaks," Jess said, modestly downplaying a series of good luck brought about by his own hard work. 
   If squaring off with bad bulls and protecting cowboys isn't challenging enough, last summer Jess began dabbling in a slightly different version of bull play-the sport of freestyle bullfighting. A Mexican fighting bull is turned into an arena with a bullfighter and a thrilling contest ensues, pitting the wit of man and the grit of beast. Much like the difference between the sting of a honeybee and the bite of a hornet, the difference between the mindset and physical agility of a regular rodeo bull, and the Mexican breed, is as different as day and night. Mexican bulls, Jess explained, move much, much faster and harbor an intense craving to "hunt" the bullfighter. 
   "They come out of the chute and are immediately looking for you," Jess grinned, remembering his extremely close association with these toros. "When you throw fakes and moves at a Mexican bull, it's a whole different deal," Jess said. 
   The goal in a freestyle bullfighting contest, Jess further explained, is to make "catty" enough maneuvers within the bull's personal space to fully control the bull's movements. And the more "hands on" techniques applied, the higher the man's score; 1 - 50 possible points are awarded to the bullfighter with 1 - 50 points going to the bull. You can well imagine how the bull makes his "point." This season, Jess entered several freestyle bullfighting events, either winning or placing in most. 

   While Jess was quite satisfied with how his career was developing, a major career opportunity occurred at the end of October. Jess was working a Billings, Montana rodeo when a call came through from a bullfighter friend named Darrell Diefenbach. Darrell told Jess, "Get your stuff packed and get out here!" 
   Darrell explained to Jess that one of the bullfighters (most rodeos hire two bullfighters and one clown or barrel man) contracted by the Grand National Rodeo and Stock Show had suffered a broken leg and would be unable to work the show.
   So, Jess grabbed up his black hat and kneepads, his leopard skin shorts, Wrangler baggies, leather fringed gloves and war paint, and headed for the famed Cow Palace in San Francisco, California.
   "That accident was really a sad thing for him," said Jess, acknowledging the other bullfighter's bad luck. Circumstantially, though, and having proven himself worthy of the job, Jess had just been offered a golden opportunity to fight bulls at one of the most prestigious rodeos in the nation-a rodeo that is also the final leg in determining which 15 contestants will ultimately qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in December. 
   This experience, Jess shared, has turned out to be the high point thus far in his career. During the ten-day show, he helped to save at least five cowboys from potentially serious, if not fatal injuries; Jess expressed how rewarding it is to have the confidence of these top bull riders. 
   Equally exciting for Jess was his close, working association with veteran announcer, Bob Talman, considered by many fans to be "The Voice of Rodeo." Jess was hesitant to tell me exactly what Mr. Talman had said about the talented country kid from Wyoming, but his big grin told the story, anyhow.
   "He was very friendly, very complimentary, and joked and teased with me during the whole deal," Jess finally confessed. "He was great!"
   In this line of work, you're not doing your job unless you've been hooked, tromped, kicked, and gored. "You just can't do your job, unless you're focused and right in there with the action," Jess explains. Though Jess insists on working right beside the bull, he's been lucky so far, sustaining only bumps, bruises and infected fingers from bacteria-ridden, bullhorn splinters.
   Speaking from his folks' home on the Todd Place south of Daniel, Jess says he'll be returning to Cody for yet another quick round of bull fighting before heading to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he'll line up his shows for the next bullfighting season.
   Jess Griffin has certainly zigzagged his way across many arenas, literally pulling tails, not strings, and butting heads, kicking butts, and getting in the faces of the wild-eyed opposition. But it's apparent that this job goes well beyond raw ability; there is also the element of timing, instinct, finesse and an inherent sixth sense when protecting a bull rider who either hangs up in his rope or lands in the path of a "man-eating" toro. 
   Watch Jess's nail-biting action at the Cow Palace, November 26 on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m. (MST) and again, December 1 on ESPN2 at 11 a.m. (MST).. 

Pro Bull Fighter

At a Meeteetse, Wyoming rodeo this past summer, Jess Griffin lends a helping hand to a bull rider who is hung up in his rope. 
Copyright credits: www.cowboyimages.net

The Pearson Angus Ranch is located approximately 2 miles northwest of Daniel, and 11 miles west of Pinedale, Wyoming. Cris can be reached by e-mail at: cowgirl@wyoming.com.

Copyrights: Photos and page text content copyrighted, Cris Paravicini, 2000. No part may be reproduced without permission of the author/photographer. Page graphics copyrighted, Pinedale Online, 2000.

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