RIVERVIEW — Under these Friday night lights, the outdoor arena falls quiet. It all stops, the music, the chatter, the laughter — a moment of silence for a lost cowgirl.
Brooke Coats is everywhere at this rodeo, on every flash of pink that her fellow bull riders and friends wear in her memory.
"She's always with me," said Nick Kaczmar, 16, of Clearwater, as he got ready to ride. He pinned a pink ribbon on his shirt: R.I.P. Brooke.
It has been two weeks since she died, and he knows this because it's the first time she isn't on that side of the gate with him, checking her gear and talking her tough game.
Coats, an athletic 16-year-old Riverview High School junior and amateur bull rider, died doing what she loved.
On Feb. 18, a 900-pound baby bull tossed her from its back during a twice-monthly exhibition ride at the Crosstown Arena, kicking her in the chest.
She walked out of the arena but soon collapsed, and she died at Tampa General Hospital hours later.
At a rodeo where everyone is family, where the same people show up every time for what they hope will be just 8 seconds of an adrenaline rush, Coats left her mark.
"Bare down and be a cowboy," Kaczmar said he knows she would have told him.
Coats was a girl in a guys' sport, but she pulled on her pink chaps every other week to put on a show atop a feisty bull — to the pleasure of the crowd, her friends, her parents.
"She could do anything she put her mind to," said Kara Bradshaw, 30, a Kissimmee mother of three and a regular at the Riverview rodeo.
She said she misses Coats, but she doesn't mourn her.
"Let's remember her," Bradshaw said, "but not remember her for her death."
In an extreme sport, Coats took every precaution: She wore a helmet and a heavy protective vest. "Freak accident" is the phrase most people use to describe the tragedy.
"It makes you think, 'It could have been mine,' " said rodeo dad Terry Maudlin. "It's not something you really expect, but now you do."
Still, the danger of bull riding would never stop him from letting his 16-year-old son, Brandon, pursue what he loves.
"The better he gets, the more comfortable I feel," Maudlin said. "It's scary, but he loves it. That's what he lives for, and that's what Brooke lived for."
In the weeks since Coats' death, arena owner and rodeo host Corey Costa says he's heard the questions on people's minds. Are you going to kill the bull that kicked her? Shouldn't parents stop pushing their kids so hard? How young is too young? Isn't bull riding animal cruelty?
"What needs to come about," Costa said, "is people really need to know what goes on with the sport."
It's a lifestyle, he said. It's a love.
"We all know the risk of it," said Chris Boyd, a 24-year-old cowboy from Seffner. "But if I couldn't do this right here, I don't know what I would do."
Boyd said he helped put Coats on her first bull. He dressed Friday night in a light pink, patterned shirt with a bold pink handkerchief around his neck and a bright pink ribbon around his hat. All for her.
"I think most us probably are gonna be riding a bit better for her," Boyd said.
Later, he whipped into the arena on a bucking bull. Too fast, his legs came up over him and he toppled backward, catching the bull's hoofs coming down on his back.
He staggered up, falling against the fence. When the bull ran back into the pen, Boyd laid down in the clay.
He walked out of the arena Friday night, off-balance and seeing double. He held ice to his eye and said, dazed, "It happens."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.