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Girl's death after bull ride prompts question of safety

A memorial was placed Saturday at the Crosstown Arena in Riverview to remember 16-year-old Brooke Ann Coats, who died Friday night after being thrown and kicked in the chest by a bull.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

A memorial was placed Saturday at the Crosstown Arena in Riverview to remember 16-year-old Brooke Ann Coats, who died Friday night after being thrown and kicked in the chest by a bull.

RIVERVIEW — Brooke Ann Coats could hold her own in an arena full of cowboys.

"She was gonna whip their butts," arena worker Tony Monte remembered the teenager joking at Friday night's Remington Rough Stock exhibition.

It was like any third Friday of the month: Miss Coats was ready to ride, wearing the same pink chaps and white Western shirt, bleached clean of the last ride's red clay stains.

Friday was the last time she danced with her usual baby bull, riding the 900-pound, 2-year-old calf for three seconds before she fell.

When Miss Coats died last week, struggling to breathe after the bull ride, her death prompted a safety question: Should a 16-year-old girl have been allowed to ride a bucking bull?

"It was a freak accident," said Corey Costa, 38, owner of the Crosstown Arena where it happened.

On Monday, as students at the high school Miss Coats attended coped with their friend's death and planned a tribute, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office continued its investigation.

Deputies determined the rodeo had filed the proper paperwork and didn't need a license or permit to conduct a rodeo.

According to investigators, the bull kicked Miss Coats at least once in the chest. Some onlookers remember the fall differently.

"It just looked like she landed wrong," said Costa, who wasn't sure she had been kicked.

Miss Coats stood and held onto a side panel of the ring for a moment before walking away, Costa said. She later died during surgery at Tampa General Hospital.

The Hillsborough County medical examiner said it could take weeks before the office determines an official cause of death.

"In 20 years, I've never seen this," said Costa said, citing his two-decade involvement in rodeos and 10-year ownership of the arena, north of where the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway crosses U.S. 301.

In 2009, emergency services responded to a call from the arena for a man having a seizure after being hit in the head by a bull, records show.

On Monday, a white cross stood at the gate to the ring, flowers at its base, and a Facebook group called "R.I.P. Brooke Coats, you will always be missed, we love you!" had 200 members.

Grief counselors were at Riverview High School, where Miss Coats was a junior. Students plan to honor to her in the school's memorial garden.

A liability waiver Miss Coats and her parents had signed before the bull ride is standard procedure at rodeos, said Leroy Mason, general manager at Westgate River Ranch, a resort on the Kissimmee River about 40 miles southeast of Winter Haven.

"To be at any rodeo event," Mason said, "everywhere, even here, they sign releases that if anything happens, they know the dangers of it, that you could be killed or maimed for life."

At Westgate River Ranch, Mason doesn't let underage bull riders in his arena unless they belong to a rodeo association.

Mason said he turned away Miss Coats a few weeks ago when she came with her parents because he didn't feel comfortable having a teenage girl riding bulls.

"If you ride bulls, you're going to get hurt," Mason said. "It just depends on when and how bad."

Many rodeo events are judged separately by gender. Some, such as barrel racing, are solely women's competitions. But short of events sanctioned by the Women's Professional Rodeo Association, most rodeos don't let girls compete in bull riding.

Remington Rough Stock rodeos are open events.

Miss Coats had been practicing for a year, Costa said, riding the same baby bull about 30 times. The calf hopped more than it bucked, trying to wiggle free of the rope around its flank, he said.

The events are held the first and third Friday of the month at the arena. Every other week, Miss Coats called in her sign-up request, paid $18 and had her parents sign a waiver.

"They supported her 100 percent," said Monte, the arena worker. The night Miss Coats died, her parents were in the audience.

They had bought her safety equipment, maybe $500 worth — a helmet with a metal face mask that can withstand the weight of a bull's hoof and a heavy vest made from material similar to bulletproof Kevlar. Friday night, Miss Coats was wearing both.

She had been taught by other cowboys to hold her hand just so and keep her balance by squeezing her legs. The nerves — well, you can't calm shaky hands, former rider Noah Wiggins told her.

Miss Coats had her share of accidents, once tearing her blue practice shirt straight down the back. But she just kept popping back up with a smile.

In the arena, she was one of their own. They were country boys, Wiggins said, and she was their queen.

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

.Fast facts

Funeral services

• Services for Miss Coats will be open only to friends and family at Stowers Funeral Home, 401 W Brandon Blvd., at (813) 689-1211.

• The visitation is Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. The funeral is Thursday at 10 a.m. in the chapel.

• The burial follows at Hillsboro Memorial Gardens, 2323 W Brandon Blvd.

Girl's death after bull ride prompts question of safety 02/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 10:14pm]
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