RIVERVIEW — A dirt patch off the highway, under bright lights with a rowdy crowd looking on, was Brooke Coats' favorite place.
It was where she got her biggest adrenaline rush, where she felt most alive. It was where, for a few minutes every other Friday, the 16-year-old who posed for pictures in cowgirl hats and liked big Chevy trucks was the star.
"She died doing exactly what she wanted to do," Coats' best friend, 17-year-old Autumn Lewis, said Saturday. "It's just what she loved."
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The bull riding arena just north of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway on U.S. 301 S hadn't had its gates open for more than 30 minutes Friday night when Coats got in the saddle.
Both her parents were there in the blue bleachers to watch their girl, Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said. One of them had signed a liability waiver acknowledging the risks, McKinnon said. As he understood it, she was wearing a helmet and vest.
It didn't matter.
The bull bucked Coats off his back, then kicked her square in the chest.
Coats got up and walked out of the ring, but soon collapsed and had trouble breathing, McKinnon said. While waiting on an ambulance, an off-duty paramedic tended to her.
She was in surgery as soon as she got to the hospital, McKinnon said, but by 10 p.m. she was gone.
"Right now, it appears to be a tragic, accidental death," McKinnon said Saturday morning outside the quiet Riverview ring. "From the information I've got, she was a regular. It seems like this was her passion. She was doing something she really loved."
The Sheriff's Office is now investigating — reviewing licensing issues, permitting and safety regulations. McKinnon said he was not aware of any other deaths or major injuries at the bull ring.
While not extremely common, bull riding has delivered its share of tragedy. Last year, a similar accident took the life of an 18-year-old rider in British Columbia. In 2006, it was a 64-year-old man in Denver. In 2005, a 16-year-old from Spokane, Wash.
"A lot of these sports do have inherent dangers," McKinnon added. "It's just very unfortunate."
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The number on the sign for the Crosstown Arena rings at Corey Costa's Remington Rough Stock Co. down the street. Someone who answered the phone on Saturday but would not give his name said it was too soon to comment.
By Saturday afternoon, a Facebook group dedicated to Coats had than more than 50 members. The scrolling marquee outside Riverview High School read "In memory of Brooke Coats, REST IN PEACE."
Coats was a junior at the school, a member of the swim and tennis teams and part of the "wrestlerettes," a group that keeps time and scores for the boys' wrestling team, friends said.
But her real love was in the ring, said Lewis, who has been best friends with Coats since sixth grade, when the two were partnered up for a geography class project.
The two did everything together. Well, most things —Lewis tried bull riding once, but decided to stay on the sidelines watching her friend.
Unusually, Lewis wasn't there Friday night. She went to bed early because she and Coats were going to throw Lewis' sister a birthday party early Saturday. The two best friends had plans for Busch Gardens on Sunday.
"I still kind of expect her to come by and pick me up so we can go do something," Lewis said Saturday. "She should be here right now."
Instead, Lewis sat in her room and looked at a photo collage Coats made for her over the summer. Coats had a matching one in her room from Lewis.
On the back, each girl had written a note, with a promise not to read it "until the day we die."
Lewis read that note Saturday.
"You help me with my problems and make me smile no matter what (Even if sometimes might not be the best because we get test grades threatened — like FCAT or AP haha)," the note says in blue, bubbly handwriting. "I love you sooooooo much and I hope you know that I will no matter what happens.
"Till death, love your best friend, Brooke Ann Coats."
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Not long ago, Lewis said, Coats decided she wanted to bull ride professionally when she grew up.
She said her friend knew the dangers, especially after a bull stomped on her leg a couple of months ago, requiring 30 stitches. Coats posted photos of her wound on Facebook, smiling and giving a thumbs-up.
Soon as she could, she was back in the ring.
"Brooke was brave," Lewis said, "There, but also everywhere."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.