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Riding for a buckle in Odessa

Ask a professional bull rider why he does it, and he's likely to retort he can't help himself. Ask what the obsession has cost him, and he'll casually catalog a long list of fractures, gashes and near-death experiences.

All of that machismo _ and courting of brutal physical punishment _ was on display Sunday afternoon at the Odessa Rodeo, where hundreds of spectators watched thrashing beasts hurl grown men into metal posts and mud.

"It's like watching race car driving _ I like to see the wrecks," said Don Hunter, 30, of Ocala, one of the 77 competitors in Sunday's events. "The crowd likes to see the wrecks."

Like his brethren on the rodeo circuit, Hunter is on intimate terms with pain. Last year, a mishap with a bull shredded his spleen. Two years before that, a horn caught his right cheekbone and crushed it. He also has bone chips in his wrist.

"A lot of people say bull riders are crazy," said Hunter, who has been a professional rider for eight years. "Their family thinks they're crazy, their friends think they're crazy. But there aren't many people who do what they love to do.

"People sit behind desks, they sit in traffic. Bull riders are rebels. We're a free spirit."

Still, brushes with mortality have given Hunter a keen sense of how quickly a bull rider can be hurled into the next life.

At a prayer before the rodeo, Hunter removed his hat and lowered his head solemnly. A self-described Cowboy Christian, he wore a shiny golden belt buckle ornamented with crosses and a cowboy hat bearing the message JESUS IS THE REAL LIGHT.

"You're living on the edge with these bulls," he said, putting his hat back on. "One day you're here, the next you're not. Bulls have no mercy."

Timothy Hunt, who helped organize the three-day event produced by the Seven Springs Rotary Club, said this year's 300 competitors marked the biggest field in the event's nine-year history.

Competitors in categories that included bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling vied for $50,000 in cash prizes and a chance to compete in the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December.

"After a few years you get to control the nerves and kind of use it to your advantage, instead of being terrified," said 29-year-old bull rider Greg McManus around a cheekful of tobacco.

Spitting into the dust, the Ocala man stood outside the ring and carefully taped up his right wrist, recently hyperextended in a bad fall. He loves riding, but his advice is terse for those who want to know how it's done:

"There ain't much I can say _ just hang on."