POLK CITY — Alex Carvajal peeks through a fence, sizing up his massive opponent. He paces while taking a few deep breaths. No more rehearsing moves or analyzing the game plan.
There is time only to pray.
Moments before being introduced, Carvajal kneels and touches his forehead, chest and both shoulders in the sign of the cross. He points to the sky.
“Best to do that quickly,” Carvajal says of calling upon a higher being. “You have to stay focused on the task. You can’t think about anything, even God, once you’re out there, or you’re going to get mauled.”
The pregame ritual resembles the one Carvajal had when he was a wide receiver at Plant High and Angelo State (Texas).
Now he reserves prayers for a far more dangerous sport: bull riding.
Carvajal, 19, quit football this past year to become a professional rider. He competes mostly around the state, including at last month’s rodeo at Stokes Green Swamp Ranch Arena in Polk City.
This venture left family and friends perplexed. Why would Carvajal devote his time to hopping on a ferocious 1-ton animal? Why would he decide to hold on for dear life to a bull that in seconds will inevitably toss him around like a rag doll?
Injuries are a given. Carvajal has nerve damage in his left arm after getting clipped by a hoof. One of his front teeth is missing, courtesy of a bull’s kick.
“This is my dream, my passion,” Carvajal says. “I’ve been kicked and stepped on. I’ve had people try to talk me out of it. I’ve even asked myself a few times why I’m doing this.
“But I’ll never give up. I’m not letting go. My mentality is you’re going to have to stomp the you-know-what out of me to get me off that bull.”
• • •
At first glance, Carvajal seems out of place in his chosen profession. He lives with his parents and younger brother in Hyde Park, an upscale South Tampa neighborhood. He drives his father’s Volvo F60 to practices and rodeos, in part because it gets better mileage than his pickup truck.
But the lifestyle has always been part of this urban cowboy’s DNA.
Carvajal’s father, Joseph, is part of generations of ranchers in south Texas, near the Mexico border. Alex rode horses and tended to bulls by the time he was 3 years old.
That’s when he first saw a commercial for the Professional Bull Riders’ circuit.
“I knew right then I wanted to be a part of that someday,” he said.
For years, Alex was just a spectator. He watched professional events when the family lived in Louisville, Ky. He even got to hang out backstage with some of the sport’s biggest stars because of his father’s job as a marketing specialist with Jack Daniels, a sponsor of the bull riders’ circuit.
His parents let him ride mechanical bulls, but not real ones because of safety concerns.
“We even thought of getting a mechanical bull in the back yard,” said Joseph, now a senior marketing manager for Checkers and Rally’s in Tampa. “Then Alex decided he wanted to concentrate on football. We were somewhat relieved because that would divert his attention from bull riding.”
Alex became a dependable receiver, first in Louisville, then at Plant when the family moved to Tampa four years ago. He also battled through numerous injuries that sidelined him for parts of his junior and senior seasons. Still, he showed enough potential to play at Angelo State, a Division II school in San Angelo, Texas.
After redshirting his freshman season, Alex had had enough of football. He told his parents he was quitting in October of last year, in part because of health concerns.
“Alex told us he wanted to be able to walk and function when he was older,” said his mother, Lisa. “I thought this was a good plan, that he was looking out for his future.”
Months later, Alex told them about his desire to become a pro bull rider.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘What?’ ” Lisa said. “I was stunned.”
His brother, Christian, a senior standout linebacker with the Panthers, was not surprised.
“Before my brother and I got into organized sports, we used to do extreme sports like BMX, mountain boarding and snowboarding,” Christian said. “So I always knew he liked the adrenaline rush.”
Alex started slowly, riding steers before advancing to the more mature male bovines.
The one thing he lacked was guidance.
He found that in Billy Stokes.
• • •
Stokes rode on the professional circuit for 25 years, enduring a painful career. But he kept riding bulls after each injury because he had no choice.
“I’ve broken nearly every bone in the human body,” Stokes said. “But if you stop, you don’t get a paycheck. You have to keep going to pay the bills.”
Finally, it was too much to bear.
Stokes quit to open his Green Swamp Ranch Arena five years ago. Novice and pro bull riders come from miles away during the week to practice.
Alex Carvajal heard about the arena from other aspiring riders. He views Stokes as a mentor.
“I’m blessed to have Billy in my life and as my coach because he’s gotten me to the point where I’ve been riding better than I thought I could,” Carvajal said. “He’s taught me that you can’t ride every bull but you have to expect that you can. And then worry about the next bull if you get bucked off. So I keep my short-term memory and keep moving forward.”
Stokes works with the riders at each practice. He even gets on some of the bulls.
“It never leaves you,” Stokes said. “I’m still out there competing at some of the little rodeos that we host. I’ve never done drugs. This would be the closest thing I could relate it to. You just become addicted to it.”
Carvajal now has experience — and coaching — in bull riding.
He also has the blessing of his parents.
“Alex has really taken off,” Stokes said. “He’s doing things in just a few months that it takes others years to accomplish or figure out. Getting both of his parents on board was a big thing. You can’t be worrying about what your parents are thinking or wondering about whether you’ll get hurt.
“That causes distractions. The bull will sense that. And that’s when you can get really hurt.”
• • •
Carvajal climbs a few rungs on a ladder to straddle Opie during last month’s rodeo. Opie is an 1,800-pound descendant of Bodacious, widely considered the world’s most dangerous bull.
Wearing a helmet and a vest are not the only measures Carvajal uses to protect himself. He talks out loud, saying the vibrations from his voice often help soothe the bull’s nerves.
The chute opens. Opie writhes, bouncing and kicking. Carvajal holds on to his rope, trying to position himself closer to the front of the bull.
Too late. Opie ejects Carvajal in six seconds, two shy of the requisite time for a qualifying score. Then it is a mad sprint back to safety.
Carvajal’s parents show up for his second ride. This time Carvajal is in control. He never gets bucked, staying on for eight seconds and an eventual third-place showing. His mother paces the whole time, hands pressed together in front of her.
“Thank goodness Alex stayed on the whole time,” Lisa Carvajal says. “He didn’t get hurt. Even better, he won’t track any mud into the house.”
Afterward, Lisa uses a baby wipe to clean away mud splatters on her son’s face.
Alex says goodbye to his parents before collecting a $300 check. He has made about $5,000 total so far in his young riding career.
“I was really worried at first,” Lisa says. “But I think it’s pretty cool. Alex looks the part now, too. His hair is getting longer, and he’s got this missing tooth. All the girls around here in South Tampa just look at him in awe.
“He’s our real-life, modern-day cowboy.”
Contact Bob Putnam at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.