Energized Diefenbach keeps coming back
Bullfighter Darrell Diefenbach could be compared to the Energizer bunny. He just keeps going and going and going.
For some on the rodeo circuit, it takes a lot to keep going. Diefenbach’s story is much more about having the drive and determination to return to the arena after numerous injuries, the most recent of which was last January. Originally from Australia and now living in Azle, TX, Diefenbach has been protecting bull riders at Wyoming’s Cheyenne Frontier Days since 2004 and will be there again in 2010.
Injuries are a possibility for every rodeo contestant, a probability for bull riders and the bullfighters who protect them. While any injury is serious for a man who makes his living as a bullfighter, the most recent on Diefenbach’s list threatened more than his career.
He was at a Professional Bull Riders event in Augusta, GA, last January. Colby Yates came off a bull early and landed in a bad spot. Stepping between Yates and the bull, Diefenbach took a shot that sent him airborne. This time, it was the bullfighter who landed in a bad spot. He hit on his back was a little dazed and before he could get out of the way, one of the bull’s back hooves came down on his face and slid off the side.
How much damage can one hoof do to a face? A lot when it is on the leg of an 1,800-pound bull that is coming down with the force of a hundred sledge hammers. The fact that Diefenbach lived to tell about it is amazing. The fact that he returned to the arena to throw himself in front of another bull less than three months later is phenomenal.
Most of the bones in his face were broken. He had a gash that was clear through the skin that started at the corner of his right eye and ended near his ear. With no eye socket to support his eye and the rip in his skin, his eye had little to hold it in place. Diefenbach was transported to the local hospital where he immediately had surgery to try to save his eye. The success of the surgery depended on his eye’s ability to heal.
Bull riders Jared Farley and Matt Bohon loaded him up and brought him back to Texas, where he waited for his next surgery. Three days later, two surgeons spent six hours repairing the broken eye socket, cheek bone and forehead.
Titanium mesh was placed in his skull with bone fragments screwed in place and plaster was placed on top of that. The eye socket was replaced with plastic parts, and then it was just wait and see if his eye would heal.
“It was pretty scary, ” Diefenbach said. “Losing your vision isn’t an option for a bullfighter. I knew the rest would heal, but waiting on my eye was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
His vision improved. Now the biggest issue is light sensitivity. His pupil stays dilated and sunglasses will be a necessity. But that’s minor compared to not being able to do his job. It has made for some equipment changes that are a little unusual for a bullfighter.
Diefenbach has been and will continue to wear a helmet at least until his skull has healed completely. The doctor’s recommendation is for six months. He is the first bullfighter to wear a helmet on a regular basis and depending on conditions, it may be part of his everyday work gear.
He borrowed his first helmet from Bohon and zip-tied a plastic face shield to it in order to keep dirt away from his eye. He now has a variety of face shields, goggles, sunglasses and equipment to have gear for any environment. The biggest problem with it is heat. Because Diefenbach spends much of every performance running in the dirt chasing bulls, he sweats a lot and the helmet adds heat and doesn’t provide much ventilation.
“My glasses will fog up, and you can’t just take off a helmet to wipe your brow when you’re sweating,” Diefenbach said. “That’s the only drawback that I’ve found. It’s just so much hotter.”
While head injuries are common for bull riders and more of them are wearing helmets, bullfighters’ injuries tend to be more related to legs, knees and ankles.
“We’ve seen very few head injuries in bullfighters,” said Rick Foster, trainer for the Justin Sports Medicine Team that will be in Cheyenne. “We’ve never had one to the extent that a guy needed to wear a helmet in the arena. Helmets prevent or lessen the severity of an injury in any contact sport. With these guys protecting bull riders, it is a contact sport even though you don’t want it to be. We work with all of the athletes to help them prevent injuries, and having the proper equipment is a big part of that. A helmet certainly isn’t a bad idea.”
Diefenbach spends about an hour getting ready for every performance, stretching, taping and putting on the rest of his protective gear which includes knee braces and chest and back protectors. That equipment must still allow for mobility and speed.
“Our job is to protect the bull riders, no matter what,” Diefenbach said. “There’s a lot of movement required. We have to be quick and move fast on our feet. If equipment hampers that, it won’t work for us.”
Having speed, agility and quickness is not enough to be a successful bullfighter. Being able to think fast in pressure situations, understand and anticipate the movements of a bucking bull are imperative.
Deifenbach’s skills have led him to be selected by the best bull riders in the world to work at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) and the Professional Bull Riders World Finals. He was awarded the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s (PRCA) Bull Fighter of the Year honors in 2008. Ironically, that was one of two times in the nine consecutive years that he has been chosen for the WNFR that he missed because of injuries. In 2006 he had a broken neck and in 2008 a broken leg.
His injury list is longer than some people’s resumes and also includes other facial fractures, a broken back (twice), broken pelvis, knee reconstruction and several other leg and ankle injuries. Through it all he has benefitted from the support of the Justin Sports Medicine Team and might never have returned to the arena without the skills and expertise of the Team’s physician Dr. Tandy Freeman.
The injuries may slow him down, but they’ve never stopped him from doing a job that he loves and one that started with him following in his father’s footsteps. His dad, Bob, was a rodeo cowboy in Australia, and it got into the youngster’s blood early. That and having horses around started a desire in his heart, and it wasn’t long until he was competing in saddle bronc riding and bull riding.
His dad had also fought bulls on occasion, so when there was a bullfighting school in Australia, Darrell signed up. After he had won two Australian bullfighting titles, he came to the United States in 1998. He had a goal of working at the WNFR and told himself if he didn’t make it in five years he was going home.
Three years later, he was living his dream. That, like all of his career, required a lot of hard work and dedication. He didn’t know anyone when he got here. He started in California at some amateur rodeos with the goal of getting his PRCA card. He was fighting bulls at one of Gary Leffew’s bull riding schools where Reno Rosser, son of legendary stock contractor Cotton Rosser recognized his talent. It wasn’t long before he was working for the Rossers’ Flying U Rodeo Company and Dan Russell’s Western Rodeo Company.
His talent and dedication caught the eye of more contractors and rodeo committees and as he gained exposure, he also was gaining the respect of the bull riders. It all paid off when he was selected to work his first WNFR in 2001.
“That first time I made it to the Finals, and went to the awards banquet to get my buckle and jacket, the feeling I got, that’s when it became real that I’d made the Finals,” Diefenbach said. “I will never take it for granted. It still means as much today as it did back then.”
Diefenbach is not likely to take any of it for granted. From the successes to the injuries, he uses all of it to feed his desire as a bullfighter.
“If it means getting my face jumped on to protect the bull rider, then I’m going to get my face jumped on,” he said. “When I get hurt, I think it makes me stronger. It shows how much I love it and how bad I want to do it.”
Bullfighters put their lives on the line every time they step into the arena with a bull. It takes a lot of dedication. Staying in shape, working with committees and contractors, doing their own marketing and knowing that injuries are part of the game is not for everyone, and if it was easy, everyone would do it.
“When you think about it, fighting bulls is one of the most unselfish things you can do. When you put yourself between a bull and a rider, that’s pretty unselfish,” Diefenbach said. “I love fighting bulls and love taking care of the bull riders. When they pick you to take care of them, it’s a pretty big honor. It means you’ve done something right.”
And, to get picked by the bull riders, bullfighters have to put their skills in front of them. That’s just what Diefenbach will be doing at the 114th Annual Cheyenne Frontier Days, July 24-Aug. 1.
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