Taking his dreams by the horns

Micheal Waits chases down a bull after watching the animal buck. Rodeo bulls are tested when they are young to see if they have the kick and attitude to succeed in competition.
Micheal Waits chases down a bull after watching the animal buck. Rodeo bulls are tested when they are young to see if they have the kick and attitude to succeed in competition.

LOWRYS -- Three former bull riders loaded eight nameless bulls into the gray metal maze of the small arena.

The animals have no names because they haven't earned them. This recent Saturday is a testing ground, where the handlers separate the rodeo potential from the walking hamburgers.

The owner of the bulls has a name: Micheal Waits. No, that's not a typo. He switched the 'e' and the 'a' because he couldn't spell it the common way.

He doesn't do anything the common way.

That's why he's here in Lowrys, loading a 27-pound test weight on the backs of young bulls to see if one has what it takes to make it to the big time -- the place he couldn't get to as a rider -- the Professional Bull Riders world finals in Las Vegas.

Like T-ball kids dream of the major leagues and pee wee footballers hope for the NFL, this Chester County man wishes for the PBR finals.

He knows the odds of one of his bulls making the show aren't great. But there he stands in the chain-link arena with the wooden posts wearing black boots, Wrangler blue jeans, an untucked blue plaid shirt and a straw hat atop his 6 feet, 4 inches.

Quitting isn't an option for an adrenaline addict like Micheal. Never has been.

'It's like a drug'

The first time he rode was around 1994. The place was "Across the Border," a Fort Mill bar where a man could ride bulls out back, then soothe his wounds with beers and dancing.

Micheal had been there several times, watching the other men mount those horned animals only to be tossed in the dust. He was in his mid-20s then, looking at the women stare affectionately at the spur-sporting daredevils, the stars of small-town Friday and Saturday nights.

Adrenaline rushed through his body. He borrowed the rope, protective vest and spurs from other riders, fellow junkies who didn't flinch at the thought of being stomped or gouged. No, these people craved the ride. Hospital bills and broken limbs be damned.

Micheal's first time on the bull lasted maybe a second, second and a half at most. He was thrown off like the rookie he was, but he wasn't hurt. And that rush -- that sensation that comes when staring potential paralysis or death in the eyes -- was something he'd never experienced.

"Bull riding is addictive," he said. "It's like a drug. When you get on your first bull, you either hate it or you're hooked for life."

Within two weeks, he had his own equipment. That one moment behind a bar sparked a desire that concussions, broken bones and a dislocated shoulder couldn't smother.


The years of injuries have left Micheal with the aching he feels today.

He is now 40 years old, his riding career long behind him, but his obsession with bulls as potent as ever. He just signed off on his second divorce, the cost, he says, of choosing a life that doesn't mesh with a 9-to-5 suburban world.

"It's harder to make a woman happy being a cowboy," he said bluntly, "if she don't come from the same type of lifestyle you do."

Micheal's lifestyle remains like Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive." He hunts, fishes and often goes to wrestling matches on Saturday nights with his 10-year-old son, Cody. Some people tell him that if the civilized world should suddenly collapse, they'll come to him because he will persevere.

They call him "Tex" or "Cowboy."

"He (rode) bulls and messes with cows," said Alex Oliphant, who owns the warehouse where Waits works part-time as a manager. "That's a cowboy, ain't it?"

Waits splits his time between the warehouse and a firefighting gig at the Chester Fire Department, another way to feed his adrenaline cravings. The jobs help pay for his operation of 180-200 bulls and cows spread over six states.

The dream is that one of his bulls will leave the area rodeo circuits -- he calls them the "minor leagues" -- and make it to the bucking big time in Las Vegas.

Two guys who share the addiction are Randy McDaniel and Wendell Sutson. They were with him on that Saturday, helping him buck the bulls.

"Years ago, we rode for nothing," said McDaniel, who rode before rodeos became the spectacle they are today. "We just rode, really, to have something to do."

"Bred in you," said Sutson, who once took a horn to the chest, tearing out his collarbone. He rode his last bull in this arena with a cast on his arm.

Sutson met his partner, Windy Anderson, at a rodeo. They have a 6-year-old son, Dalton, who shares his father's passion, the same drive that terrifies his mother. Dalton has already ridden in a kids' rodeo with a broken arm once.

"Some boys ride just for the attention and some boys ride to win," Anderson said. "And you can tell which ones ride for the show."

Always a daredevil

Micheal never cared about the show.

Even as a kid on a 40-acre farm just outside the city limits of Greenwood, he searched for risks. Between helping his family grow their vegetables and raise their cows and pigs for meat, he found trouble.

"He'd do kind of dangerous things," said his father, Billy.

Once, a middle school-age Micheal climbed on the back of a steer. Trying to get the animal to move, Micheal mounted him backwards, yanked his tail and kicked him.

The steer hurled Micheal to the dirt floor of the quarter-acre lot.

The farm toughened Micheal. He learned to work long hours and handle unpleasant sights. He once held the leg of a large mountain goat that had its horns tied to a tractor while a heavy-set farmer castrated the animal with a pocket knife.

Just part of being a boy on a farm, he said.

Six days after Micheal graduated from high school, he moved to Charlotte, where a driver's education scholarship allowed him to attend the American Motors Institute.

The only one of his parents' three children to leave Greenwood, he had never seen tall buildings or been around so many people.

But his work ethic didn't leave him. He earned a two-year degree in one year, paying his bills by working afternoons and Saturdays as a mechanic for Firestone.

When he graduated, he moved across the street to Goodyear and did the same thing. But that need for risk led him to NASCAR, where he became a "weekend warrior," working in the pits during races.

For nearly six years, he'd spend five days a week fixing cars at Goodyear, then fly or drive to the weekend races. Prep the cars on Saturday. Leap over the wall and fuel them during the race. Get the adrenaline fix.

An addict

Most good bull riders are shorter and lighter than Micheal was when he started. They also start riding when they're younger, gradually being groomed for the treacherous trade.

Michael was simply an addict, a guy who needed a natural rush and found it on the backs of 1,700-pound ornery animals.

The habit required paying entry fees. If he placed, he'd get some cash. If not, he might sleep in his truck and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all week so he could afford the next weekend's ride.

The pain was brutal. He broke bones, ripped muscles and was knocked out cold. But he couldn't stop. He practiced at arenas where he would pay $20 and ride seven or eight bulls a day. Over the years, he climbed onto the backs of hundreds of bulls. He even met his first wife riding.

Micheal didn't tell his father about the bulls until after he'd been riding for about six months.

"I didn't really like it, but, I mean, he was grown," Billy Waits said. "It really kind of surprised me. I really wasn't expecting him to take up something like that."

A few weeks after learning about his son's new hobby, Billy went to see Micheal ride. He found the events exciting. He even made videos of Micheal's early years at the rodeos.

"It don't upset you that bad if they get up and run when they fall off," Billy said.

Billy and Micheal even flew to the PBR finals in Las Vegas. Like a kid at the World Series, Micheal saw himself out there, hanging on for eight seconds, the ultimate goal for the bull rider.

He was naive then, believing there was a chance he could make the big time even though he knew he didn't have the natural ability.

The endless game

When Cody was born in 1996, Micheal's priorities changed. He gradually put away his spurs; his riding career was over by 1998.

"Still have the desire to ride today," Micheal said. "Just now ... I got more to lose."

He never left the bulls, though. Eight years ago, he sold all his beef cattle and went to Texas with a pocket full of money and started buying rodeo cows. He's working on a breeding program, a "mad scientist" he calls himself, trying to find the right combination of bloodlines that will make the next champion.

"My retirement is either frozen in (bull) semen ... or walking around on four legs," he said. "The big break for me would be to sell a bull for six figures."

Retirement, of course, is a joke. Micheal treats bulls like athletes, feeding them high-protein feed, working them hard, even giving them Gatorade during sultry training sessions. He's a coach who can't leave the game.

But the game has its price. For Micheal, his love of bulls and adrenaline left him with physical pain and two failed marriages. Still, he said, he has no regre-ts.

The NASCAR diehards who never make it to the pits, the armchair cowboys who never sit on a bull and the many children who dream of being a firefighter but grow up to be something else -- those people, he said, would give anything to wear his boots.

"I've done more in my life than most people have in their entire lives," he said. "If I died tomorrow, I've lived a happy life."

He also finds peace in the time he spends with his son, the little boy in the pictures beside Micheal's bed. Sometimes they go to one of his favorite spots, a concrete dock where the Sandy and Broad rivers form a T. There, away from the traffic and cell phone reception, they sit on the back of Micheal's flatbed Ford, drop lines in the water and let the bait do the rest.

There are also days like that recent Saturday, when Micheal cracked two ribs bucking bulls. But pain has never stopped him. Four bulls bucked well that day, including one McDaniel dubbed "Diamond," a black bull that came out of the gate with the fiery kicks that merited a name.

Diamond could be the one. But even if he is and Micheal finds his fortune, he won't leave the bulls. The big time isn't the end. The trip is everything.

"I wish I had more time to spend with my (family)," he said. "But it's like I told somebody the other day: If I had a 9-to-5 job and didn't have all that stuff outside of work, I'd go crazy as hell."

View a video of Chester County cowboy Micheal Waits testing young bulls to see if they have bucking ability at