LAS VEGAS - Almost nothing went as planned on Sunday, Dec. 11, 1994.
Brent Thurman was known among his friends for having a calming presence in the most dangerous sport in the world. But that morning, he woke up anxious about his final-round matchup with Red Wolf at the National Finals Rodeo.
He nervously asked Aaron Semas for his thoughts on the bull, something his girlfriend Tara Farrell recalled as out of character for the laidback rider.
Other than that, it seemed like any other Sunday - Thurman was good-naturedly annoying everyone in the car by singing "Winter Wonderland" all the way from the Gold Coast Hotel & Casino to the Thomas & Mack Center.
He'd sing a few lines, look at his friends and laugh, then try to sing some more. That was Thurman. He was a cutup, who could make almost anyone feel comfortable in a tense situation.
As they finally arrived at the arena, Thurman joked, "The minute I get off that bull, I'm going to have a shot of tequila."
He never had the opportunity.
Farrell remembers that it took longer than usual for him to call for the gate. Four seconds later, Red Wolf stepped on him. He suffered facial and cranial injuries, never regained consciousness, and six days later passed away at a trauma center in Las Vegas.
'We went from walking in a winter wonderland to the worst nightmare you could imagine.'
"We went from walking in a winter wonderland to the worst nightmare you could imagine," Farrell said. "It's almost to where your brain can't comprehend something that quick. It was like, 'OK, this is not real. This is not happening.'"
At 25, Brent Thurman was dead.
Thurman was born on March 3, 1969, in Austin, Texas, the younger of two boys.
Brock, two years older than Brent, was serious like his father Will, while Brent was more like his mother Kay. Even at a young age, he took everything in stride.
When the boys were seven and nine, their parents divorced.
Brent turned to sports, but his teachers soon discovered he had a learning disability. Brent was dyslexic, and worked tirelessly with tutors for years. Kay, who had already developed a special bond with her son, worked with him on a daily basis.
By the time he was in high school, Brent played football and basketball, and ran track. He was also a natural when it came to golf, but his first love was always bull riding.
In his junior year, despite winning a city golf tournament, he focused on bull riding.
Brent planned to compete professionally until he reached the age of 30, when he would turn his attention toward the Senior PGA tour.
"I don't know," Kay said. "We'll never know if he would have
really stopped at 30, but that was the plan."
Tough as nails
"I was young when I had the boys," said Kay, who worked hard to give her boys a good home. They were short on money, but always long on love. "I guess I was just a kid raising a kid."
For all but one year, she raised her two boys in the country. The year in Austin "didn't work out so well."
"There's a vast difference in a city child and country kid," she said, "and I really didn't realize that until I took them into town."
'There's a vast difference in a city child and country kid.'
Kay was dating Andy Carey, who proved to be a huge influence for Brent in his development as a bull rider. Carey taught him the fundamentals of the sport, and for years, if Brent needed help with his riding, he consulted Carey.
He learned how to be tough.
In high school, he and his childhood friend Dow Farrell took a job cutting firewood to make extra money. Kay worried that one of the boys would wind up getting hurt.
One Friday morning, Dow walked into the Thurman kitchen and said, "Kay, it's bad."
Brent came in with his pants leg soaked in blood.
He had cut through his knee, down to the bone with a chainsaw. Brent promised to see a doctor on Monday, but asked his mother to bandage him up so that he could compete that night.
"It looked like he got slaughtered," said Kay, who insisted he go to the emergency room immediately. "It's a wonder he didn't bleed to death. He was a tough little guy."
Brent broke his left wrist 22 times before he finally had it reconstructed in 1993.
'He truly had a gift with people'
Thurman became part of the public consciousness as one of the top-ranked professional bull riders in the world. He rode in an era alongside greats like Michael Gaffney and Wacey Cathey, as well as Ty Murray and Jim Sharp.
But his gift, as Kay calls it, was his love for people.
"It didn't matter if you had a nickel to your name or you were the governor," Kay said. "He was going to treat you both just the same."
Friends and family joke that they never met anyone missing their front teeth who loved to smile as much as Brent.
"He was very considerate, for a man," said Tara. "Not to a sappy extent, but he had the most amazing sense of humor."
She later added, "He had a conscience, and you don't really see that in this day and age. I just loved that about him. He definitely wanted to live right - and that's not to say he didn't go out and tear it up quite a bit, but he wanted to be a good guy. He didn't want to be a guy people never thought much of.
"But you know what I really loved about Brent? You could take him anywhere, and he would be completely comfortable."
A year before his death, he met a couple in the lobby of the Gold Coast.
'It didn't matter if you had a nickel to your name or you were the governor. He was going to treat you both just the same.'
It was the first time he had qualified for the NFR. The couple had never been to a rodeo, and had no idea who he was, but Thurman decided to invite them along.
He got them a pair of tickets and even offered them a ride to the arena.
"He wanted everyone to see what he always loved," Tara said. "He was that type of guy. That's just who he was."
It's a personality trait that comes from Kay's side of the family.
Kay's father Merle Goodnight was a gregarious Texan. Merle's great uncle was Charles Goodnight, perhaps the most famous Texas cattle rancher of all time, known as the "father of the Texas Panhandle."
Kay described her son by saying, "He loved life, he loved his friends, he loved his God, he loved his family, and somehow or another he worked us all in to where you would have felt like a special friend. I felt like a special mother, and everybody that he drug home - and there were probably thousands of them over the years - I don't know- he had a gift.
"He truly had a gift with people."
To an athlete dying young
"That child was my life," said Kay, holding back tears 17 years after Brent's death. "Nothing matters without him in it."
The death of a child is unimaginable, except for the unfortunate few who survive it. The bull riding community did what it could.
Cathey was by Kay's side for months as she dealt with the loss, as were Brent's close friends Billy Cochrane and Bo Davis. The strongest bond, however, was between Kay and Tara.
They lived together until about year before Tara married Dow Farrell.
The two looked after each other, leaning on one another for support as they learned to live with the loss.
"It's hard to cope with, right?" asked Tara. "I learned to realize that it wasn't just about me. It was an amazing lesson.
"You have to put yourself outside of what you want, and that's a hell of a thing to do."
Tara recalled the Sunday afternoon in Vegas when the accident occurred. "I remember thinking, 'Get up. Get up. This is Brent, he's going to get up,' and then thinking, 'This is not good,'" she said. "If you truly love someone - truly love them - it takes a lot to step outside of the box and say, 'What does this person want?'"
That night, the doctors prepared everyone for the inevitable.
Gaffney, who was out with an injury and not competing at the time, flew in from New Mexico to say goodbye to his friend. One by one, the others did the same. In her last words to Brent, Tara told him it was all right to go and be with God.
'It was his love, his passion, and it made it his 25 years incredibly happy.'
For two years, Kay was "mad at God," until one day she finally realized she was only hurting herself.
"It took a lot," added Tara, "but I think you also go into survival mode."
With the anger came sadness, loneliness and second-guessing.
Kay said a part of her wishes she had never put him on his first steer.
Still, "For him, I'm terribly thankful I did, because it was his love, his passion, and it made it his 25 years incredibly happy," she said.
Tara added, "He knew the dangers, but Brent was not going to change what he did. He loved riding bulls - loved it, loved it, loved it - and I've never loved anything like that other than my family - but, yeah, he loved it and he knew the risk."
He gave his life to bull riding.
In April of 1992, he was one of 20 riders who gathered in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room and gave his unconditional support to founding the PBR. He managed to put together $1,000 for his share of the initial investment.
"I remember him talking on the phone and saying, 'Whatever it is, I'm in. I want this. Let's do this,'" Tara said.
"He said, 'Mom, it'll give us all a chance,'" said Kay. "It gave Brent something to believe in. It was something he was very, very proud of."
In October of 1994, just two months before his death, he qualified for the first-ever PBR World Finals. As Kay put it, "He got a taste of it."
In the years since, the Thurman family has remained closely associated with the PBR. Kay's last promise to her son was to hold a Touring Pro event in his honor as a charity fundraiser. She promised him one, and 13 years later, with the help of Davis and Cochran, the Brent Thurman Foundation continues to raise money for mentally and physically challenged children and adults.
'I'm so thankful for the PBR giving Brent a dream.'
Serving the community meant a lot to Brent.
Before making his final trip to Las Vegas, he purchased a bicycle for a boy in his mother's neighborhood who was part of a special-needs program at Covington Middle School. Brent may not have delivered it himself, but Kay saw to it that on Christmas Eve, the boy received the gift from her son.
For all he gave, Brent Thurman was inducted into the prestigious PBR Ring of Honor. At a ceremony on Oct. 25 at the MGM Hotel & Casino, he and Tater Porter became just the 33rd and 34th men to earn the coveted ring.
"It's huge," said Tara.
Kay said, "I'm so thankful for the PBR giving Brent a dream. The main thing about Brent is his generosity and his love of people. … He was going to make you like him one way or another.
"He had a gift. He truly did."
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