FORT WORTH, Texas - On a humid summer afternoon in late July, Kenny McElroy sat on the top rail of a fence and looked out in the pasture at the pen of bulls he and his family - his wife, Cristy, and children, Josie, 16, and Zach, 7 - had worked to build up in the past three years.
He saw Uppercut, Who Dat and King Lopez.
Standing in the pasture was Cool Spot.
There were other bulls, who have competed on the Built Ford Tough Series, and then he spotted the younger 2-, 3- and 4-year-old bulls. It was about the time he thought about the future of his program that couldn't hold back the tears. He cried.
Earlier that day, McElroy had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Before talking with his family, he drove out to the bull barn, sat on that fence for a good while and thought about all the work that had gone into building his bucking bull program, and he thought about the days and years ahead. More specifically, he wondered what they could have 10 years from now.
"When I got diagnosed with cancer, it hit me kind of hard," McElroy recalled. "The first thing I did was sit down with my kids, and I told my kids and my wife and, ah - (pausing to compose himself) - I told my wife we're going to get through it.
"I said, 'We've got too much to look forward to and too much to live for.'"
McElroy's father has owned Broken Horn Rodeo for the past 20 years.
It's always been a family-owned-and-operated business - located in Mount Orab, Ohio - in which they hauled livestock to local regional rodeos throughout the Ohio Valley.
Then, about three years ago, Kenny talked with his wife, who knew his dream was to have bulls competing at BFTS events, and they decided it was time to make the transition.
He met PBR co-founder David Fournier at an IFR bucking-stock sale when he purchased King Lopez, who later this month will compete for the third straight year at the World Finals in Las Vegas.
King Lopez posts a bull score of 45 points vs. Kasey Hayes in Uncasville, Conn.
The two became fast-friends, and not long after, he purchased Who Dat and Uppercut from Fournier.
In 2010, he only hauled four bulls to various events - three of which made it to Vegas - and in 2011, he had five bulls at the Finals, which are held each year at the Thomas & Mack Center in late October.
"To me, to get three bulls into the Finals your first year is a pretty good accomplishment," said McElroy, who later added, "It's not to bring the most bulls you can to this event. It's to bring the best bulls you can."
According to www.probullstats.com, after 27 of 28 regular-season events, the pen of bulls from K-C Bucking Bulls has recorded 60 total outs at BFTS events, and 11 of those outs have taken place in the Built Ford Tough Championship Round.
Those numbers don't include this weekend's BFTS event in Columbus, which is 90 miles north of the McElroy ranch.
KEEPING HIS COOL
By all accountants, 2012 was a breakout season for K-C.
The McElroy family should have been all smiles, but in reality, it's been a tumultuous year with emotional highs and lows.
After returning to Ohio from a trip to start the BFTS season in New York at the Madison Square Garden Invitational, they had hauled some of their bulls to a local event when they noticed Cool Spot was having difficulty breathing.
His sides looked concaved, so they held him out of the draw and rushed him to a veterinary facility on the campus of The Ohio State University in nearby Columbus. He spent 35 days there before McElroy got a distressed call saying it would be best if he picked the bull up on Monday morning.
"I cried like a baby," he said.
McElroy and his partners, Dale Folds and Keith Strickland, had originally made plans to have the bull put down.
However, a "strange set of circumstances" changed everything.
First, the taxidermist canceled because of a storm, and then the backhoe driver called to say his machine had broken down in the rain and mud. He wouldn't be able to get out to the McElroy's ranch for another four days, but even if he had, the local vet had an emergency surgery and couldn't make it either.
That night, McElroy's teenage daughter noticed that Cool Spot seemed to be breathing on his own.
"It was kind of weird," McElroy said. "He was knocking on
death's door, but we couldn't get anything done, and now he's
breathing on his own. It's like somebody upstairs is telling you,
'Hey look, it's not his time.'"
"I'm not going to let this cancer hold me down or anything like that. We're just going to keep pushing forward and getting better."
That night, McElroy, Folds and Strickland decided to have him hauled down to Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, where he spent another 29 days, before returning home to Ohio.
He's since bucked in Nashville, Tenn., and again this past weekend in Philadelphia, where he bucked off Mike Lee right before the whistle and was marked 43 points.
"My daughter actually saved that bull's life," said McElroy, who added, "Our goal is to get him to the Finals, and we're probably going to retire him there on top."
By summertime, Cool Spot was on the mend and King Lopez was
showcasing himself as a possible contender for World Champion
He had bucked seven times by that point, and has bucked twice since then.
King Lopez hasn't been marked less than 43.75 points, and his best outing was 45.25 points in Nashville, where he bucked off Ben Jones in 1.76 seconds.
The top riders in the world vote on the final five contenders, and while he's not among them this year, he was among a list of eight potential bulls - in addition to Bushwacker and Asteroid.
McElroy said he's had a "phenomenal year," and is only getting strong with each out.
"This is our livelihood," he said. "This is what we want to do. I'm not going to let this cancer hold me down or anything like that. We're just going to keep pushing forward and getting better."
It's the thought of building up his pen to the point that he can haul 20 bulls to any given BFTS event that motivates him and inspires him throughout his battle with colon cancer.
Another source of inspiration has been his aunt Sherry Wells.
Wells, who is the sister of McElroy's mother, lost her seven-year battle with cancer three weeks ago, but not before the two had an opportunity to talk about the future.
"I got to spend some time with her, which was good, and we talked," McElroy said. "Her biggest thing was to stay positive. They gave her not long to live and she beat it. And she got to see another one of her grandchildren born, and that was what she was really wanting to so."
He's been thankful for the support from his family and friends.
McElroy also said it's "nice to feel welcomed" by the bull riders, contractors and others associated with the PBR, namely PBR Livestock Director Cody Lambert.
"He's been great," McElroy said. "I talk to him on the telephone, and he always asks me how I'm doing. That means a bunch."
BACK TO BUSINESS
After being diagnosed in July, McElroy underwent surgery on
August 8 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati.
Doctors removed a cancerous tumor that was one-and-a-half inches in diameter, nine inches of his colon and 25 lymph nodes surrounding it. According to McElroy, his surgeon told him afterward that it hadn't impacted other major organs.
However, one of the lymph nodes tested positive, so he's been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for the past month. As a precaution, he's expected to have three-week treatment cycles for six months, in which he receives IV treatments, followed by a series of pills for two weeks and one week off, before repeating the cycle.
"I've scheduled it so that my week off from the chemo treatments will be for the Finals," he explained. Despite undergoing his second IV treatment Wednesday morning, McElroy plans to be in Columbus this weekend.
"These bulls that I have - and my family - is what is getting me through this whole ordeal. They're my healing."
The 42-year-old has been stressing the importance of being tested early rather than waiting until it's, perhaps, too late.
He said his friends have developed a new outlook on preventive measures and have been making appointments of their own. "They're going in there and getting things done," he said, "and getting themselves checked out."
In the meantime, it's business as usual for the McElroy family.
"For the most part, we get up in the morning, we work bulls and we turn them out," said McElroy, who added that the work is proving to be mentally and physically good for him, "And we do every daily chore that we normally do. We don't stop doing what we're doing and, I think, that's been a big plus for me - healing wise - because you can't not allow yourself to do the things that you normally do."
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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