PUEBLO, Colo. ― It is hard to write a story about loss and grief. My own experience is the only story I can accurately retell, so I hope it will at least cause people to pause and reflect on who we lost on March 24, 2000.
I'd seen far worse wrecks- we all had.
That was what made the news so surreal.
How could he be dead?
We'd seen him walk out of the arena.
He was conscious when he left in the ambulance.
But he was now gone.
You could hear the phones ringing early in the morning at the hotel as people relayed the news to each other.
Then gasps. And disbelief. And sobbing.
The kind and talented Canadian champion cowboy with the
ear-to-ear grin would never ride a bull again.
Almost 13 years ago an event rocked the PBR family. There wasn't a cowboy, staff member, stock contractor or fan sitting in the arena in Albuquerque, N.M., who wasn't affected by it.
The day after Glen Keeley died was one of the longest days of my life. There was still one more night of the PBR and all the staff scrambled to prepare for the event. Everyone was shocked, but aware that we needed to honor his memory and that the show had to go on.
I was tasked with having memorial stickers made for the cowboys' vests. Not an easy task on a Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque. I finally found a sign maker who had a printing press at his home who could make the stickers in time for that evening's performance.
I sat at his kitchen table as we designed the memorial sticker. It was surreal and I kept wondering how it could be actually happening. When I tried to pay the designer for the stickers, he declined and just asked for "really good" tickets to that night's performance. He might have been being generous, but it struck me as callous. I took tickets from my briefcase, then took the stickers back to my rental car and threw up on the side of the road.
Then I had to hold a press conference. It was the first one I'd ever done on my own. I had been so excited to be working the Ty Murray Invitational for the PBR and now there was nothing I dreaded more. It was the first really big event I was handling on my own in my new job in the public relations department.
I contacted the media and sent out a press release. I arranged the room at the arena and made sure that Randy Bernard, Cody Lambert, Ty Murray and then-president Tuff Hedeman were all present. I made a brief statement to the assembled group of TV and print media and then turned it over to the guys. I don't remember exactly what anyone said, but I know I wasn't the only one fighting back tears.
It really was a freak accident. Promise Land bucked Glen
off and he wound up under the bull's hooves. It was evident right
away that his arm was probably broken. It turned out he also had
broken ribs and a punctured lung, but none of that was enough to
kill him. Glen had been talking and joking with the nurses when he
arrived at the hospital.
Dr. Tandy Freeman explained to us what happened. Glen's vitals had been OK until they opened up his abdominal cavity at the hospital. He essentially bled to death before they could repair the internal damage and fix his lacerated liver.
The show did go on that night. I think most of us were just going through the motions without realizing what we were really doing. The cowboys didn't have that luxury though. They had to be focused to ride bulls. They were somber, but determined to ride and win for Glen. I think almost everyone that year rode in honor of Glen's memory and at the 2000 PBR World Finals there was a moving tribute to the late cowboy.
Glen was sitting ninth in the PBR's World Standings when he passed. It was one of his best years on record and he already had nearly $34,000 in earnings ― enough to guarantee him a spot at the World Finals back then. Glen had a bright career in Canada, but wanted to compete among the best cowboys in the world so he came to the PBR.
In 1983, Glen was the boys steer riding champion in Canada and had six Canadian titles ― the first coming in 1989, the year he turned pro. By 1994, Glen was one of the first cowboys riding in and supporting the newly formed PBR. Glen came from a rodeo family. His brother Jason had nearly been killed by a bull in 1994. Yet that deterred none of the Kelleys from following their passion. Jason recovered from his wreck completely.
Glen's death affected everyone differently. I remember how unbelievably kind and gracious his family was to everyone, despite their own sorrow. It made me reconsider if I wanted to work in an industry where my friends could die. The local news, then the national news, picked up the story. Each report I saw left me angry ― it was a sensational, tragic story, but none of them focused enough on the person we had just lost.
Glen's death made a lot of people reevaluate their own lives, choices and beliefs. Clint Branger had been toying with the idea of retirement for some time. When Glen died, Clint decided it was time to hang up his spurs for good and he promised his 2-week-old baby boy that he would not ride again.
Years after Glen's death, I would still see the memorial stickers on cowboys' vests. As new riders broke into the top spots and cowboys retired, the stickers grew fewer and farther between until several years passed with me seeing none. But each year in Las Vegas, when a Canadian cowboy wins the Glen Keeley Award, the sticker is still there ― even if it is just symbolically. He is also honored in Canada each year through the Glen Keeley Memorial Bull Riding and the Glen Keeley Benevolent & Scholarship Fund set up in his honor.
I will be in Albuquerque again this year with the ABBI,
who I now work for. It has probably been at least seven years since
I was in New Mexico. I was relieved when the Ty Murray Invitational
changed venues. The BFTS event is now held at The Pit, instead of
the arena where Glen got on his last bull. It's not that I want to
forget what happened, it is just less painful not to be in that
same arena anymore.
I'd like to think that this is the year I can keep it together, but I doubt it. Glen was just a year older than I. I'm saddened that we lost one of the greats and am still trying to make sense of it. The only comfort comes from knowing that he died doing what he loved. He had told a Calgary newspaper reporter earlier that year "The reason why I rode bulls is because I love it." In retrospect, the fact that he speaks in a past tense is appropriately heart breaking.
This was just my story about Glen. He was bright and funny
yet humble and touched so many lives. He was a gentleman and a
cowboy. I wish I had more time to know him better and I wish he had
the opportunity for more rides. Whether you were lucky enough to
meet him, see him ride or if just know about him through stories-
please take a moment to think of him this week. If you never got to
see his talent, search for his rides on YouTube.
More than 1,500 people came out to honor Glen at his funeral in Canada. He was loved and respected by so many cowboys and fans around the world. As deep as everyone's grief was, it paled next to the sorrow of those who lost a son, a best friend, a brother or a fellow bull rider who might as well been a brother.
Several years after his death Brock Mortensen posted this on a social media page in Glen's honor:
"Glen was and always will be one of my ultimate
heroes. He helped me out when I was down and whenever I saw him on
the road when we weren't traveling together it made me feel like I
was seeing a family member. He was a great cowboy and fried I still
think about him daily. I have his sticker on the window of my truck
so whenever I look in my mirror I think about his smile and unique
Glen, you are missed.
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