TULSA, Okla. – Trust is never given, it has to be earned.
While that is normally said of human interactions, there is no better way to look at the relationship between stock contractor Matt Scharping and Jared Allen’s prized superstar bull Air Time over the last four years.
It took Scharping hundreds of hours on his ranch in Arlington, Minnesota, long miles traveling up and down the road on Interstate 70, countless pats on the back and – of course – a few head scratches along the way to get Air Time to slowly trust him.
When Scharping looks at the white-spotted bulls’ dark, black eyes, he doesn’t see just an animal. Rather, Scharping sees another member of his family.
If Air Time could fit through the doorway of Scharping’s home, there would easily be a seat at the dinner table for the 8-year-old bull.
Air Time is essentially another son to Scharping, and no father ever wants to burn the trust between him and his child. Nor would a good father want to put his child in any danger if given that power.
It was something Scharping always stressed in those early days of raising Air Time – the wild and highly athletic, freak of bovine nature.
Scharping would kneel down outside Air Time’s pen and watch the 4-year-old bull eat and stare back at him timidly.
The stock contractor with 10 years of experience would tell Air Time, “I am here as your safe zone.”
Therefore, it comes with little surprise that Scharping and Jared Allen decided this summer to officially retire Air Time after the bovine athlete injured his back at Last Cowboy Standing in May.
Scharping told PBR.com this week the plan going forward is for Air Time to live a healthy life of peace, leisure and pleasure out on the ranch.
“I will not buck him anymore because I will not risk hurting him to the point where I have to put him down,” Scharping said. “It has always been about the bull. I don’t care about what anyone else thinks or wants. My only concern is him.
“That bull is like one of my kids, and he will forever be that way. He will never need anything. He will always get whatever he needs. I don’t care what it costs for me to take care of him to make sure he is never in pain. He will never have to worry. He will live out a life of leisure and chill out.”
A COWBOY’S WORST ENEMY
The pillar of Jared Allen’s Pro Bull Team made a mockery of the majority of cowboys that ever tried to test him.
Air Time concluded his PBR career with a 31-1 record on the Built Ford Tough Series since first debuting here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2013.
He averaged 44.98 points per out and scored over 45 points 19 times. He surpassed the 46-point score threshold on eight occasions and went 47 points or higher in five of his trips.
Allen called it 100 percent disappointing his bull never won a world title, but that shouldn't take away from a stellar career.
"He is probably in the Top 5 all-time just because of his athleticism," Allen said. "I know he didn’t win a world title and that kind of stuff, but the pure athleticism and excitement he brought to the arena is unmatched. He was just an awesome animal."
Air Time, who was 36-1 at all levels of competition, was never able to finish the job in Las Vegas at the PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals and win a World Champion Bull title.
“He was on the verge of becoming the best bull in the PBR a few times and came up short for different reasons,” PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert said. “A lot of the reasons were he bucked so good that he bucked guys off before he could show his stuff. The other big reason was that he didn’t like the bucking chute.
“He was as good as any bull there was outside that he had a few misfires.”
Air Time had bucked 29 in a row prior to his retirement, Allen was hoping they could make a run at three-time World Champion Bull Bushwacker's record BFTS buckoff streak (42).
"Obviously we wanted the buckoff streak, but injuries are part of the game," Allen said. "I have a lot of respect for Matt doing what is right for the animal. We would love to add more accomplishments for him, but you always have to do what is right for the animal. Air Time has earned that.”
Jess Lockwood – the 2016 Rookie of the Year – remembers going to high school rodeos in Montana and pretending with his friends the bulls they were getting on were named Air Time.
When he finally got on the real Air Time, it was not even a contest last season.
Lockwood reached only 2.66 seconds against Air Time before he was sent crashing to the ground at Last Cowboy Standing.
Air Time tied a career-high marking with a 47.5-point bull score under the nighttime skyline in Las Vegas.
“That is the hardest bucking bull I have ever been on,” Lockwood said. “That is for damn sure. People can argue all they want between him and (2016 World Champion) Bruiser, but that bull score compared to Bruiser’s 47.5 is a whole different bull.
“If he would have had that trip all the time, he could have competed with Bushwacker no doubt.”
THE BUCKOFF THAT LED TO THE INFAMOUS PURCHASE
Long before Air Time was competing for world titles for Jared Allen’s Pro Bull Team and serving as one of the faces of the PBR’s bovine athletes, he was a relatively unknown bull in Stephenville, Texas. Air Time had been a rising ABBI star before a back injury appeared to end of his career.
Previous owner Scott Accomazzo, who has been a mentor to Scharping, would pull Air Time out of competition for a year and eventually spearheaded Air Time’s recovery to full strength.
“He was an ABBI World Champion prospect as a 3-year-old that had a serious back injury that kept him out for a year,” Lambert said. “Lots of experts with bulls thought he would never come back. Scott Accomazzo did a great job with rehabbing him and then Matt Scharping took it to another level.”
Lambert, though, still believed Justin McBride would “tear up” this 5-year-old bull called Air Time when the two-time World Champion rider unretired in 2014 to compete at RFD-TV’s THE AMERICAN.
Accomazzo had told Lambert his bull could be in the category of World Champion Bull Bushwacker.
Lambert brushed him off and recalled thinking, “Scott just loves his bull.”
McBride would not love Air Time, while Scharping’s heart would grow fonder.
Air Time jacked McBride around inside the bucking chutes at AT&T Stadium and then flipped him over his front end in 1.64 seconds once the gate opened.
“I had no business getting on that bull,” McBride recalled this summer. “If I would have known that was the bull I was getting on, I probably wouldn’t have went to THE AMERICAN.”
McBride then pauses before laughing, “Nah, I would have.”
The 2009 PBR Ring of Honor inductee knew his chances were slim having sat out for six seasons, but no one other than possibly Accomazzo expected Air Time to roar out of the chutes for a 46.5-point bull score.
Let alone a bull that had only two BFTS outs on his resume and a failed attempt at the 2013 World Finals.
“That day he was one of the rankest bulls in the world,” McBride said. “He belonged in there with Bushwacker and the great bulls in the world that day. That was a really good day for him and a really surprising thing for me because I had no idea. That was the out that put him on the map right there.”
McBride then added, “I am really proud of Matt and Jared both for making the call to retire him. That is an once-in-a-lifetime kind of bull. To be able to back off and not push him, and to say, ‘You know what? He doesn’t owe us anything. We are just going to breed him and let him chill out.’
“That is a cool standup thing to do.”
Scharping didn’t need the McBride buckoff to know he wanted Air Time.
Accomazzo just kept telling Scharping he would not sell Air Time to Scharping and Allen until the bull was ready.
Well, once the out happened, all of Air Time’s investors believed it was time to sell the bull coming off such a marque moment.
Fittingly, Scharping was spending that same weekend at Accomazzo’s ranch.
Out of fairness to the business, Accomazzo didn’t want to sell the bull outright to Jared Allen’s Pro Bull Team.
He opened it up to a select group of contractors with the minimum bid being $150,000.
“I was the only guy to put a bid in,” Scharping said. “No one was confident in him or that he could do it.”
BUYER’S REMORSE? NO, JUST A GREAT RIDE
Despite all of the ups, downs and shortcomings in Air Time’s prestigious career, Scharping only had one moment where he thought, “Man, what am I doing?”
That came the first time Air Time represented Allen and Scharping.
Scharping brought Air Time to Phoenix six days after THE AMERICAN and 2010 World Champion Renato Nunes went on to ride their new team member for 92.5 points.
“Son of a gun,” Scharping thought. “I just paid $150,000 for this sucker, and he just got rode. Oh my God. What am I doing?’”
Low and behold, it would be the last time Air Time ever surrendered 8 seconds to a rider.
Air Time ended his career with 29 consecutive buckoffs.
“He didn’t get away from the chute clean,” Lambert said. “He started slower and then it was a really impressive ride.”
Scharping added, “It was a hell of a bull ride and Air Time was never tested like that. Ever since then, Air Time was like, ‘Screw that. I don’t like that part of it. I am going to buck a lot harder to start with and you guys aren’t going to last that long.’”
THE MAUNEY RIVALRY
Two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney has ridden every World Champion Bull since 2007, but he will never be able to say he was able to conquer Air Time.
Earlier this season, Mauney was bucked off by Air Time in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2.17 seconds.
It was the fourth time that one of the rankest bull riders of all time failed to reach 8 seconds on Air Time. That is not including the 2016 World Finals where Mauney was awarded a re-ride after attempting Air Time.
“That bull had a great career,” Mauney said. “He was very athletic and to be as big as he was. He had that fear factor to him because he had that hair trigger in the chute and you didn’t know when that time bomb was going to run out and he was maybe going to blow up in the chute.”
The saga between Air Time and Mauney began to grow over the years.
Every buckoff led to more and more frustration for the Mauney camp.
“I liked getting on him,” Mauney said. “That is one I wish I had rode, but that is one that goes by that won’t be on the checklist.”
Mauney first tried Air Time in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2015, and he lasted only 3.52 seconds. A few months later in Charlotte, Mauney was once again no match for Air Time and was bucked off in 4.57 seconds.
The Mooresville, North Carolina, cowboy then lasted 3.63 seconds in another failed attempt the following year in Des Moines.
“J.B. is a good friend, but bucking off J.B. as much as he can is a pretty special feat,” Scharping said. “There aren’t many bulls that can say that. He has been on him five times and bucked off every time.
“That is a tall order for any bull because he can ride anything.”
A CROWD FAVORITE
Those two memorable buckoffs in Des Moines with Mauney are only some of the favorite memories Scharping has of his bull.
Des Moines was always a microcosm of how special Air Time was for the sport of professional bull riding.
After the riders were announced last year in Des Moines, one of the in-arena announcers told the fans that Air Time would be waiting for one unlucky rider.
The fans stood, cheered and rocked Wells Fargo Arena louder than any bull or rider not named J.B. Mauney.
“That is a huge deal because the fans really loved him,” Scharping said. “That is what we do it for. That is a big thing to me, how much fans loved him. That means more to me than anything else. That is why we go. We try to bring the best bulls in the world so people buy tickets and follow the sport.”
Air Time’s freakish ability and photogenic bucking style dropped fans’ mouths and led to feature stories in publications like the New York Times and primetime television exposure on CBS and NFL Network.
“He has done so much for the sport by being that wild, crazy and athletic,” Scharping said. “He pulled stuff off that other bulls just can’t do.
“I am extremely blessed to have ever cared for him.”
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SHORTCOMINGS
Air Time’s retirement means he will finish his career on the outside looking in at bulls that won a PBR World Championship.
The superstar was one out away from winning the championship on the final day of the 2015 season before he ended the 2015 World Finals with a sub-par 42.5-point bull score against Ryan Dirteater.
The out opened the door for 2015 World Champion Bull SweetPro’s Long John to rally for the title with a 47.25-point bull score on Championship Sunday.
Air Time began the 2016 World Finals as the No. 1 contender heading into Las Vegas, but he bucked off Zane Cook in 6.47 seconds during his first out and was only marked 42.5 points. He was then called for a foul against Mauney, who had selected Air Time in hopes of making a herculean comeback to win his own World Championship in 2016.
The two World Finals collapses are part of Air Time’s legacy. He will go down as one of the great athletes, such as NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly, that failed to win a championship in their respective sports.
“It is what it is,” Scharping said. “You can’t change what happened. I have moved on from it. I know in my heart how good that bull was and for how long. Everybody doubted us when we did it. Everybody thought we were crazy. He had previous injuries. He was horrible in the bucking chute. Everyone thought we were nuts spending $150,000 to go buy him. We basically proved everyone wrong. We got him to last longer than most bulls last on the PBR tour.”
Allen added, "Obviously the format changes, but if we had this format two years ago we may have had the title. At the end of the day, it would have been great to hang that hardware over him, but I don’t think there is a person, bull rider or contractor that doesn’t know Air Time was one of the best. He will always have that respect.
"Him not winning it is disappointing because you know he deserves it, but that is why you buck them and you never know what is going to happen."
It easy to judge an athlete’s career based on championships, but the biggest championship Scharping ever wanted was to make sure his bull was always healthy before he headed to the arena.
“My deal is it is only about the bull,” Scharping said. “My job is to get the absolute most I can out of an animal and keep them healthy and safe and everything else. I really believe that and hold that really close. That is what I am here for. When a bull succeeds, that is gratifying because you feel you did something right.
“I have never lost a day in my life. I either won or I learned. The great thing about Air Time is he taught me a lot.”
GREENER PASTURES AWAIT
Air Time has spent the summer breeding with cows and enjoying the beautiful Minnesota weather in Arlington, which is only an hour southwest of Minneapolis.
The training sessions and endless preparation to get Air Time ready for a push at winning that world title are no more.
These days, Air Time gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor and relax on the ranch and live the life of a champion.
Air Time can have all the feed, water and ladies he wants for the most part. Roughly 60 days a year he will be asked to take part in Scharping’s breeding program, but otherwise, Air Time may want to purchase some sunscreen.
It isn’t uncommon for visitors to pay a visit to the ranch and want to say hello to Air Time.
That would have seemed unthinkable when Scharping first acquired the bull in 2014.
At that time, Air Time was petrified of his own shadow and a bumblebee flying over him would have sent him into a craze.
These days Air Time likes company and is a goofball.
“He doesn’t get worked up about anything anymore,” Scharping said. “He is pretty laid back. Going to those (BFTS) events desensitized him to people being around. He likes people now.
“What was cool with him is he didn’t really trust anybody. Now he is so trusting with me. It was never that he was mean, but he was always scared.”
Raising or acquiring a World Champion-caliber bull is essentially finding a needle in a haystack, and that reality doesn’t pass Scharping by.
In fact, Scharping is dreading the idea of heading to Nashville next week for the Built Ford Tough Music City Knockout knowing Air Time will not be riding alongside him.
Scharping has already begun the work of trying to raise the next great bucking bull – maybe it will be one of Air Time’s sons, such as a 2-year-old called Air Born, or maybe he will take another chance on a risky, young animal like he did with Air Time.
Regardless, Scharping understands that it will likely never be the same.
“Air Time spoiled me because I think a really, good bull should be him,” Scharping concluded. “They are just not out there. It takes a lot for me to go to an event and say, ‘Man that bull is really good.’ I go, ‘Yeah he is ok, but he isn’t Air Time.’
“None of them will ever be Air Time. He has just been so great for so long. Him, Bushwacker. Those are once-in-a-lifetime animals.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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