PUEBLO, Colo. – Chad Berger would brew himself a cup of coffee many mornings at his ranch in Mandan, North Dakota, and take a stroll outside.
For the last year and a half, the PBR’s reigning Stock Contractor of the Year would make his way to the pen of World Champion Bull contender Pearl Harbor whenever the bull was spending the warmer months up north.
The bovine superstar with the black coat and white face would sometimes not care to acknowledge his morning visitor and would continue to stand out in the distance, but that didn’t bother Berger one bit.
The 56-year-old stock contractor still loved the rankest bull that he has ever owned in his career even if Pearl Harbor was sometimes a little “standoffish.”
On Wednesday, Berger was unable to take that normal stroll out around his ranch.
Instead, he could barely move as he sat inside and tried to comprehend the sudden passing of his superstar bull on Tuesday evening.
“It’s been freaking hard,” Berger said as he coughed and tried to control his emotions Wednesday morning. “He meant everything to me. I never had one like that.”
Berger then stopped mid-sentence to take a deep breath.
The silence on the phone couldn’t mask the tears that were building in his eyes.
Berger’s lips and voice continued to quiver as he tried to continue talking.
“I have had a ton of great bulls, but not like that one,” Berger said. “He just meant everything to me. To have something like that. I don’t know how to explain it. It is hard to explain it. I feel like I lost one of my own kids.
“I can’t even move. I am just so shocked. I can’t do anything.
Pearl Harbor was 6 years old at the time of his death, which Berger said was the result of a blood clot near the bull’s brain.
Pearl Harbor was the No. 1 bull in the PBR World Champion Bull standings with a 46.25-point World Champion Bull average, and he was 10-0 on the 25th PBR: Unleash The Beast.
The PBR and the entire Western Sports world has been in mourning Wednesday as the news broke about Pearl Harbor’s passing.
Berger’s daughter, Sadie, was at her own loss of words on Tuesday evening when her dad informed her of the news.
She is heartbroken for her father, who had invested so much time, love, energy and care into Pearl Harbor.
Sadie has witnessed her dad go above and beyond the speed limit, sometimes as fast as 75 miles per hour, to get to his bulls when they have been sick or ill, but she admitted that she has never seen her dad this devastated by the passing of one of his bulls.
“I was crying last night just thinking about him because I know how much that bull means to him,” Sadie said. “I haven’t seen him cry, but I know he has been crying when we are not around. I have only seen him cry a few times in his life, and that was at funerals. It doesn’t matter who talks to him, they are going to see it in his face and in his eyes. He is just hurting.
“He has seen World Champion potential in a lot of his bulls over the years, but this was the one bull he felt he could truly win it with. That is why he meant so much to him. You can win Stock Contractor of the Year time and time again, and he won a World Championship with Code Blue. But with Code Blue he didn’t have him all the time. With Pearl Harbor, he had that special bond because he knew he could reach that potential with that bull. That would have been the pinnacle or the height of his career because more than anything you want to win a World Champion Bucking Bull.”
A WORLD CHAMPION BULL FRONTRUNNER
There is no question that Pearl Harbor could have potentially won the 2018 World Champion Bull title later this season in Las Vegas during the PBR World Finals.
Pearl Harbor was on a march to the championship as he tried to outduel reigning two-time World Champion SweetPro’s Bruiser.
The two were amidst a tremendous rivalry for the last two years with each bull refusing to give the other an inch of an advantage.
Pearl Harbor’s last out was a monstrous 47.5-point outing in which he disposed of Fernando Henrique Novais in 5.89 seconds two weeks ago in Tacoma, Washington.
Pearl Harbor used no tricks to demolish Novais either.
It was simply brute strength as he left the bucking chutes spinning toward the right.
The out was his third 47-plus bull score in his last four trips, which included buckoffs of two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney (2.17 seconds) and No. 3 Cody Nance (5.94 seconds).
Pearl Harbor had also bucked off Cody Campbell, Cody Teel, Derek Kolbaba, Jose Vitor Leme and Eduardo Aparecido this season.
He met every challenger with unimaginable force and power.
That included his staunch bovine opponent Bruiser of D&H Cattle Company.
“I was a huge fan of Pearl Harbor,” said H.D. Page. “I wanted Bruiser to beat him every week, but there were weeks I knew we got beat. I am a huge fan of bull riding and watching a great bull like that buck, I would go buy a ticket to watch those great bulls buck.
“He sure will be missed. The rivalry between him and Bruiser has been there and it was just heating up. It was really fun. I was never upset when he won because those are two great bulls. Now it is like a fight that went unfought kind of deal.”
PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert said there was no doubt that Pearl Harbor was one of the greatest bucking bulls to ever compete in the PBR.
Pearl Harbor doesn’t need a World Championship to receive that kind of recognition.
“He was one of the best two bucking bulls in the world these past couple of years,” Lambert said. “He was harder to ride than Bruiser, but he didn’t quite have the flash to beat him; and Bruiser is one of the all-time greats, and so is Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is in the conversation with the all-time greats even though he hasn’t won a championship.”
It wasn’t uncommon to see Berger let out a big sigh of relief on the back of the bucking chutes after Pearl Harbor launched a rider in the arena.
His nervous cheeks would fill with air as he held his breath, but deep down there was also a sense of confidence, said his daughter.
“They just had a special bond,” Sadie said. “My dad felt he had the potential to be a World Champion and he was going to be one. My dad gets very nervous when he bucks, but I think he made him feel calm in the end because he knew he could outperform anyone.”
Pearl Harbor was getting stronger and stronger during his second full season aboard Berger’s truck this year.
He was averaging a career-best 46 points prior to being withdrawn from the 15/15 Bucking Battle this past weekend in Billings, Montana, when Berger noticed Pearl Harbor was favoring his neck. There was no indication at the time that Pearl Harbor was severely ill.
“It is just unbelievable,” Berger said.
THE FIRST RIDE
Matt Triplett glanced at his wall at home in Kalispell, Montana, on Wednesday morning and saw the picture of himself aboard a talented young bull by the name of Pearl Harbor.
Triplett was the first of only six riders (Triplett, Mike Lee, J.B. Mauney, Shane Proctor, Sage Kimzey and Dener Barbosa) to ever make the 8 seconds aboard Pearl Harbor in 61 outs at all levels of competition during the bull’s 5-year career.
The Columbia Falls, Montana, native rode Pearl Harbor for 87.25 points at the 2014 PBR World Finals.
“He was a great bull and it is a sad day that he died,” Triplett said. “He is one of the greatest bulls that ever bucked. It is tough for everybody in the PBR world right now.”
Pearl Harbor was still an up-and-coming ABBI Classic Bull when Triplett began to tie his hand into his bull rope inside the Thomas & Mack Center on October 22, 2014.
Triplett knew nothing about the black bull below him that was the son of three-time PBR World Finals qualifier Black Pearl.
Pearl Harbor had made his PBR premier series debut two months earlier in Thackerville, Oklahoma, with a 2.11-second buckoff of Marco Eguchi.
Outside of that out, though, Pearl Harbor had only four other outs – all buckoffs at the Touring Pro Division level – on his resume.
“That was probably the reason why I did ride him,” Triplett recalled. “I knew nothing about him. Shoot, that bull fired out of there and he came into my hand. At about 6 seconds, he went away from my hand blowing up. I have some gnarly pictures from it.”
Fast forward three years later and Pearl Harbor got his revenge against Triplett.
Pearl Harbor didn’t even give Triplett a shot in Billings last year when he embarrassed the hometown cowboy in 1.98 seconds for a career-best 47.5-point bull score.
The bull had matured and evolved into a full-fledged force from the last time the two met in Las Vegas.
“That power was awesome,” Triplett said. “I didn’t have my day obviously and he packed a full heavy lunch for me and I wasn’t ready for it.”
Even though it is hard for him to pinpoint his favorite out from Pearl Harbor, that one in Billings was one Berger would put at the top of the Pearl Harbor pedestal.
“That was the rankest trip he ever had,” Berger said. “If there was ever going to be a bull marked 50 points then that was the night. There were a lot of great trips, don’t get me wrong, but that was the rankest trip he ever had.”
Triplett had been hoping for a rematch against this bull later this year.
That photo of his ride on Pearl Harbor was one source of inspiration during Triplett’s recent recovery from offseason shoulder surgery.
“That was one of my goals,” Triplett said. “I didn’t want to say nothing, but he was on my hit list for when I came back. It is such a bummer.”
THE RIVALRY WITH MAUNEY & THE INFAMOUS PEARL HARBOR KISS
There was another bull rider who was hopeful for a rematch against Pearl Harbor this year – two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney.
Mauney sustained a broken back (T1-T2) attempting to ride Pearl Harbor earlier this month in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when Pearl Harbor sent him crashing to the ground – folding him over like a lawn chair in the process – in 2.17 seconds.
Pearl Harbor was marked 47 points.
It was the third buckoff Pearl Harbor had posted against Mauney. The two met a total of six times, but Mauney was injured inside the chutes in two of the matchups.
“The way my motor gets to running on them bulls, he feels me and I get to jerking around in there and he don’t like it I guess,” Mauney said during the World Finals.
Mauney was the next rider to conquer Pearl Harbor on the premier series after Triplett when he made a memorable 94.25-point ride in front of a sold-out crowd at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on April 2, 2016.
Mike Lee had ridden Pearl Harbor for 89.75 points to win the Decatur, Texas, Velocity Tour event in 2015.
However, Mauney’s memorable ride nearly never happened after he pinched a nerve in his riding elbow 24 hours earlier. The legendary bull rider couldn’t feel his riding arm during his ride aboard Pearl Harbor.
Berger and his partners Clay Struve and David Currey later acquired Pearl Harbor three months later from Dave Kielhorn (Bar D Cattle Company) after originally striking out on buying Pearl Harbor earlier in 2016 from Boyd and Floyd Bull Company.
The longtime stock contractor had been eyeing Pearl Harbor ever since the bull was 2 years old.
“He was a superstar before I ever got him,” Berger said. “He was a superstar when he was in Vegas as a 2-year-old at the ABBI Futurity. He just never had a bad day.”
It was less than a year ago when Mauney and Pearl Harbor matched up in their biggest matchup – a $50,000 showdown at Berger’s annual summer event in Bismarck, North Dakota – on June 16, 2017.
Mauney was no match for Pearl Harbor as Berger’s bovine star outmuscled Mauney, getting the 90-point bull riding king’s free arm out of position, in 4.91 seconds and preventing him from leaving Berger’s home state with $50,000.
The matchup also famously involved Pearl Harbor kissing Mauney’s chaps in the backpens before the two matched up in the arena.
In fact, the out was very similar to the one that Pearl Harbor had with Mauney in Sioux Falls a few weeks ago, Berger said.
“It was nerve-racking,” Berger said. “It was a big moment. It was a big matchup. There was a lot of hype going into it. It gets the blood flowing a little faster. I would have been just as glad if he rode him that day.”
KIMZEY OFFERS CONDOLENCES
Four-time PRCA champion Sage Kimzey also challenged Pearl Harbor during the summer of 2017.
Berger had organized a $20,000 exhibition matchup between the best bull rider in the PRCA and Pearl Harbor to cap off the rodeo event in Berger’s hometown of Mandan.
“There are very few bulls that really get my heart pumping to crawl over, and Pearl was one of those,” Kimzey said. “For that short time, everything in the world stood still. He was an amazing animal athlete and will be missed dearly. Pearl was one of those bulls that everyone loved.”
ENTERING BUSHWACKER’S CATEGORY
Lambert played a certain video clip of Pearl Harbor when he was instructing at a PBR judging seminar.
The video is of Pearl Harbor’s 6.67-second buckoff of Rubens Barbosa in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 11, 2017.
Pearl Harbor was marked 46.25 points, but Lambert said you could make an argument for 50 points.
“I think I would have scored him 25,” Lambert said. “I showed that out at the judging seminar to show them what a 25-point bull looks like. They scored him to low that night.”
Barbosa couldn’t believe the news on Wednesday.
“He was my favorite bull,” Barbosa said. “I’m very sad about this news. He was so special because of his consistency that he had during his career. He was different and special.”
Barbosa was bucked off two times by Pearl Harbor, but he was far from the only bull rider to get blasted by him.
Pearl Harbor, who was also flanked at times for Berger by his employee Joey Hales, posted 40 buckoffs on the premier series and 55 overall.
"It was an honor and a privelege to care for and be around Pearl," Hales said. "He is a legend."
He also had a streak of 14 buckoffs in a row on the premier series before Shane Proctor rode him for 93.5 points at the 2017 15/15 Bucking Battle in Tacoma, Washington.
“He gave it everything he had every time he bucked,” Berger said. “He knew he was great and he knew he was entertaining to fans. That is why he tried so hard every single time.
“He was so big and strong. For a bull to buck like that for as big as he was, he was extraordinary.”
2016 PBR World Champion Cooper Davis was 0-4 against Pearl Harbor in his career and one of six PBR or PRCA champions that were blasted by Pearl Harbor.
“You never knew if he was going right or left,” Davis said. “There was about .01 seconds to make that right move, and if you didn’t make it you would end up on your back every time like I did.
“You can’t help but feel awful for Chad,” Davis said. “That is his pride and joy. That is one that doesn’t come along very often. It hurts to lose any bull, but one that special you dang sure can’t replace him.”
Jess Lockwood was bucked off by Pearl Harbor in the Tacoma 15/15 Bucking Battle two weeks ago, but he was awarded a re-ride.
That didn’t stop him from experiencing Pearl Harbor’s true power.
“He was another level of rank,” Lockwood said. “He was definitely a different and harder to ride rank than Bruiser. He was strong as they come.”
Lambert paid the ultimate compliment you could offer a bull when he was talking about Pearl Harbor on Wednesday morning.
“Pearl Harbor was in the Bushwacker category,” Lambert concluded without hesitating.
THE FINAL RIDE & ENDING WITH A BUCKOFF STREAK
Pearl Harbor’s final out at the 2017 PBR World Finals was not his best, but it is one that Dener Barbosa will forever cherish.
Barbosa was the last rider to reach the 8 seconds aboard Pearl Harbor after riding the 2017 World Champion Bull runner-up for 89.5 points last year on Championship Sunday at the Finals.
“I am very sad because he was a very great bull,” Barbosa said. “It was a very important ride to me because he was one of the best bulls in the world.”
The 2017 World Finals was a heartbreaker for Berger.
Pearl Harbor posted bull scores of 45.25 points and 45.75 points as SweetPro’s Bruiser was able to edge Pearl Harbor for the 2017 championship.
Pearl Harbor, though, made sure to never disappoint Berger again.
Berger’s pride and joy finished his career with 12 consecutive buckoffs at all levels of competition.
With each buckoff this year, Sadie could see her dad gaining more and more confidence that this truly would be Pearl Harbor’s year.
“He was absolutely, pretty disappointed last year,” Sadie said. “He was upset because Pearl Harbor didn’t perform like he could have. Bruiser won it fair and square. It was hard on him because he knew Pearl Harbor had the potential to. He just didn’t show his true potential there at the Finals.
“I definitely would say it bothered him for a while, but you know this year he really got a glimpse of that again and he was getting really excited and pumped up about it.”
Chad Berger doesn’t expect his pain to go away immediately. He still plans to head to the Columbus Invitational, presented by Cooper Tires, this weekend and be around his bulls and his PBR family.
It has been a tremendously painful few days for Berger, and he knows there won’t be any replacements waiting in the wings for him.
“This is a hard one to take, and a hard one to get over,” Berger concluded. “You don’t just go down the street and get another one. They are not out there on the street corners that I know.”
He also will forever cherish those special moments the two had in the arena, as well as at home on those early morning walks.
“He sure was the frontrunner until the day he died. I always felt he was a ranker bull than any bull alive.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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