EASTHAM — Donald Sack, 69, remembers staring a rodeo bull in the face while standing just a few feet from the animal in an arena in Rome, Ga. in August 2005. He was on his third day of bull-fighting class at Sankey Rodeo School.
“I’ve locked eyes with this bull,” says Sack. “I’m breaking every rule in the book. I’m right in front of him and I’m too far away.”
The 900-pound bull and Sack, who was five foot eleven, 200-ish pounds, and 53 years old at the time, continued their stare down for a few more seconds until the bull decided to dig its heel in the ground and make a move.
“Boom! He comes at me,” Sack says. “I remember putting my hand on his head and trying to turn around his horn and get under his shoulder. The next thing I know, I must have been a good five or six feet in the air,” he says. “My first thought was, ‘Oh — this is not so bad.’ ”
Sack landed spread-eagled, face down, and very hard on the dirt. But his rollercoaster ride wasn’t over yet.
The bull picked him up again and threw him like a sack of potatoes before the rodeo school staff managed to get it back into the pen.
How did Don Sack, a guy who lives in Eastham, arrive at that moment?
Sack grew up in Rye, N.Y. but always had family on the Cape. His Eastham grandfather, Colby Kalloch, was, he says, “a character.” Maybe that’s why he moved to town himself some 20 years ago.
One night in 2005, Sack was watching television when National Geographic aired a program featuring Dr. Brady Barr. The herpetologist was studying crocodiles and wanted to develop a ghillie suit so he could get in the water with the wild animals. His research on people whose professions require them to wear body armor led Barr to the Sankey Rodeo School, where bull fighters wear protective vests, padding on their legs, and cleats to work.
Sankey Rodeo School is in Branson, Mo., but the staff travel across the South and Midwest teaching rodeo classes to interested bull riders and fighters. Lyle Sankey, a former professional bull rider, founded the school in 1975.
Rodeos are still a big deal in that part of the country, Sack says. Schools like the University of Tennessee offer scholarships for rodeo bull riding just as they do for other sports like football.
Watching the show, Sack learned that bull fighters — at least, the rodeo kind — don’t fight the bull. In fact, their goal is quite the opposite. During a rodeo, they wait in the ring while the bull and the bull rider are released into the arena. A rodeo bull is bred and trained to buck the rider off its back. At that moment it’s the bull fighter’s job to distract the bull so the rider can run out of the arena safely.
One way to get a bull’s attention, apparently, is to tap its nose. The other is to get right up close to the bull between its shoulder and horn — a spot where the bull can’t really get to you — and encourage it to turn away from the rider. Most of the time, after a few seconds, it does, then trots back to its pen as it’s trained to do.
Sack’s first thought after watching the television program? This was a sport he wanted to try.
He fired up his desktop computer, paid $400 for three days of rodeo school, and took time off from his job at Mid-Cape Home Centers in Orleans to go.
It wasn’t long before he found himself lying on the ground in that Georgia arena.
EMTs came to Sack’s aid, but he got up on his own and walked away. He said he felt fine. Later that day, after he returned to his motel room, he realized he wasn’t.
“I’ve never been in that much pain in my life,” he said. He called 911, and when local police and paramedics showed up, he told them he had been at rodeo school that day.
“They all look at me like, ‘You were at rodeo today and you got hurt? Happens all the time.’ ”
They tested his breathing and told him he’d be all right. But when the pain got worse, Sack drove himself to the hospital and learned he had a collapsed lung. He had fractured every rib on his left side.
Sack spent almost a week in the hospital. His best friend, Bubba, came from Charlotte, N.C. to help him prepare to fly back home to Eastham.
That didn’t stop Sack from attending another Sankey school session at the University of Tennessee in 2008.
He lasted only two days this time, landing in the hospital with a concussion and a fractured wrist.
Someone in a gurney was pushed hastily through the emergency room while Sack was there.
“I could see a pair of jeans and riding boots go by,” he says.
Timothy A. Chambers was a bull riding student at the school that day. He was thrown from a bull shortly after Sack’s accident. Chambers was killed when the bull trampled his head and chest, according to a report in the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Sack has no beef with the school. Instructors there made it clear how dangerous this sport could be. He signed his waiver. He even considered going back a third time, but his daughter put a stop to that.
The thing is, “Rodeo people are the nicest people I have ever been around,” Sack says. “They’re tough as nails, too.”