Originally created 04/11/98

Bull rider ready to prove himself



COLUMBIA -- Way out back on 30 acres in Lexington County, in the middle of a fallow field, rusted and hidden by weeds, a barrel hangs between two wooden posts.

"This is where we used to practice," said Cantrell Shealy, whose family owns the land.

The contraption, built by his older brothers in the '70s, is a bull-riding barrel. As a teen-ager, Mr. Shealy would ride it as two friends wildly shook the attached metal cables, trying to throw him.

It probably hasn't been touched in five years. But that's because Mr. Shealy, 28, rides real bulls now.

"Heckuva thing, going from barrels to bulls," he said.

This weekend, Mr. Shealy and bull riders from 11 states will meet at Carolina Coliseum for the Cowboy Bullriding Classic.

This is the first time the coliseum has held a bull-riding competition. There was a rodeo here in 1995, and Cantrell won the bull-riding event.

Organizers think Mr. Shealy, one of only a few riders from South Carolina, could do well this weekend, too.

Some of the bulls headed here weigh almost a ton and have never been ridden in competition for a full eight seconds.

"Lots of guys are real intimidated by these big bulls," said Craig Copeland, an organizer of the Classic. "Cantrell's not. He's one of the tough ones."

Mr. Shealy, who lives in Lexington with his girlfriend, Stephanie Kelly, and her daughter, Jessica, is likely the only bull rider from the Midlands who has made a dent on the pro circuit recently.

It's in his blood, though. Two of his older brothers also rode and traveled the country.

"They had me a little ol' beer keg that I used to play on when I was about 7," he said. "I'd sit on it, wrap a rope around it and push it with my feet, making it go in circles like a bull spinning.

"Of course, it's not quite the same thing."

And even though he worked up to the backyard barrel, Mr. Shealy didn't ride a live bull until March 22, 1992. He remembers the day.

"It was in a fella's practice pen up in Easley," he said. "I stayed on about three jumps ... but I rode about four bulls that day. I was pretty sore and stiff."

Mr. Shealy liked it so much he began traveling to pit himself against the meanest, rankest bulls like the pros ride. Within months he had his own bull rope, spurs and chaps.

Mr. Shealy's mom and a friend, Jeff Groff, sponsored him by helping pay for equipment and travel expenses. "He has such drive," Mr. Groff said.

Mr. Groff recalled once watching a bull crush Mr. Shealy's leg in the chute. He still took his turn, was thrown, limped to the medics and drove in delirium to his next rodeo.

Mr. Shealy knows well the day-to-day punishment of bull riding.

At 7 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1997, he loaded up his sky blue Ford pickup and left Columbia to try the professional circuit out West. He participated in rodeos several times a week for months, driving alone and sometimes sleeping in his truck when he didn't make enough money for hotels.

Payouts never came easy.

"The living's about the same for any other cowboy," he said. "When you're riding good and winning, it's good. When you're getting throwed off, it's not."

Shealy finally had to come home in April after a bull smashed his face with a horn.

He lost three front teeth (he has new ones now), broke his jaw and took more than a dozen stitches. And that -- even after being kicked, having an 1,900-pound bull roll over him and another bounce him around its head -- finally convinced him it was time to come home.

Shealy arrived here with more than 300,000 miles on his truck and a huge medical bill. He now works at a mobile home dealership, still trying to pay off the debt.

Shealy, who keeps fit by lifting weights and stretching, looks forward to rejoining the pro circuit and one day riding in the National Finals Rodeo to vie for the winner's gold buckle.

"I'm gonna try to make it until I'm 32," he said. "I told myself I want to get at least 10 years worth of rodeoing, and then I'll see how my body feels."