We recently had the special opportunity to speak with PBR favorite, Sean Willingham—and whether he’s on a bull, surfboard or simply being a family guy, Sean always manages to stay on top of whatever he tackles.
Broken neck, dislocated hips, a torn groin, even impending retirement, there’s not much that keeps success far at bay or his dreams out of reach.
Angelo: Sean, being the veteran bull rider and fan favorite you are, tell us a bit about what brought you to the sport so long ago and why this will (sadly) be your last season.
Sean: I had a friend that was doing some roping and horses, and I enjoyed riding horses at the time. And then I got introduced to the sport of bull riding, and I stopped riding horses. When I got on my first bull ever, it was a blur, I don’t really remember it. All I remember is that feeling, and wanting to get on over and over again so I could feel it again.
Once I got started riding bulls it was a challenge, and I enjoy challenging myself in everything I did. The sport of bull riding is still the same 20 years later, it is still a challenge every time I get on the back of one. And that’s what I love most about our sport.
Angelo: It’s been quite a year for you with 14 appearances on the 25th PBR: Unleash The Beast, where you recorded your best finish in Tacoma. Have you doubted if it was indeed the right time to leave?
Sean: It’s always a bad decision to retire. I tell everybody my daddy did not raise no quitter. Retirement isn’t going to be easy for me.
Angelo: You’ve endured numerous injuries over your incredible career and battled through a pretty major one when you broke your neck in 2015. Was there ever a moment where you feared you wouldn’t return? Take us through your journey of recovery from that and ultimate triumph.
Sean: Breaking my neck, you definitely question yourself if you’ll be able to do this dangerous sport again. Because two weeks before I broke my neck my roommate broke his neck and his injury was where he couldn’t ride bulls again. And here I am two weeks later with the same diagnosis. So it definitely crossed my mind. But the doctors did all the scans and x-rays, and my injury was a broken neck, which is terrible, but I broke a joint in a vertebra (between C4 and C5) which doctors say if you break it, that’s the way to break it. So with my injury, I was able to come back, and doctors told me it was a normal break in the neck, they set my mind I was going to heal up, sit my time and then when it’s time prepare to come back.
Angelo: Congratulations, of course, on making the 2018 PBR World Finals—your 12th! It must feel great! It’s also the first time you’ll be competing on this tour since the neck injury. What goals are you setting for yourself?
Sean: After coming back and qualifying for my 12th world finals appearance in 2018 I have set my goals pretty high this year considering that it will probably be my last year of competition in PBR. My goals are to break my record in event wins, which would be four, I’d have to win four, my record was three in one year, qualify for my 13th World Finals and also break my highest money earnings in one season which is around $250K. So quite a bit. And ultimately I would like to be a World Champion. I’m not saying I can’t do it, the reach is possible, the odds are definitely against me at my age and with my injuries. But I am a fighter and I am going to give it my all to make my dreams come true.
Angelo: The popularity of the PBR brand in New York City only seems to be growing. What do you attribute to its success and the excitement it generates?
Sean: Just the overall entertainment the PBR brings is what makes it grow in New York City and that’s why people love it. Its man vs. beast, it’s pretty exciting for any person, not necessarily just those in New York, but all over the world. You watch a man, or an 18-year-old, ride an 1800-pound animal, which is entertaining on its own. And we have a great show produced on top with our in-arena entertainment with Flint Rasmussen and the other things we bring, sometimes we add in concerts from well-known singers. Overall it is a great show, it is a rock concert, with country and hip-hop, and you add in professional bull riding, what’s not to like.
Angelo: Going back to 2007 when the PBR elite tour debuted at Madison Square Garden and you were part of the rider field, what would you say has changed the most for you during these years of competing?
Sean: The fans have become more knowledgeable about our sport and what we do for a living. I think at first, they didn’t know what to expect, they didn’t know about bull riding. But now they know about our sport, and come participate and watch, and love coming to watch us every year at Madison Square Garden.
Angelo: As a Georgia native, what do you most enjoy about the MSG experience?
Sean: All the history in that arena, I grew up loving to play basketball, and I always like the Boston Celtics and I remember them playing there when I was younger. And the more that we have been there since 2007, the more that we have learned about Madison Square Garden and the history there. There was a PRCA rodeo there a long time ago, and the more you go there, the more you learn about the history in the building. And to be there and know that is very overwhelming and grateful at the same time.
Angelo: How do you see the current field of riders?
Sean: Young and healthy. They are great, the kids that are coming up are definitely a young group of guys. All the guys that I used to compete with are gone or retired now, so it is a new generation and there is a bunch of guys from everywhere. Not just from the US but more guys from Brazil, more guys from Canada and Australia as well. And even a few guys from Mexico. It has changed a lot from when I was first around, mostly Americans, but nowadays it’s split, it’s crazy.
Angelo: What’s life like when you’re not on the back of a bull?
Sean: That’s the most entertainment I get all year. I come home, I do some training. I chase my two kids around. I cook three meals a day, clean, so I’m more like a housewife you guess, with a little training on the side.
Angelo: As you’re about to embark on your next chapter, is there a message that you would like to leave our readers?
Sean: Momma’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.