The bull by the horns
When knocked down, Jerome Davis helped other Tar Heel cowboys mount up.

by Ken Otterbourg

It has been 16 years since Jerome Davis broke his neck riding a bull named Knock ’em Out John in Fort Worth, Texas. The injury left him unable to walk, ride and make a living at the only job he ever had, which consisted of wrapping a piece of rope around his hand and trying to stay aboard a snorting, bucking animal for 8 seconds. While some might have left the sport after such an injury, Davis, 41, stayed to raise a new generation of Tar Heel riders and bulls. “The problem,” the Randolph County resident says with a laugh, “is that I didn’t know how to do anything else.”

Though it lacks the reputation of Texas or New Mexico, North Carolina has become a breeding ground for professional bull riders. Brian Canter and Josh Faircloth are from nearby Archdale and Randleman, respectively. J.B. Mauney of Mooresville won the 2013 Professional Bull Riders title. Part of that success stems from the abundance of lower-level competitions in rural communities in central North Carolina. “Five out of seven days, you can be nodding your head to win,” Davis says. But Tar Heel bull riders also owe a big debt to him. “He won the [Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] championship in 1995, the first [rider from] east of the Mississippi to do it,” says Adam Bolatto, president of the North Carolina High School Rodeo Association and a former bullfighter (rodeo clown). “That was a big deal. An eye-opener for a lot of younger people.”

Davis rode his first bull at age 11 and was hooked, competing in 12 to 15 events a year as a teenager. He was North Carolina State Rodeo champion in 1990 before taking a rodeo scholarship to Odessa College in Texas, winning the college title while there. He left school after his freshman year to turn pro.

In 1992, Davis and 19 other riders each chipped in $1,000 to create Professional Bull Riders Inc., which is based in Pueblo, Colo. They were taking the risks, he says, but the promoters were getting most of the money. They recruited sponsors and sold broadcast rights at a huge discount to get on TV but bought the rights back in 2001 for $6.5 million with the help of Thomas Teague, president of Winston-Salem-based Salem Leasing Corp., who put up about half the money. That enabled the riders to cash out six years later, when they sold controlling interest to New York-based Spire Capital Partners LLC for an estimated $80 million. Davis used some of the money to build a house, with an elevator, where he lives with his wife, Tiffany. He still owns a small stake in PBR, which each season packs in more than 2.5 million, up from 310,000 in 1995. “He’s a darned sharp businessman,” says Teague, a PBR board member and stock contractor. “I have to give him credit for that.”

Davis’ ranch is outside Archdale on the same roughly 80 acres of pasture and woods that he grew up on as son of a dairy farmer. It’s now headquarters of Davis Rodeo Inc., which he started in 1995. It operates a number of rodeo-related enterprises, including a bull-riding school and a two-day PBR event that attracts about 10,000 fans to a no-frills arena at the farm every Labor Day weekend. There also are about 100 bucking bulls on the property. The company owns some wholly, others in partnerships with folks who lack land or expertise. The parties split feed, vet bills and transportation. The upside can be big. Bushwacker is the baddest bull on the PBR, ridden for the full 8 seconds only twice during his six-year career. He retires this year, having earned his owner, a Texan, $500,000 in appearance and stud fees — a vial of his semen costs about $3,000.

Superfreak, Davis Rodeo’s best bull, dislodges its rider about 60% of the time. Contrary to popular belief, bulls are not shocked or cinched painfully to make them buck; they’ve been bred to kick, wheel and raise hell. Superfreak’s daughters fetch up to $10,000, and though they never make it to competition, their bloodline is as important as a bull’s in the conception of a champion, Davis says.

Most bulls bred by Davis are bucking in smaller events, working their way to the PBR. But Mars Hill-based Robinson Bulls Inc. has been PBR Stock Contractor of the Year four years running. “He’s the reason I got into stock contracting,” Teague says. “And I’m sure he had an influence on Jeff Robinson.” And while Davis’ pro career was cut short, Mauney ranks second in all-time PBR winnings, having earned nearly $5 million in his nine-year career. “The stepping stone for North Carolina probably would be Jerome,” says Bolatto, who played the clown at many of Davis’ Labor Day rodeos before retiring. “He’s one of my favorite people in the world. To go through that catastrophe and still accomplish what he’s done. It’s amazing. I can’t put it into words.”