Rodeo Star Tuff Hedeman Up Close

One-on-One with Tuff Hedeman

by Rusty Baker@rustybakershow
How does your body feel nearly 18 years after retiring?

“I feel awesome. Looking back, it’s really weird to me that I did what I did and didn’t have the damage that maybe I should.  Riding bulls for 15 years is a lot like playing in the NFL for 15 years. It’s not physical every now and then- it’s physical every day.  But I was fortunate. I always tell people I never had a serious injury.” 

Bodacious essentially broke every bone in your face at the PBR finals in 1995, and that wasn’t serious?

“No. Not even close. The funny thing about the Bodacious incident is I remember it like it was yesterday. I never lost consciousness. What it did was- everything from here down was just mush (pointing at face). When you watch the accident and see the blood you think it was horrible. And it was bad. But if you break shit, it heals. If it’s not life threatening, it’s not serious.”

When did you know that the damage was worse than you thought immediately after the collision?

“When I saw the reaction on people’s faces.  As I was walking out of the arena I told my buddy, ‘I must have broken my jaw, because when I bite down my teeth don’t touch.’  I could see people looking at me, and covering their faces.  I thought, ‘Oh I must not look very good.’  I remember being back stage waiting for the EMT and watching the replay on the monitors, and I could feel my face starting to swell.  This was back when I was still wearing hard contact lenses, and I told my friend, ‘You’re gonna to have to help me dig these contacts out.’ My eyes were swelling shut.  It wasn’t painful initially, but once I was lying down in the ambulance and the adrenaline wore off and the swelling and throbbing began to set in, it hurt like hell.  My head swelled up and it was the grossest thing you’ve ever seen.  There was no way to recognize who I was, or really what I was.”

Due to the danger of the profession, it’s logical that some cowboys might hang it up after one or two World Titles. You won four. What kept you going?

“I just loved to do it.  I loved to ride when I was younger- and I sucked.  I didn’t think I had the goods to be a World Champion, but I always wanted to ride professionally.  Once I started to ride, and learned I could ride, I got some confidence and then riding great and winning became the coolest thing in the world to me. People talk about going out on top.  John Elway did it. Wins a couple of Super Bowls and retires. Good for him. I’m saying to myself, ‘If I just won a World Championship then I’m good enough to go win another one.’ Most people don’t have the stomach to do it everyday, and to want it every day.  I saw guys who, fundamentally, were much better than I was, but they didn’t have the stomach to keep going. If you’re going to ride at that level for so long, you kinda have to bullshit yourself a little bit.”

When did you realize it was time to retire and how difficult was it to deal with that reality?

“I retired because I had two serious neck injuries.  Dr. Freeman said if I had another neck injury like the previous two, I was dead.  I was ready to retire when I did. I think (Dr. Freeman) took it harder than I did. This was in March and I was number one in the PRCA and number one in the PBR.  I knew I wasn’t as good as I was maybe five years earlier, but I was still competitive. It really didn’t bother me. I could see the writing on the wall.”

What would you have done for a living had you not chosen to ride bulls?

“Well I grew up around horse racing, so it would probably have something to do with that.  Even when I was riding professionally I thought when I retired, maybe I would get into horse racing in some way. When I was 16 years old, I was 5’4” and weighed 140 lbs.  The last two years of high school, I’d get up at 5:30 every morning and go to the track. I’d exercise 8-10 horses a day before school.  At one particular time, I thought I might be a jockey because I was small. I didn’t grow until I got to college.  Riding racehorses was really the only thing that excited me as much as riding bulls.”

What did your parents instill in you that you remember the most?

The best thing my parents taught us was hard work and if you want something, go get it.  Sometimes we could afford to go to rodeos and sometimes we couldn’t.  Sometimes we’d sleep in the car, but mom was always there for us. She was the best lady. You could meet her once and never forget her. I remember before the NFR in 1990, Wacey Cathey had a pretty big lead going in, and he’d never won the NFR. I liked Wacey- I looked up to him. Anyway, I was talking to my mother and she made the comment, ‘I sure hope Wacey wins it this year.’ I said, ‘Really? You know I’m entered, right?’ She said ‘Yes, but you’ve won a couple already and Wacey deserves it…’ I said ‘Okay, well, Wacey doesn’t deserve shit. But you go ahead and pull for him. I’ll be the only son of a bitch in the history of the finals whose mother was in the stands pulling for someone else.’ And Wacey didn’t win it, by the way (laughing). My mom would tell you like it is. A spade is a spade.

My dad was the coolest guy in the world. He didn’t tell you much unless he thought it was important.  He let you make your own choices and he’d support you.  Plus, when you’re the youngest of seven, they don’t give a shit what you do as long as you don’t cost them money, don’t embarrass them, and don’t go to jail.”

 You have two athletic sons who are active in rodeo but neither rides bulls. Did you have anything to do with that?

“I didn’t necessarily have anything to do with it, but I didn’t really want them to do that.  I told my sons ‘If you want to ride bulls, that’s your choice’.  A few years ago, my youngest son, Trevor, was thinking he wanted to get on some bulls.  I have this trophy room where I have framed back numbers and group photos from the NFR and PBR Finals. I showed him these pictures and I said, ‘Every year between 250-500 guys set out thinking their gonna make the finals, and 15 get to go. These were the top 15 bull riders in the world.’ I pointed out three guys- Lane Frost, Brent Thurman and Glen Keeley, and said ‘I watched these guys die not further than 20 feet in front of me. These weren’t just guys, they were champions.  There’s no safety guarantees just because you’re a champion. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying this shit’s real.’ One day, one ride, can change or end your life. That’s part of it.” 

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