The job of a protection athlete like Mitch Russell is to get in the path of bucking bulls to protect riders. Picture: Elise Derwin
The job of a protection athlete like Mitch Russell is to get in the path of bucking bulls to protect riders. Picture: Elise Derwin

The secret life of a rodeo clown

Mitch Russell counts himself pretty lucky in the workplace injury stakes, only requiring three knee reconstructions to date.

The day his throat was crushed and a mate stood ready to plunge a knife into his windpipe so he could breathe, he managed to calm down before the amateur bush surgery was required, which is probably pretty fortunate.

Russell is a protection athlete, a job most Australians might know as rodeo clown, on the professional circuit and has been throwing himself in the path of 800-kilogram bulls for 16 years now.

Bull riding is considered the most dangerous sport in the world, with cowboys hopping on the back of a bucking behemoth to see who can stay on for the longest.

But the vital and often lifesaving role of the trio of helpers in the ring is sometimes overlooked.

"Our priority is to look after the cowboy," Russell, 32, told news.com.au.

"For the guy riding the bull, they're not really in control of their own situation. They're on the back of an animal that weighs about 800 kilos. It's not a fair match up.

"When the bull flings them down, they can't do much about it. They're prone to have a wreck. That's where we come in."

 

Mitch Russell fell into being a protection athlete quite by accident when he was just 17. Picture: Elise Derwin
Mitch Russell fell into being a protection athlete quite by accident when he was just 17. Picture: Elise Derwin

 

Mitch Russell tries to free bull rider Kurt Shepard's tangled hand. Picture: Elise Derwin
Mitch Russell tries to free bull rider Kurt Shepard's tangled hand. Picture: Elise Derwin

This weekend at the Professional Bull Riding grand final in Townsville in north Queensland, Russell and his two teammates, Geoff Hall and Clint Kelly, will act as cowboy bodyguards.

In order of priority, they work to protect the rider first, the bull second, and themselves and each other third.

"We've got to be the target rather than the rider. It's literally throwing yourself in front of the bull to get run over sometimes.

"If the rider lands and the bull is looking for something to chase, we've got to get him to chase us and get us before he gets the rider on the ground. You've got a split second to get him away from the guy.

"We make sure the bull chases one of us, then another will come in and get his attention and so on, until he calms down and goes off to the backyard and that's his night done."

Protection athlete Mitch Russell runs for cover in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin
Protection athlete Mitch Russell runs for cover in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin

 

The Bullzeye protection team in action in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin
The Bullzeye protection team in action in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin

The 'he' Russell is referring to is the bull, of course. Such is the respect - and sometimes fear - those on the rodeo circuit have for the powerful animals.

But they're unpredictable animals and things can and do go wrong. Russell's job entails him to bear the brunt of the carnage.

"I haven't had too many issues though," he said. "I've had three knee reconstructions - my left one has been done twice and my right one once. Apart from that, not much.

"Oh, I've had a couple of broken forearms, I've broken a heap of fingers, I shattered my cheek bone … broke my ribs a few times, a few little cuts and bruises but not too many. I'm missing a front tooth too.

"That's about it though. I reckon I've been pretty lucky when it comes to injuries."

The closest Russell said he's come to a pretty serious incident was when his throat collided with the full force of a bucking bull in the arena.

"That was probably the scariest. My throat swelled up and kind of closed. I couldn't breathe," he said. "They were about to stick a knife in me, in my neck, so I could keep breathing. I settled down though so they didn't have to. That was good."

 

PBR Monster Energy Tour's protection athletes Geoff Hall, Mitch Russell and Clint Kelly at the Iron Cowboy in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin
PBR Monster Energy Tour's protection athletes Geoff Hall, Mitch Russell and Clint Kelly at the Iron Cowboy in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin

Russell quite literally stumbled into the role of a protection athlete by accident when he was 17, watching a bull riding mate on a weekend away.

"One day a mate of mine got knocked unconscious … there were no helpers around … his hand got stuck and he was hung up so I ran in there and got him out," he said.
Video of the save caused quite a stir and word spread around the rodeo grounds, and Russell was asked to stay on and help out for the remaining day.

"I got seen by some guys there who asked me to do a rodeo for them, and it kind of happened like that.

"I think I was the youngest guy at the time to be approved by the association to do rodeos."

He's one-third of the official Bullzeye Protection Team, a year-long post that sees Russell on the road with the tour, with stops in rural towns, regional centres and capital cities.

The quintessential image of a rodeo clown working protection involves bright, often garish outfits, but that's part of a popular myth about bulls, Russell explained.

"Cattle are colour blind. The red thing with bulls is a myth," he laughed.

Protection athlete Mitch Russell takes cover from bull Ramblin Ways. Picture: Elise Derwin
Protection athlete Mitch Russell takes cover from bull Ramblin Ways. Picture: Elise Derwin

"They react to shadows and movement, which is why the old rodeo clowns you see had big scarfs and baggy pants. They see that moving. If you've got a scarf that brushes against the bull's face, they think they've got you and they leave you alone a bit.

"We wear protective gear underneath - vests, padded shorts, elbow and knee guards, shin pads and a kind of turf shoe with a bit of grip."

A Global Cup event hosted in Sydney in June pushed some national meets back, so the current season is in its 16th month.

"This Saturday is the grand final so we're nearly at the end," Russell said.

But the following weekend, it starts up again in Melbourne, so there won't be a lot of time for a break for him and his family.

The Bullzeye protection team in action in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin
The Bullzeye protection team in action in Tamworth. Picture: Elise Derwin

The PBR is kind of like cricket's T20 - there are plenty of rodeos around, but this is fast-paced, entertaining and high adrenaline.

"Some rodeos aren't the greatest spectator sport whereas the PBR has fireworks, music, a comedy crowd between rides, as well as the best bulls and the best guys.

"To get to this level, you've got to be good. Not any old bull or any old guy can show up. It's the best in Australia and the world."

From his property near Maitland in New South Wales, Russell also breeds bulls that are used on the circuit. Seeing both sides of the rodeo world - from alongside the riders and as a breeder - he's passionately defensive of the sport.

"There's a lot of debate about rodeos being cruel and all that sort of stuff. Everyone can have their opinion. But if you actually come and talk to the guys and have a look, you'll see the bulls are very looked after.

"They're fit, they're in prime condition, they're fed well. They love their job. You can't make a bull buck - they wouldn't do it if they didn't want to. They're like humans - they've got personalities."

Mitch Russell tries to distract Cherry Ripe after the bull bucked off rider Oscar Leake. Picture: Elise Derwin
Mitch Russell tries to distract Cherry Ripe after the bull bucked off rider Oscar Leake. Picture: Elise Derwin

 

Protection athlete Mitch Russell taps Smash n Grab after rider Darcy McBean is bucked off in Wodonga. Picture: Elise Derwin
Protection athlete Mitch Russell taps Smash n Grab after rider Darcy McBean is bucked off in Wodonga. Picture: Elise Derwin

At home, Russell has an old bull who enjoyed a successful career in the ring and then was used for breeding, but these days lazes in a lush paddock.

"He lives in his own little paddock with a fresh dam and a nice tree he sits under. He had a good life but now he's relaxing in retirement. When he passes away, we'll get him mounted. He means that much to us."

The sport is growing in leaps and bounds in Australia, especially during a time of serious and widespread drought.

Those who live and work on the land welcome the distraction from the enormity of the drought emergency, which has had a profound impact on families and finances.

Protection athlete Mitch Russell loves his job, which he stumbled into by accident at just 17. Picture: Elise Derwin
Protection athlete Mitch Russell loves his job, which he stumbled into by accident at just 17. Picture: Elise Derwin

When he's not on the road, Russell is at home with his wife and their three-year-old son, who love nothing more than making the most of life in the country.

"I was talking to my wife this morning and the little fella was upset that she had his cowboy clothes in the wash because he wanted to be a cowboy today," Russell said.

"He loves being at home with all the animals. He helps me get the bulls in out in the paddock, he watches me in the yard, he plays with the work dogs and tries to whistle to move them. He loves being a little country kid."

Last-minute tickets are on sale now for the Professional Bull Riders Monster Energy Tour Grand Finals in Townsville