Rough Stock – Tammy George’s Final Rodeo Season
Photographs and story by Greg Stidham
“Tammy George is your cowgirl”, the rodeo announcer bellowed like a circus ring leader. “Four time world champion, Brentwood California, Chute No. 2 is where it all takes place.” Tammy, who’s been challenging bulls and horses for 15 years, climbed over the fence at the Fort Worth Texas Stockyards’ Cowtown Coliseum last November in preparation of her final bull ride of the season.
Although the 28-year-old had made it to the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association National Finals, the veteran was literally on her last leg. Nine months earlier, Tammy was thrown off a bucking horse and ripped her left knee ligament. She needed an operation and doctors advised her not to ride.
But, like the “rough stock” animals she rides, Tammy was not about to give up. The afternoon sun beamed in through the glass roof highlighting the brim of her hat. Frostie the bull tore into the ring and went into a tornado spin almost immediately.
Mike George, Tammy’s husband, yelled, “ Go! Go! Go! Go! “ while she tried to keep her body square on the whirling bull. It was a losing battle – she bucked off after three seconds.
Pushing herself up off the arena floor, Tammy dusted off her pink leather chaps while clutching her lower back – a reminder of the pain she suffered from the bareback horse competition the night before. Looking over her shoulder, she limped over to the arena fence, eyeing the bull as it left through the open gate.
Mike joined her in the arena and the two headed over to her gear bag. Tammy slowly began putting her equipment away _ first her pink leather chaps, then the bull rope. Moving her long brown locks away from her face, she peered through the fence watching other riders take their turns. A World Champion would be decided later that day.
Since her knee injury last May, Tammy was never without bottles of Tylenol, yards of cloth tape and a constant numbing pain. As she checked her makeshift tape brace, she remembered the day her knee collided with the hard dirt floor of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds during a two-day rodeo.
A horse tossed Tammy after she scored a winning ride, causing her to fall seven feet. Pain enveloped her knee, but she insisted on riding. Forty-five minutes later Tammy rode a bull and ultimately scored a second in the competition.
“I remember I kept walking around trying to keep my knee loose,” Tammy recalled. “I didn’t think it was very serious, so I just kept on riding. All I knew was that I wanted to finish the rodeo.”
Tammy’s rodeo career has had its ups and downs, being filled with countless injuries and extraordinary recoveries. In 1986 she broke her right ankle only weeks before competing in the women’s national finals. Climbing on the bareback with a cast over her boot, Tammy surprised many by winning the World Championship.
Near tragedy struck, however, in 1990 when a bull stepped on her back during a rodeo in Hereford, Texas and tore through her liver only a half-inch from a main artery. Tammy did not want to halt the rodeo on her behalf, so she had a friend drive her to a nearby hospital. Her life hung in the balance as doctors operated on her liver to stop the internal bleeding.
Several bull riders die each year of the same injury, which frightened her family and friends. They tried to persuade her to hang up her hat, but she was back in the saddle again after only a year of mending. Tammy’s determination took her straight to the top – the World Championship in Bull Riding in 1992.
“We told her that were always there for her but we’d like her to concentrate on how the danger effects her loved ones when she considers riding again,” said Tammy’s mother Linda Matteri. “But we feel she should do what’s in her heart”.
Because Tammy recovered so successfully from the bull accident, the current knee damage seemed to pale by comparison. However, Antioch orthopedic surgeon Anath Shenoy was concerned that Tammy’s continuing the season would further injure the fragile ligament. He fitted her with a hinged brace and urged her to do physical therapy.
During the summer, Tammy competed in rodeos throughout the Western and Midwestern states during weekends and maintained her No. 2 spot in the standings.
During the week, she cuts hair in her Antioch beauty salon, Hair Emporium. Being a hair stylist seems far removed from the grittiness of rodeos, but it comes as naturally to her as bareback riding. Tammy’s mother had been a stylist for 16 years before retiring, and she chose to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“I used to watch my mom cut hair while I was growing up, and I always liked it,” Tammy said. “It’s something that’s always been a part of my life. I guess it just comes naturally.”
The season was only five rodeos away from the finals when misfortune struck again. in August a bull kicked her brace during a stint in Eminence, Mo.
“My hand got hung up in the bull rope as I tried to get off when the bull kicked the metal hinge of my brace,” she said. “I just sat there in the arena holding my knee as the bull, Overdraft, finished spinning, stopped and stared at me for a second or two. I thought he might try to push me around with his horn, but he turned and trotted away. He was done with his job.
“I don’t know what my knee would be like if I hadn’t had that (brace) on. I really thought maybe I had damaged it again”.
Following an examination, Tammy learned that her knee had not suffered further injuries. However, only through continued physical therapy – and great endurance – would she be able to compete in the finals.
During the next two months, the stylist-turned-rodeo champ became a fixture at Delta Memorial Hospital’s physical therapy unit between competitions. With a coffee cup in one hand and a newspaper in the other, she rested her knee under a heated towel. Wires connected her knee to an interferential muscle stimulator, which pushed unwanted fluid out of the damaged area.
With the fluid gone, Tammy was able to strengthen her knee using various exercise equipment. Whenever the workout seemed too overwhelming, she says she concentrated on her goal: the world championship in Texas.
“I remember when I used to limp in here and limp out,” said Tammy, thinking about the first physical therapy workouts. “Once we got the swelling down, the pain was lessened and it wasn’t as difficult to strengthen the knee. I would try to push it during physical therapy, but my knee always let me know when I wasn’t quite there.”
While her left knee became stronger, Tammy still could not move it sideways without serious pain. And if she tried to run, she could only go about 50 feet.
Even so, the cowgirl decided to postpone the much-needed surgery so she could compete in the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association National Finals in early November.
Tammy would compete in bareback and bull riding events during the three-day finals. An hour before each day’s events, the Georges stepped behind the chutes to begin their ritual of taping up Tammy’s knee.
Mike took a can of tacky adhesive and sprayed it on her leg. Then tearing off a 12-inch piece of cloth tape, he pressed it firmly against her calf. Fellow cowgirls ducked around Tammy as she propped her foot up next to a toilet stall. In a spiral fashion, Mike layered the tape from mid-calf to her thigh.
The first night Tammy scored a 53 out of 100 in the bareback competition, but bucked off her bull during her first ride. The competitor was pleased, but was determined to do better.
During the next night’s bareback event, she collided with the perimeter fence and bruised her lower back. However, her persistence impressed the judges enough for a score of 61. The packed house cheered as Tammy twirled her hat into the air, celebrating what turned out to be the winning ride of the night. This put her in contention for winning the Bareback Finals weekend average as well as the Bareback World Championships.
Following her final ride on Frostie the bull, Tammy hobbled over to the stands. She held an ice pack against her back while Mike loosened the spurs from her boots. The finals were over – and her knee had held up.
Tammy fell short of first by only two points in the final scoring. Upon hearing the news, Mike gently touched Tammy’s arm and the two returned to the bucking chutes with two checks totaling $589.06 – Tammy’s winnings for the three-day rodeo.
Standing near the arena fence, Tammy paused as Mike detached her back No. 22 from her shirt. Delicately rolling it up, he placed it into her bag to take home and hang on their garage wall next to the other numbers from past rodeos.
“I worked so hard at keeping the swelling down and wearing the brace,” Tammy said, remembering the last day of the finals. “Winning second in the past was never this disappointing. It was a long year and the injury made it longer.”
Although Tammy’s knee survived the finals, a December micro-surgery procedure revealed only a piece of the ligament near the back of the knee. Some cartilage could be repaired, but she would need re-constructive surgery.
In late spring, Tammy will go back in to the hospital. Though nervous about the surgery, not a day goes by when the rodeo champ doesn’t wonder if her bull wrangling days are over.
“I thought everything would have been fixed in December – that I could take a month off and get back on,” Tammy said. “ I don’t want the injury to make up my mind (about competing in the future). I want to be more in control of that decision. I know I can ride while injured. I just don’t want to miss rodeos.”