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Bucking Doubts: Teenage bull rider makes improbable comeback after shattering back

Briggs Madsen is thrown during bull riding during the Utah State High School Rodeo Finals in Heber on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.
Briggs Madsen is thrown during bull riding during the Utah State High School Rodeo Finals in Heber on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

HEBER CITY — In the hospital room where doctors told Briggs Madsen his dream was dead, the 15-year-old with shattered vertebrae watched bull riding videos with family friend Clel Robinson and talked about his future in the sport they both love.

“They didn’t think I’d be able to ever run or walk again, let alone get on bulls,” said Madsen, who earned a spot on the team of high school rodeo athletes that will represent Utah at the National High School Rodeo Finals with a second-place finish in bull riding. “They had completely underestimated me from the get-go.”

Doctors didn’t offer the Bear River teen a grim prognosis for no reason. A horse had landed on the boy in a bucking chute during a rodeo on Aug. 22, 2015, shattering five of his vertebrae. Their opinions were based on the realities they see with these kinds of injuries.

But even as Madsen dealt with debilitating effects of the accident, he knew the professionals' predictions were wrong. And people like Robinson not only encouraged him to reject that prognosis, but also helped him keep his dream of being a world champion bull rider alive.

Robinson knows all too well the realities of rough stock rodeo. When he was a senior in high school, his best friend broke his back bull riding, while his brother broke his back in a bronc riding accident.

“They’re all at various stages,” he said. “My brother is in a wheelchair. My best friend is able to get up out of the wheelchair and able to maneuver a little bit, and then you’ve got Briggs, who was able to get up and walk away.”

And Robinson saw no harm in feeding the teen’s desire.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” said Robinson, who oversees the chutes at the Utah High School Finals Rodeo and has been friends with the Madsen family for years. “The worst that can happen is that he’s in a wheelchair forever, and he is able to at least stay in the game to where he can coach somebody and do what he loves.”

Madsen said those kinds of sentiments sustained him, and gave him hope and fuel for a fire that burned inside him — even when conventional wisdom and medical science indicated what he hoped for was an exception, a miracle.

“I guess I’m just stubborn,” Madsen said with a laugh. “They told me I couldn’t, but I knew that I would.”

Madsen said his parents' faith in him and his abilities matched or exceeded his own.

“Whatever dream I want to pursue, they want to help me 110 percent,” he said. “I always try to stay positive, and I think as long as you’re believing in yourself, you can do anything.”

He said the faith others had in him helped transform his desire into confidence.

“I was supported by so many people praying for me, helping me, cheering me on, there at my chute, I can't even name all the people,” he said. “With so many people that believe I can do it, it really put in perspective how many people really care about me and want me to succeed.”

And his return to rodeo required overcoming mental obstacles that he said were much more frustrating than the physical setbacks he endured.

“When I first came back and started learning how to walk, I thought the hard part was over,” he said. “But the hardest part wasn’t learning (to do) all that stuff over again. It was going from being one of the best bull riders in the country to not being able to ride anything. It’s taken me two years to get back to riding at the top of my game, and I’m still struggling with it. I was fighting my head more than anything.”

Madsen, who made the national team as a freshman and finished sixth in bronc riding, said finding true “faith” in himself was the toughest aspect to recover, and, if there is a sport in which that matters, it might be bull riding.

“You have to have confidence,” he said. “My whole life is based on riding bulls and rodeoing. That’s been my only dream since I was a little kid. Just because a trial came up to try and get in the way of that, I wasn’t going to give up on my dreams.”

Madsen impressed even his most loyal supporters with his success at this year’s state finals last weekend. No high school cowboy was able to make the whistle in the first round of the state finals, but Madsen earned the highest score of the second round with an 81-point ride in Friday night’s performance.

Then came Saturday night’s championship performance. All he had to do to beat his best friend, Milford’s Stetson Wright, was ride to the eight-second whistle.

“I knew I had to ride to win it, but I ended up losing the state title by a half point,” he said. “It’s alright. I did all that I could to win it. There was nothing left on the table, and it was my best friend who beat me.”

Now, Madsen said, when he straddles a bull or bucking horse, he’s not just riding for his own desire, chasing his own dreams.

“What drives me even harder is that I want to make everybody that stood behind me proud,” he said, adding that he never even contemplated "What if?" or "Why me?" after the accident. “I did not even go there. From the first day that I could get out of bed, I’ve spent every hour trying to walk again. My main goal is to be a world champion bull rider. That was out in front, and that was what I was thinking about.”

And that, Robinson said, is part of why he offered Madsen so much hope when his future appeared to everyone else so bleak.

“I have a tough time telling anybody not to follow their dreams,” Robinson said. “People leave too many regrets on the table as it is. Whether it’s not working hard enough, whether it’s just giving up because they think they can’t do it or they’ve never been encouraged. … In this situation, I think it was his motivating factor. It was his ‘why’ so he could get up everyday and say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Some may see Madsen’s return to rodeo as reckless and risky. But Robinson said that those who’ve chased a dream understand his passion, which is enhanced because of the unique camaraderie that saturates rodeo.

“It’s something that’s pretty tough to describe to somebody who hasn’t ever done it,” Robinson said. “But it’s like being a boxer and fighting your best friend. You get knocked down, and yet, you still get up and you’ve got to put it behind you. The future is what it’s all about.”

. . . .

2017 Utah National Finals Rodeo Team Qualifiers

Bareback: Cooper Bennett, Bronc Marriott, Dillon Jacobs, Dalton Boyden

Barrel Racing: McKenna McAllister, McLayne Pearson, Amanda Butler, McKenna Coronado

Boys Cutting: Dawson Zaharias, Ty Penrod, Gavin Zaharias, Kagen Coronado

Breakaway: Kaytlyn Miller, Taylour Latham, Montana Martin, McKinley Drake

Bull Riding: Stetson Wright, Briggs Madsen, Hayes Weight, Chancey Richards

Girls Cutting: Reganne Hales, Madisen Porter, Sidney Amos, Sommer Amos

Goat Tying: Kaytlyn Miller, Taylour Latham, Erryn Hodson, Emmalee Dubois

Pole Bending: Jade Rinslishbacher, Sayge Madsen, McKenna Coronado, Taylour Latham

Queen: Riata Christiansen

Reined Cowhorse: Lance Evans, Kendon Horton, Teri Dawn Haws, Tyra Wittwer

Rifle Shoot: Troy Flanigan, Kolton Rhodes, Emily Vigoren, Maddie Gillett

Saddle Bronc: Stetson Wright, Shawn Covey, Kai Rockhill, JR Peterson

Steer Wrestling: Dawson Stewart, Kyler Dick, Cache Burnside, Carson Phillips

Team Roping: Cache Burnside, Hagen Peterson, TJ Bowler, Kade Reber, Wyatt Christensen, Ty Christensen, Whitt Crozier, Hayden Cloward

Tie Down: Whitt Crozier, Brayden Evans, Kelton Cropper, Wyatt Christensen

Trap Shoot: Jarin Hone, Waylon Brierly, Carson Grundy, Austin Earnshaw

All Around: Kaytlyn Miller, Cache Burnside

Reserve: Taylour Latham, Cooper Bennett

Rookie: Jade Rinslishbacher, TJ Bowler